In the Adventures in Seeing workshop, we do an exercise with food that is designed to awaken all of our senses, not just the visual one. The more our senses are heightened, the more present and more memorable the experience will be.
In his fascinating book, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More than Human World, David Abram posits that the development of written language and thought has severed our connection to the immediacy of our sensual experience.
The life-world is the world of our immediately lived experience, as we live it, prior to all our thoughts about it. It is that which is present to us in our everyday tasks and enjoyments – reality as it engages us before being analyzed by our theories and science. The life-world is the world that we count on without necessarily paying it much attention, the world of the clouds overhead and the ground underfoot, of getting out of bed and preparing food and turning on the tap for water. Easily overlooked, this primordial world is already there when we begin to reflect and philosophize. ~ David Abram
I like how he differentiates the life-world from the mind-world. As an abstract thinker myself, I need practices to reconnect with my senses.
Food is a great way to start because we all have to eat and eating is (or can be) a very sensual experience. Food is colourful and has flavours and textures. Preparing and cooking food produces sounds and aromas.
Slowing down and photographing the experience of a meal is a practice in presence.
I had an unexpected experience of opening the senses while sharing a craft beer sampler at a craft brewery in my town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. I’m not normally a beer drinker but it was a hot summer day, so my husband and I decided to go for a brew. We sat outside on the patio, where we heard birdsong and cars, glasses clinking, as well as the conversations of other patrons, the servers, and people walking by.
I loved the presentation of this sampler in a circle on a rough hewn board. Photographing from above gives a view of the soft hues from light tans to yellows to amber to dark brown.
After the visual treat, it was an experience of smell and taste. For example, #2 at the very top was named Hefeweizen, described in the tasting notes as “the perfect union of hefe (yeast) and weizen (wheat). With pronounced clove and banana flavours from German-born yeast and a light, lively finish, this is the perfect summer beer.”
At first, I caught a strong scent of banana with just a hint of spicy clove. The smooth, creaminess of banana came out in the taste as well. It was light, fresh, and tangy and cooled my throat. A few tastes later, the clove began to dominate, with the banana taking a backseat. This was interesting to me. Maybe the clove just needed the attention before it made its presence known?
It was a memorable experience because all of my senses were awake.
What if we had tasting notes for life?
I live in a town with many wineries and craft breweries. Tasting notes are common at these places. A good tasting note first describes the possible aromas deriving from the place (the soil or terroir), the type of grape, other fruits or florals. Climate conditions for that vintage are also a determining factor, as well as the maker’s process, herbs and spices coming from the aging and bottling process.
Tasters are invited to swirl and smell and taste slowly and to describe their own tasting experience. How does it feel in the mouth? What is the texture like? Is it soft and creamy, or tart, or juicy? What lingers afterwards?
It’s an exercise in mindfulness.
There are many ways to open the senses other than food or drink. We can carry this idea of tasting notes over to other life experiences, for example, attending a music concert, taking a stroll on the beach, or having a barbecue with friends. Any experience will do, even sitting on your front porch or folding the laundry.
What experiences open your senses the most? Imagine writing a tasting note about your experience. What did you see, hear, taste, touch, smell?
I have a dilemma. My camera is not working properly and a new one is not yet in the budget. I don’t know what to do – try to get it repaired, start setting aside money for the newer version or even more for a better version. When I’m in this liminal space, I need to let things sit for awhile and wait for the right answer to come. I don’t have any big trips coming up and I still have my iPhone. Life is good.
My camera still operates, but I can’t change the aperture. Having limitations is a great way to spark creativity, so I planned a photo walk with my camera and a 50 mm lens. With the camera on automatic, the aperture was stuck at f/1.4, wide open, so very shallow depth of field. I turned on manual focus and dialled it all the way in for extreme closeups. When the lens was pointed towards the big picture landscape, scenes appeared in the viewfinder as a total blur.
I was seeing impressions of spring.
Abstract impressions can be created by going in close or through intentional camera movement or blur. With these impressions, details are lost and the focus becomes colour and texture, shapes and lines. It’s a different way of seeing. It’s a way to play and break the “rule” of having everything in sharp focus. Life is a blur, after all.
This is one of the many exercises we do in the Going Abstract workshop, which will be offered again this November. See more impressionistic images using blur and intentional camera movement on Flickr.
It’s a startling image, taken in 1960. Solnit says that it was one document of a larger piece of work, “an artwork that was too remote, too ephemeral, too personal to be seen otherwise, an artwork that could not be exhibited and would otherwise be lost, so the photograph stands in for it.”
Klein did leap but there were trampolines underneath to catch his fall. Photographs were spliced together to remove the trampolines and create this image.
Klein was known for his exploration of the void, as well as his blue paintings. He painted globes and maps of the world entirely blue to take away any divisions between land, sky, and water, not to mention countries.
This reminded me of one of my favourite short essays of all time by Donella Meadows, Lines in the Mind, Not in the World (please read). The maps we create on paper are not the actual territory. The lines we create to separate ourselves from others are only of our own making. They don’t exist, except in our minds.
I then thought of John Lennon’s song, Imagine – no heaven or hell, no countries, no possessions. You may say that I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one.
Yves Klein, Donella Meadows, and John Lennon were people who took leaps.
What if we were to imagine, just for one day, the world we inhabit as one big country with no lines?
Imagine a world where we were all responsible for doing our part in such a way that everyone and everything would thrive. Imagine everything having equal status, yet different abilities and purposes. It would be up to us to respond in each moment to what’s right in front of us, the best way that we can.
It’s been only a few days since the tragic events in Orlando, Florida that left 50 dead and many more injured, the largest mass shooting in American history. People everywhere are still reeling from the senselessness of it all.
At times like these, the problems in our world seem so large. And, they are. Yet, there are things we can do, one small step (or leap) at a time. Here are a few ways to start. Pick one or develop your own.
2. Observe carefully an animal or plant that inhabits your space. Notice their size, colour, texture, shape, and behaviours. Imagine what their life is like, not from a human point of view but from their point of view. What do they contribute to the whole? Be grateful.
3. While driving or walking, be aware of the ground beneath your feet. Imagine what it’s like to be a road or a sidewalk or a lawn, not from a human point of view but from their point of view. Imagine being trod on all day and the different weather conditions they experience. Notice the wear and tear they endure. What are they contributing to the whole and to you? Be grateful.
Contemplative photography is about taking off the labels and judgments we put on things. It’s about seeing life as it is in the moment and responding accordingly.
A good contemplative exercise for photographers is to see everything as a worthy subject. Notice what attracts your attention and don’t dismiss or reject anything. As a matter of fact, pay particular attention to those things that you would normally dismiss. Photograph those.
How does this practice open up your world? How does it change your experience and, consequently, how others experience you? Every small step, every leap, makes a difference, whether we can see it or not.
We can imagine our way into a world where there is more love by acting as if it’s already here.