What’s the difference between conventional photography and contemplative photography? Let’s start by defining contemplation.

Contemplation is a term used to describe a mystical way of seeing. In secular terms, contemplation means to “consider with attention.” (Merriam-Webster) The word is often understandably confused with the word “reflection” which, according to Merriam-Webster, means “consideration of some subject matter, idea, or purpose.”

The actual practices of contemplation and reflection, however, couldn’t be more different.

Brother Paul Quenon, a monk from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky says that reflection has to do with looking back and remembering, and then reflecting on the meaning of your thoughts. Contemplation has nothing to do with thoughts or looking back. It is about being here now, in the moment, and seeing reality as it is, without judgment or interpretation.

Photography is my contemplative practice.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the monk, Thomas Merton, known for his contemplative way of being and seeing. He called contemplation “a long, loving look at the real.”

With regards to photography, or any other art for that matter, Merton advises to:

“Stop looking and begin seeing. Looking means you already have something in mind for your eyes to find. But seeing is being open and receptive to what comes to the eye; your vision total and non-targeted.” ~ Song for Nobody

According to the book, The Practice of Contemplative Photography, this practice is about aligning eye, mind, and heart. We see the world with fresh eyes. Contemplative photography is more than a form of self-expression. The photographer identifies with the subject so deeply that he or she is able to express its essence. There is nothing conceptual or interpretive going on. Instead, the image reveals “the unfabricated truth.”

On the other hand, conventional photography, especially commercial or self-expressive, tends to be conceptual. The photographer purposely looks for subject matter that stands out or is considered beautiful or awe-inspiring. There’s nothing wrong with this type of photography. It’s what most of us do and it can be very effective.

Contemplative photography is just a different approach. It’s more about receiving a picture than it is about taking one. Concepts, perceptions, and interpretations are limiting. The real world is constantly changing and offers unlimited perceptions and potential for creativity.

The Movie Smoke

Here’s a video excerpt from the movie “Smoke” with Harvey Keitel. I believe it is one of the best descriptions of what it means to live a contemplative life.

Keitel plays Auggie Wren, a cigar store owner in New York City. He takes a picture every day from the corner of Third Street and Seventh Avenue at eight o’clock in the morning and his collection now includes more than 4,000 pictures. Wren’s friend (played by William Hurt) doesn’t get it. As he flips through the album, he says that all the pictures look the same. Keitel responds,

“You’re going too fast. You’re hardly even looking at the pictures. You’ll never get it if you don’t slow down, my friend.”

It’s only when his friend sees his own ex-wife in one of the pictures does he finally get it.


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