BG 214: The Practice of Contemplative Photography

Episode Description:

“Photography and Buddhism share essential interests: both are concerned with clear seeing.” – Andy Karr & Michael Wood

We’re joined this week by Buddhist teacher and photography Andy Karr. We explore some of the principles and practices behind the practice of contemplative photography, a unique method developed by Michael Wood. We also look into the overlaps between Buddhism and photography, with a special emphasis on the distinction of perception vs. conception.

Finally we discuss the broader topic of art and creativity, exploring some of the ways that Chogyam Trunpa taught on this subject, the differences between Western and Eastern art, and the way that “basic nature” serves as the very source of creativity.

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Vincent: Hello, Buddhist geeks. This is Vincent Horn and I’m really excited today to be joined by photographer, Buddhist teacher, he’s a long-time listener of the show, which makes him that much cooler, Andy Karr. Andy, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with the Buddhist Geeks today.

Andy: Boy, that’s going to be hard to live up to Vincent. But I’m delighted to be here and I’m really delighted to have a chance to talk with you about photography and perception and dharma.

Vincent: Yes. It’s going to be an interesting conversation I think. And this is an area that you spent a lot time exploring. There’s the area of meditation of course. You’ve studied with Chögyam Trungpa, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, two of the kind of great early Asian Buddhist teachers to bring Buddhism to the west. And then of course you have a deep photography practice.

I remember reading in your newest book, “The Practice of Contemplative Photography,” which you co-authored with a fellow named Michael Wood, that you have started picking up photography because you’d noticed that Chögyam Trungpa was starting to explore that medium and it really struck you. So maybe we could start kind of at the beginning. Getting into how you got into photography, how it became a kind of contemplative practice and then also how that relates to your interest in meditation.

Andy: Okay. Well I have get into the Way Back Machine and go back to New York City in the 1950s when I was growing up and I was given a couple of different cameras when I was almost a teenager. I think I was given a Rollei, beautiful twin lens reflex camera. And I used to ride around New York with my camera slung over my shoulder on a bicycle and tried to take interesting pictures and had not a clue what that meant or how to go about it.

So my interest in photography predates my interest in Buddhism. And kind of ended when I went off to college, but I picked it up again later on on and off. And as you say when I saw Trungpa Rinpoche’s slides, I was very struck and I saw something there that I hadn’t been able to do in my own photography and very much wanted to do something about the freshness and the color, the strength of the images really got to me.

So I tried imitating that for two or three rolls of film and didn’t quite get it. I could kind of reproduce it but I didn’t get what was at the heart of it. So I ended up dropping it the next couple of dozen years. I only took photographs of my children and things like that. Then during this period I was studying Buddhism, practicing meditation. And I happened to come across Michael Wood who was teaching contemplative photography, putting up a show with his students at the Shambhala Center Halifax.

And I was astonished to see that same kind of fresh vibrant quality in their images and to see that a lot of his students were my friends, my family doctor, people like that. People I didn’t think of as artist or photographers just ordinary fellows [kind] of people and I wanted to do that. So that was my initiation. Then I spent the next 5 or 6 years studying closely with Michael Wood and training under him and that’s how I got into contemplative photography.

Vincent: Beautiful. And just to kind of give a plug to your book because it’s really both are well-written and beautiful book. There are many photos both from Michael, you, and then some examples from like great photographers who are really well-known in that world. And it’s just a beautiful; it’s something to behold those pictures. I wish we could capture them in the audio but we can’t because there’s so much like you’re saying freshness. A kind of directness to them that is really beautiful. So I just want to mention that in case people are able to pick it up and check it out. Like they say a picture contains so much more information in a certain way that words can.

Andy: You know, I think I’d like to pick on what you just said.

Vincent: Great.

Andy: Because that really cuts right to the chase. The whole point of the contemplative approach to photography or pretty much anything else is that distinction between what are words or our thoughts can express and capture and what our perceptions particularly in this case visual perceptions can express.

So obviously, these two very different ways of knowing the world and working with world and the contemplative approach or the contemplative mind is helping us to shift gear between the two of them. Helping us to get out of the way we often are stuck in relating to our world which is through our thinking.

The point of contemplative photography is to help people see, help people to have direct experience rather than just thinking experience or inferential experience about the world.

Vincent: And it’s nice in the book because you don’t just sort of tell people okay go out and do this. You actually give a little bit kind of method or practice. I wanted to see if you could say a little bit about the sort of three-step method because I think there’s a lot in there that seems to apply not only to photography but also to interacting with the world in general.

Andy: Yes. This is something that Michael Wood developed and articulated and teaches very well. And the core of it is how you make that shift from thinking about things to seeing. So you could just tell people to go out and see. But that’s a little hard to do. Usually you end up thinking about seeing. So the method starts with emphasizing the gaps in the thinking process that naturally we have gaps in our narrative about the world.

And in those gaps we can easily see, we can naturally see. We called that the flash of perception. These naturally occurring moments where your visual sense is heightened and usually we glossed over those. We just go on to the next thought. But the first stage of the contemplative photography practice is to notice those, is to tune into those and to have the intention to see. Have the intention to recognize those flashes of perception.

And then the first thing that will happen when you do recognize one is you’ll get excited and start thinking how wonderful it is. So you need a second method, a second stage to work with this which we called the visual discernment. And that’s dropping back into the visual realm, letting go of the excitement or letting go of the ambition or letting go of the further thinking about making a photograph or whatever it is you want to do and coming back to looking further.

So that’s again getting back to perception rather than thinking about things. And then based on that, based on your sense of what you’re seeing, you make the photograph. And there’s a nice term that Alfred Stieglitz used which is forming the equivalent, forming the equivalent of your perception. So rather than going out and shooting, we do talk about that third part as forming the equivalent of your perception to try to emphasize that we’re not trying to cook up our perception, integrate photos or do anything special with them but just to form their equivalent, just to form an image with our cameras that reflects what we have seen.

Vincent: One thing I noticed in both the photos and the way you’re talking about the contemplative photography is that even though there’s a kind of simpleness or directness to the photos, I did notice in terms of traditional photography composition and colors that there were a lot of interesting things often happening in those shots.

Andy: Yeah. Well I think one of the things that we tried to emphasize but it’s a little hard to communicate is that because there’s assignments and a lot of method in the contemplative photography practice, people tend to think that only certain types of images are contemplative. They’ll either think that certain subject matter is contemplative or certain style of photography is contemplative. And we try to emphasize that it’s not subject matter. It’s not style. It’s not type of composition but that when you see clearly, you can take almost any kind of photograph. And it becomes contemplative photography with the exception of conceptual art.

Vincent: Interesting. And you started to talk a little bit about distinction that you mentioned a lot in this book which is the distinction between conception and perception. You talked a little bit about that and you write that photography and Buddhism share a central interest. Both are concern with clear seeing. Of course, that phrase clear seeing struck with me cause it’s like a translation of the vipassana practice itself. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that distinction.

Andy: Well I think in photography, it’s probably more obvious that if you can’t see clearly it’s going to be very hard to make good images. I think the core issue that the Buddha was addressing is that our suffering, our difficulties come from not seeing things clearly, seeing things in a deluded way. So we look at our own experience and we see me or ourselves. And according to the Buddha that’s not seeing clearly. That’s not seeing our own phenomena clearly.

We look at people and we see friends and enemies. And again that’s our thoughts about the people or our conception about the people, but they’re really not friends or enemies. That’s just something that we overlay on the situation, so it’s not seeing them clearly. So I think the essence of the dharma is how to unravel delusion or how to unravel unclear seeing and get to clear seeing. Seeing ourselves clearly, seeing what we are and seeing things as they are.

Vincent: Nice. And with this whole distinction between conception on the one hand then perception, could you talk a little bit about clear seeing and how that relates to those two different modes.

Andy: That’s a tricky one.

Vincent: Yeah. I figured I’d give you the tricky question now.

Andy: No, that’s a good one. It’s a great question. And one I ponder a lot and I pondered for a long time and haven’t gotten to the bottom of. One very simple metaphor for these two different modes is the relationship of a map to a landscape. A map is a like a concept of that landscape. It simplifies and abstract qualities of that landscape.

So if you want to know how to get from one town to another, where to turn left, where to turn right, a map will be really useful. At the same time, the map doesn’t show you the actual quality of what that journey is going to be like. It will not give you any of the color or texture of actually making that journey. So our thoughts about things are abstractions and they map certain qualities of the world but they don’t capture those qualities. They don’t convey those qualities in a way that perception does.

So we certainly need both. We need to be able to navigate our world but we also need to be able to experience it fully, so that’s really where that distinction comes in. The biggest challenge for us is not to give up thinking or give up conceiving of things because often we blend the two together and think I’m seeing someone who is this kind of person or that kind of person. And we think that we can see that but of course you can only see visual things. You can’t see psychological things.

So, we mixed the two together and then we’re really confused about how to relate to that person because we think that our thoughts about them are the actual person.

Vincent: There’s a statement that one of the teachers with often says, Joseph Goldstein, our brain, our mind produces stuff just like our mouth produces saliva. They’re so ongoing. It’s so mixed into experience all the time that it’s really difficult to see how the two are related because they’re so intertwined. It sounds like the contemplative photography practice is like particularly looking at how to sort of distinguish the two while looking at things and while like you said forming the equivalent of actually capturing that original perception in some way.

Andy: Yeah. And because photography as a craft is very simple particularly now in the digital age and because the whole process of making an image happened so quickly, it’s almost an ideal platform for exploring this relationship between thought and direct experience. You see something in the first moment and then you have a thought about it in the second moment.

Whether you shot an image of what you see or you shot an image of what you think there’s a huge difference. And you can tell from people’s photography whether they saw something clearly or whether they were thinking about it. It’s a great practice for teasing those apart.

Vincent: So shifting gears just a little bit. I thought it would be kind of interesting to broaden out from this discussion of contemplative photography into this kind of wider area of art and creativity as a whole. And I was wondering if you could say a little bit since Trungpa Rinpoche was such a pivotal figure for you and so many others?

And he also had some really, he also had a strong interest in art creativity and had some really interesting things to say about the relationship between Buddhist practice and art creativity. I wonder if you could say a little bit about your understanding of some of the things he said and just kind of this broader topic of dharma and art?

Andy: Buddhism has three main topics which are the view or how you understand things, how you understand reality, the meditation which is how you work with your experience and then conduct or post meditation. Trungpa Rinpoche used artistic practice as post meditation practice, a way of bringing our understanding of the view and our practice of meditation into daily life.

One of the key points was appreciation for everyday experience. Not dividing our world into what we think is artistic and what we think as ordinary or as we think of beautiful and what we think of as ugly. But trying to take all of our experience and address it head on with appreciation.

Appreciation of the ordinary, overcoming any aggression or resentment we might have about our ordinary lives, learning to express our experience in simple straightforward ways. Those were all key elements in Trungpa Rinpoche dharma art teaching.

Vincent: It seems to fascinating to me that this whole thing of photography or modern form of art is almost like a continuation of the great interest in both the Tibetan tradition and of course the Zen tradition focus on calligraphy and all sort of different art forms.

Andy: Oh yeah.

Vincent: It seems so interesting to think about the modern versions of those and taking this understanding of dharma into these forms which are quite different than the traditional art forms.

Andy: Oh, yeah. And Trungpa Rinpoche was amazing with that when I first met him and got involved was in the early 70s when he was developing a theater group and doing playwriting exercises with people and starting Naropa. He was heavily into photography at some of those times, and putting on slideshows of his own images. He really was exploring how you could use contemporary western and eastern forms to work with mindfulness and expression and so on.

Vincent: Yet it seems like in so many ways his vision for that sort of integration of that east west is still just beginning to be understood or beginning to be kind of fully embodied and realized. It’s such a, some ways the show is just an exploration of that topic.

Andy: That’s right. We are getting to the beginning I think which in itself seems like an achievement.

Vincent: Cool. And you know there’s one more topic I think related to art and creativity which I know it’s a challenging one to explore and to discuss. But you hint at it really strongly in some of you writing and I wanted to get into it with you a little bit. And that’s basically that in the western world of art and creativity there’s this often the sense that creativity is something that belongs to the artist.

That we are the owner of whatever we create and there’s a sense of self-hood being an identification with the art itself. And then this sort of eastern approach to creativity which you’ve been talking about is really in stark contrast to that. There’s a sense that this deep freedom that can be known through practice that actually that freedom is also the source of creativity.

That it’s connected to what you called our basic nature, that they’re not actually disconnected in that sense. And it’s such a different way of approaching creativity. And I wonder if we could explore that a little together. Maybe if there are certain things that come to mind as being important there or that you feel like it would be helpful to express.

Andy: Well that was pretty well said. The first thing that comes to mind is also from Trungpa Rinpoche. He talked about the empty gap of mind as the source of creativity. My understanding of it at this point is we’ve already talked a bit about perception and we talked about thinking mind but there’s further element in our mental world and that’s the one that’s hard to describe or it’s impossible to describe.

It’s hard to even put labels on but we could call it the basic nature. We could call it the bodhi nature or wisdom mind or we could just call it heart, something like that. So in our experience, we have a lot of thinking which is kind of reporting on what we experience. It’s not creative in a sense of anything fresh coming in. It’s just narrative and its narrative on what we perceived and its narrative on something that’s pre-thought because we don’t just think about our perceptions.

We have something that arises up from the deeper level in our mind and we report on that as well. That deeper level is the source of creativity. Its open-ness, its lucidity and its expressive. Our insight arises at that point. That does seem to be where our creativity comes from and it’s not what we identify as me. Usually it’s the thinking mind or maybe our senses that we identify with. We don’t identify with that expansive, open intelligence.

So there’s an interesting quote from Henri Cartier-Bresson one of my great hero photographers. That in a way kind of summarizes how this applies to photography. He said that making a photograph is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis. So one’s head is really none thought, that gap in our discursive mind, that openness. The eye is obviously perception.

The heart is that basic intelligence that recognizes that appreciate something that then you make an image of. We can talk about thinking mind, we can talk about conceptual mind but there’s this further element of basic intelligence that connects the dot here and that really is where that creative impulse comes from.

Vincent: Nice. And you know I wanted to go into a little into the piece around identification. Beause you said something really interesting that we don’t often identify with that open, expansive, creative space or energy. And I’m wondering if you could say a little bit about why that’s the case> That seems like something if we’re going to identify with something that would be the right thing to identify with.

Andy: Well I think that’s what the Buddhist do. They identify with that and we identify and we identify with our discursive mind. You know, it’s a figure ground situation where we identify with one aspect and think that’s me instead of realizing that that aspect is part of a much bigger panorama and relaxing into that.

Vincent: Going back to this whole question of maybe the difference between Western art and Eastern art cause when I looked at western painting, for example, I see some beautiful, seem like expression of this sort of basic creativity. And at the same time western art and people in western art the kind of pivotal figures, they’re just super well-known for their lives being completely terrible in some ways, their interpersonal lives, their addiction to drugs.

And in a way there’s this almost cliché or metaphor of the kind of broken artist. And this vision of art is totally different than that. I was wondering what is that gap about do you think between the sort of dysfunctional neurotic artist on the one hand and this sort of vision of eastern Buddhahood art that a part of me is kind of being expressed are so different.

Andy: Yeah. It is different. You know that’s a hard one to even address. But certainly the western artist make good creative art are tuning into the same thing that the eastern artist saw.

Vincent: Yeah. Yeah.

Andy: But they don’t seem to have the same context for it. Not being part of the wisdom tradition that emphasis that it’s not coming from you, it’s coming from that bigger experience and that bigger experience is really where you want to live. Cause if you fall back into the, oh, I did this. I’m so creative mode. You’re just going to suffer.

Vincent: That’s something I really wondered about cause I really appreciate western art. In some ways it’s so innovative. It brings something new to the table and at the same time I don’t really want to emulate the western artist as people.

Andy: Well I think that’s right. I think it’s the artist mode that we often see which really is neurotic. You know the whole notion is neurotic that you’re going to be creative from some open vast space and then you’re going to try to own that. There’s a contradiction there and I think that contradiction causes a lot of suffering cause how can you on the one hand go to that place to create your art and then come back and cling to something that’s intangible.


Andy Karr

Andy Karr is a writer, photographer, longtime meditator, and Buddhist teacher. He trained intensively with two of the great founding teachers of Western Buddhism: Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, author of Zen Mind, Begineer’s Mind, and Chögyam Trunpa Rinpoche, author of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, and other classics. Andy’s second book with Michael Wood, The Practice of Contemplative Photography, teaches the most essential photographic skill—clear seeing. His first book, Contemplating Reality, a series of investigations into the nature of mind and the phenomenal world, was published by Shambhala in 2007. Website: Contemplating Reality for the 21st Century