Learning to photograph can be a life long process of exploring, experimenting, experiencing and enjoying a life long engagement with life as seen through a lens. The process of learning to see is also a process of being transformed as a photographer, artist and human being. The practice of photography allows and encourages the exploration of inner landscapes as mirrored in the outer landscapes we frame and focus upon.
The more we photograph, the more one’s creative inspiration is gathered. The learning curve can be gradual or steep and as long and as rewarding as you allow it to be. Photography is both technology and art and one needs some level of mastery on both. That takes practice. Learning and practicing the technical / operational aspects of your camera is as much a process as discovering your creativity. It is necessary and it will improve your photography and provide pleasure along the way as each increase in your understanding of your camera’s abilities will be used intuitively down the road, thus freeing more of your mind for creative perception.
Everybody has a tipping point where after awhile something just clicks. But to get there you do have to practice. There will be come a point where all of a sudden you are better and all of a sudden things that confused you make sense. All of a sudden your ability to see has shifted. The only way I know to get there is to give your self the gift of time. Time to practice, time to experiment, to play, to work, to feel and to pay attention. You have to want it though; the desire and curiosity has to be there – that and an openness to play and it’s fun. Repetitive practice helps develop skill, freedom, and trust in self, in the camera and your abilities. In time, one’s uniqueness and originality, will begin to appear.
There are many joyful aspects of photography, and one is using the camera and our natural creativity to shake things up and to break us out of our ruts and our perceptual habits. As we do, we naturally open to new experiences and to new ways of knowing and experiencing ourselves. We don’t have to keep thinking the same thoughts and we don’t have to keep seeing the same things in the same way. As photographer Ernst Haas observed: “I am not interested in seeing new things. I am interested in seeing things new, ” and “what we pay attention to determines our experiences.” Curiously, when we truly pay attention we see each object or situation for the first time – it always feels fresh and new no matter how many times we have encountered it before. By paying attention we break free of our habitual ways of seeing and enjoy direct experiences of being alive. Which inevitable changes the ways we see and relate to our living.
The term, “flash of recognition” is drawn from the Miksang School of contemplative photography and is based on the Shambhala and Dharma Art teachings of Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. Miksang is a Tibetan word that translates as ‘Good Eye.” It sounds mystical, it has a certain 60’s vibe, and for some reason whatever it is – it’s easier to access when we have the magic charm of a camera around our neck. This flash, this tap, this tap on the shoulder, this sound that turns your head, is an invitation. Something in the world caught your eye and is introducing itself to you. You have the choice to pay attention or not. Most of us most of the time don’t. We give a quick, cursory glance, evaluating on the spot if it is a threat or not and if not a threat is it of any use and if not of much use or value we forget about it and walk on. But have we really seen? We often misinterpret the invitation because it doesn’t fit the expectations in our minds. Expectation always precludes the opportunity for discovery.
Typically, our minds are filled with internal dialogue, analysis, evaluation, classifications – we live from our ideas – somewhere along the line of growing up we stopped seeing and started knowing. I think in order to get beyond the handshake one has to stop perceiving in a conceptual way. As Monet said “you have to get beyond the labels in order to see.” I know. It is hard to stop believing that what one is thinking is not really what one sees. When I get stuck in my mind I try to remember a teaching I learned from The Little Prince that “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential, is invisible to the eye.”
The camera gives permission to be visually and creatively curious about life and some of us need that permission. Some of us are conditioned to being “productive” and “busy” and it can be difficult to give ourselves permission to pay attention to something we often judge as un-useful or insignificant, however, the camera gives us permission to play. Everyone knows what a photographer looks like so no one pays any attention to you when your out wondering about gazing into bushes, craning up at trees, peering deeply into a flower, staring as if lost at something that bewilders and fascinates you.
While it’s arguably true, that most of us pay little attention, most of the time to, our surroundings, it’s also true that by putting a camera around our neck or even better a camera on a tripod we find we can grant ourselves permission to spend as much time as desired – paying as much attention as we can – to observe something as basic as light dancing on a flower. Imaginative sorts can pretend to be a serious photographer/artist allowing themselves to pay so much attention to something other that they lose themselves and discover something new.
So, you’re walking along being aware and some thing catches your eye, something taps you on the shoulder then what? Stop. Physically stop. Pause. Pause your thoughts and relax take the time to visually explore the flash that caught your attention. Visually explore the attraction and sense if it conjures up curiosity or energy (Chi) and if it does, you might just want to sit down and relate for awhile – practice going beyond the handshake – mindfully and photographically. And if the Chi is weak between you and the subject, just say your peace and mosey on till you are found by something else.
There is a catch to doing this and an attitude is suggested. The catch is to be mindful enough to notice. Notice and have the presence of mind to pause. Stopping the mind chatter just long enough before reacting with some judgment or vanishing off into the stories in your mind, to see. When we do this we begin to have direct experiences of living in the moment. Wayne Rowe, identifies such moments as glimpses of Satori and my own experiences in the field photographing also have that flavor. Minor White said: “magic happens when you can slow your mind down to 1/25th of a second.” It took me awhile to understand that he meant that quite literally and more time to realize that one can learn to slow the mind down to 1/25 of a second and beyond…that is if one is counting. That’s the catch. Experiences of Time change when the mind learns to slow down, starts to notice the moment-to-moment awareness of our life, and finds something of interest to concentrate upon.
The attitude is openness and friendliness towards the universe. The approach is one of curiosity – the intention is simply to be present – to show up. Be in the moment – be alive to the moment. Be open to what is present and what is given. And give back. Be kind. Do no harm, and honor your subject expressing gratitude.
Practicing photography can take you there – it can show you ways to open further and be receptive to moments of wonder, delight, gratitude, joy, serenity, grace, transcendence and when you get there – you can put down the camera – you can use it if you wish but you don’t need it to truly see anymore. As Imogene Cuninngham observed: “the purpose of photography is to teach you to see without a camera.”