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Jeremy Tattersall

Contemplative photography?

Michael Wood, Amsterdam 2007
Michael Wood, Amsterdam 2007 | high-res image

Yes that’s right, contemplative photography: The Practice of Contemplative Photography by Andy Karr and Michael Wood to be precise, recently published by Shambhala. In it, an activity that too often places an overbearing emphasis on technology, equipment and technique meets two experienced meditation practitioners with an approach to the medium that focuses on developing the photographer’s clarity of perception.

Both contributors have plenty of experience to call on. Andy Karr’s previous book is Contemplating Reality, a surprisingly approachable work on how reality is viewed in the main Buddhist schools (cover photo by A. Karr), and possibly the only one on the subject to include an extensive quotation from Monty Python. Michael Wood was a conventionally-trained photographer whose practice went through a seismic shift after discovering the photography of the great Tibetan Buddhist master, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He is also the co-founder of The Miksang Institute, where I imagine much of the content of this publication was developed and refined. Their book explores how to see, through both words and an extensive use of images, and how to express clear seeing in a photographic print.


As is mentioned briefly, their preferred style has a legacy in photographic practice that stretches back a hundred years or so. They abstract the everyday to produce a surprise that can bypass our habitual patterns of looking. A receptive observer could find themselves experiencing something like meditation. Their methods and aesthetics do not reflect predominant streams of contemporary photographic practice, many of which seem indivisible from conceptual art, but for me at least this is more a source of relief than concern. As they say:

…colour, light, texture, shape, line, pattern. When you look at things deeply, simply, with open eyes and a steady mind, that’s all there is. Everything else is just an overlay, an idea.

Julie DuBose, Amsterdam 2009
Julie DoBose, Amsterdam 2009 | high-res image

I know of no other book on photgraphic technique that advises photographers how to stay present and work with their emotions. It’s clearly not for the paparazzi and the equipment-obsessed (but wouldn’t it be great if they took it up?). Exercises are innovative, potentially fun, and not all of them even involve a camera. They are aimed at helping people develop a basic photographic competence and access their inherent creativity:

Artistry arises from mind’s natural wakefulness, creativity and humour when the obstacles that obscure it are cleared away. This is the main point of the whole artistic endeavour: you don’t need to learn how to fabricate creativity; you need to remove the clouds that prevent it from expressing itself.

Technology and technique are not totally ignored, just relegated to their proper place. Despite what camera manufacturers would have us believe, good photography is about powerful imagery, not the machinery and technology that supports its production.

One concern that arose from looking at the Miksang website is the danger of the contemplative approach becoming a limiting and derivative ‘contemplative style’. It’s striking  for example how absent, other than as a shape, humans are from the imagery. However, in any method of artistic learning, personal concerns and styles emerge over time through experiment and discovery, trial and error. It’s possible to take up the approach presented here and apply clear seeing and awareness to any avenue of investigation, photographic or otherwise. In this respect, the book is a sort of introduction to the integration of meditation by well-intentioned stealth, using photography as the method. Taking the approach of contemplative photography seriously, the authors say, “will transform your photography and the way you experience the world.” I see no reason to disagree with them.

Michael Wood, Paris 2009
Michael Wood, Paris 2009 | high-res image