In my individual posts, I often refer to favourite books on seeing, but I’ve never compiled a complete list in one post. Here are 10 I highly recommend. Each of these books I’ve read and re-read extensively and each had its own impact on the way I see.
The Zen of Seeing by Frederick Franck
This is my number one go to book on seeing. Frederick Franck is my hero. He was an artist in many different mediums, as well as a writer. His life focused on the question of what it means to be human. This book shows how the slow process of drawing can teach us how to see. Whether you draw or not, there is so much wisdom in this book.
“Millions of people, unseeing, joyless, bluster through life in their half-sleep, hitting, kicking, and killing what they have barely perceived. They have never learned to see, or they have forgotten that man has eyes to see, to experience.”
Read more about Frederick Franck.
Photography and the Art of Seeing by Freeman Patterson
Freeman Patterson was the first person to teach me how to see at his legendary photography workshop in New Brunswick, Canada. Like Frederick Franck, his life reflects his work in photography and writing. All of his books are amazing but this one in particular explains the art of seeing for photography.
“Preoccupation with self is the greatest barrier to seeing.”
Visit Freeman Patterson’s website to learn about his work and workshops.
Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach
Tara Brach is a meditation teacher and acceptance is one of the nine contemplative habits. Through this book, I learned that radical acceptance is fundamental to seeing. As she says in the quote at the top of this post, “Seeing is freeing.” What does that mean? It means that by seeing and accepting reality exactly as it is, we can more effectively decide on the next action to take.
“Embrace life in all its realness – broken, messy, mysterious and vibrantly alive.”
A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Towards and Undivided Life by Parker Palmer
Parker Palmer is another writer who has inspired me through several of his books, one of which is The Courage to Teach. But, in this book he continues the theme set by Tara Brack in seeing reality as it is. He calls this the undivided life and it manifests when we discover the hidden wholeness in everything.
“Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.”
This book is one of my all-time favourites. It’s a primer in Zen Buddhism through the life of the sound artist, John Cage. He is certainly an example of someone who pushed the boundaries of the mind and heart, an important aspect of seeing. The quote below is a reference to where the title came from.
“So it is with the places preparing to teach us. It’s only when the heart begins to beat wildly and without pattern—when it begins to realize its boundlessness—that its newly adamant pulse bangs on the walls of its cage and is bruised by its enclosure… To feel the heart pound is only the beginning. Next is to feel the hurt—the tearing of the psyche—the prelude of entry into the place one has always feared. One fears that place because of being drawn to it, loving it, and wanting to be taught by it. Without the need to be taught, who would feel the psyche rip? Without the bruise, who would know where the walls are?”
Sight and Sensibility: The Eco-psychology of Perception by Laura Sewall
An astounding book that I just read last year and is now one of my very favourites on seeing, actually on par with The Zen of Seeing. It’s a study in vision and perception by a scientific researcher and the only book she has published.
“To take vision for granted, to be thoughtless about the variety, miracle, and magic of seeing is to limit one’s self to a play-by-play objectification of reality. But to envision the act of seeing as the marriage between the viewer and viewed is to be woven into the fabric of a shifting field of light, of energy, beauty, and all that one may lay eyes upon. It is to recognize that, as in all marriages, there are a thousand ways to honor the union. And as in any intimate relationship, what we bring to the exchange determines the quality of the experience.” ~ Laura Sewall, Sight and Sensibility
Learn more about Laura Sewall now.
On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz
This is such an enjoyable book to read. Horowitz shows through eleven walks with eleven different people how we each bring our own experiences to what we see.
“A walk is an investigatory exercise that begins with energy and ends when (and only when) exhausted… A walk is exploring surfaces and textures with finger, toe, and – yuck – tongue, standing still and seeing who or what comes by; trying out different forms of locomotion. It is archaeology: exploring the bit of discarded candy wrapper; collecting a fistful of pebbles and a twig and a torn corner of a paperback; swishing dirt back and forth along the ground. It is stopping to admire the murmuring of the breeze in the trees; locating the source of the bird’s song; pointing. Pointing! – using the arm to extend one’s fallen gaze so someone else can see what you’ve seen. It is a time of sharing.” ~ Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking
The Practice of Contemplative Photography by Michael Wood and Andy Karr
After Frederick Franck and Freeman Patterson, the practice of Miksang contemplative photography taught me to see at a whole new level. There are several other good books about this topic, but this was the first for me and it gives a wonderful introduction to the practice, as well as practical exercises. Mainly, it describes the process of perception. The value of this practice is described in the last lines of the book.
“Seeing things as they are is also accepting them as they are, which leads to appreciating them as they are. This is the way to equanimity and a sane and meaningful life. We may not always get what we want and avoid what we don’t want, but by letting go of some of our ideas about these things, we can experience them fresh and lead a life with heart.”
I wrote posts about each of the chapters, and you can find Chapter 1 here.
Learning to see begins with perception and perception begins with the senses. This book describes how this works and it’s not for the faint of heart. Abram is an ecological philosopher and he delves into indigenous wisdom and the history of phenomenology (or direct experience).
“The world and I reciprocate one another. The landscape as I directly experience it is hardly a determinate object; it is an ambiguous realm that responds to my emotions and calls forth feelings from me in return.”
And, finally (of course) …
In this book, I share 45 photographic exercises in seeing as well as inspiration culled from many of the books and mentors I’ve shared here.
I’ve thrown a lot at you in this post. If you’re intrigued by some of these books, start with the one that touched you the most. Explore the related link and decide if this is a book you’d like to read.
Now, it’s your turn. What book on seeing do you recommend?