Giveaway! An interview with Andy Karr, author of ‘The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes’

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, Beginner’s Mind’, and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, author of ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’, ‘Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior’, and other classics.

Andy and fellow photographer Michael Wood have written a fascinating book on what he calls Contemplative Photography – summed up, the practice of shooting more from the heart’s eye than from the brain’s eye. It’s a sentiment that’s wonderfully relevant to all of us at Shutter Sisters, and I’m thrilled to offer a copy of his book today. Read on, and comment to win!

Photographer Jay Maisel said that your book takes readers into deeper water with a perception that would feel new, beyond matters of aperture and focal length and ISO. Do you remember the moment that you felt that deeper water behind the lens, or did you bring that perception with you to photography? (What came first – your camera, or your way of seeing?)

Definitely the camera came first. When I was a kid in New York, I often carried a camera with me, but had no idea what to do with it. I worked at the basic technical stuff, but mostly longed for more and better gear.

I began to meditate in my early twenties, and that was a big landmark, but it took another couple of decades before I began to develop some insight into perception. Soon after that, I ran into Michael Wood and his contemplative photography teachings. That’s when photography, and the connection with fresh perception started to click for me. I studied closely with Michael for five or six years. Later, we produced The Practice of Contemplative Photography together.

Buddhist teachings reference human warriorship as rooted in the Tibetan word ‘pawo’, which means ‘one who is brave’. Can a camera be a conduit for bravery?

I think this practice does require bravery. It takes a certain amount of bravery, or confidence, to let go of your ideas about subject matter, and all the conventional tricks and techniques, and just let perceptions come to you, rather than cooking things up. At first, it can feel quite naked to let go of your cultural and artistic baggage.

In the forward of your book, you share a quote by Henri Cartier-Bresson: “Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see. . . In any case, people think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing.”

In that point in our learning when we don’t quite have the technical instincts yet, how can we let go of that constant internal muttering about aperture and focal length and ISO to see in that contemplative way?

Well, with a reasonably decent digital camera, you really don’t need to worry very much about any of those things. Just set the camera to Automatic or Program and open to perception. If you can see clearly, you will get good shots. You might mess up a few of them if you don’t master a little of the craft, but you will definitely get most of them. On the other hand, if you can’t see clearly, you can get a lot of technically excellent, but meaningless and banal images. Anyone can learn to see, and make outstanding images with today’s technology.

What’s the most unexpectedly beautiful, ordinary thing you’ve photographed recently? What did you see in it?

It was definitely this piece of junk and the shadow of the street sign. I got out of my car, and was stopped in my tracks by it. There’s no way I can explain why that happened, but it did.

In portraiture, how can we overcome the self-awareness or insecurity or hesitation of both photographer and subject?

I think the main thing is to not struggle with our feelings, but let them be there. If we are anxious, we should be anxious properly. Otherwise, we add difficulties to difficulties. There really are no magic tricks. We need to be comfortable in our own skin, and that develops over a long time with a lot of patience.

What are your constants in photography – those elements that click and successfully translate a contemplative eye? Light, colour, your own state of mind?

I like Henri Cartier-Bressons statement, “To take photographs means… putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.” I think that’s about it.

To win a copy of Andy’s fantastic and thought-provoking book The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes, tell us about a subject that snapped you to attention in that contemplative way – and tell us how it felt in that moment to see extraordinary beauty in the ordinary everyday.



  1. Marina D-K says

    A few weeks ago I was walking to the park with family and saw this teal colored strawberry planter sitting on an old red brick wall. . The image to me was striking and it brought back memories of my childhood as my mother kept terra cotta strawberry planters in our backyard. My mother recently passed so it really brought back some emotions and I'm glad I didn't miss it as we were walking by.

  2. says

    A few days ago my boyfriend and I walked across the street to watch the sunset. Before we even crossed the street to the beach this caught my eye…the juxtaposition of artificial light against the bright setting sun. And as it turned out, this was my favorite, compared to all the photos I took of the sunset itself.
    I love Andy Karr's perspective on photography, I can very much relate with how I personally think about photography and how I take photos. To me, photography allows me to see the world in ways I never would have noticed if I were not a photographer. I doesn't matter if I have a camera in hand or not, I unconsciously see everything as if i were looking through my viewfinder, and see everyday as a series of mental and digital photos.

  3. says

    There is such freedom in those words! I especially liked the part about not struggling with feelings. Indeed, so often the struggle stops me from doing things – like taking pictures. Frustration lets me put the camera away. I am inspired by Andy's approach – thanks a lot!

    Here is my contribution:

  4. says

    I actually just added this book to my wish list! Fantastic!

    From the images I've seen, the book seems to be a little abstract, and I'm wondering if that is just one take on contemplative practice. I don't necessarily have my awareness tuned in to more geometric forms, my awareness seems to involved more organic, soft forms.

    Most recently? This morning when I woke up – the first thing I opened my eyes to were tiny toes in gentle 6am light resting on terribly wrinkled white sheets.

  5. says

    My neice was looking at the horses through the fence and one of them walked over to her. She was leaning on the fence and the horse wasn't looking at her but was standing as horses do. Then all of a sudden it looked right into her eyes and I captured it on camera. It was a magical moment.

  6. says

    I relish this ,,, contemplative is what I often strive for in my space /blog …

    tuesday afternoon .. blank .. nothing to say .. no new photos ..yet outside the window ..the garden . shadows .sunshine beckon .. are the photos I captured on that late afternoon over the top ? no I rarely achieve that, but instead the feeling I had in the moments there were a turning point for the rest of my day …..

  7. Blue Pine Mountain says

    Oh, yes! This sounds like a wonderful book. Right along my desire for photography.

  8. Tagati says

    What a wonderful interview. It put into words the feeling that I get when a picture of an "ordinary" object becomes the focus of a more contemplative state. This happened to me on one of the San Juan Islands one winter. A small flowering shrub along the side of a wall was beatiful with the white snow, slender branches and reddish blossoms. An unexpected sight amongst the dirty snow of the nearby road. Interesting what a difference a few feet makes!

    This book would be a wonderful addition to my library!


  9. says

    What a great book recommendation; full of inspiration. I enjoy photography challenges either through blogs/websites, or through my local photography group. We do a scavenger hunt on occasion in our group that generates all kinds of interpretations and perspectives. Being a mom of three young boys, I often have to look for items in my home or yard when I can. I love working with ordinary objects, because they are accessible to me. I try to execute images with a twist to make then unique and interesting. This was a scavenger hunt category call "5 of Something". My idea was to be simple and play up on dof. I would LOVE this book. I really have to keep my fingers crossed on this.

  10. says

    I would love to win this book, but in any case, it is already on my Amazon wish list – probably too late for Mother's Day :)

    The true gift that photograhy has given me is learning to see – and it is in that act of seeing that I have learned to appreciate the small things of the world around me.

    Yesterday, on my daily photo walk, I took this photo of a dandelion gone to seed – such beauty in the humble weed:

  11. Samantha Price says

    Thank you so much for telling us about this book! The authors describe the way that I have been approaching my life for the past few months and this has included my photography as well. I see this way of seeing the world as producing not just more meaningful photographs but also making life more meaningful as well.
    I think my favorite images are of people – so taking the time to actually see and connect with the person I am photographing is making these images so much better.
    I will purchase this book for sure if I am not the lucky winner!

  12. says

    photography inspiring a contemplative response…. heavy duty! sometimes, for me, it is not necessarily in the moment of taking the photo or 'seeing' a thing that drives me into the depts of thoughtfulness, but when i get it on the computer, when i have been removed from the scene and the lighting and the atmosphere. there are occasions when i am stopped dead at a photo that has been taken and almost shocked into stillness. rarely is it even something of breathtaking beauty, but something simple – a dying flower reminding me of my own mortality – a lone rain-soaked leaf prompting me to remember the lonely and afflicted and what a burden loneliness is – a simple look in my pet's eyes reminding me of the value and necessity for compassion on the people i see every day. at times the photo – seen out of the lense – will strike me so hard that i can only stare at it and be silenced (which, for any who know me well, know this is a feat indeed!)

    once only did i look at something through my lense and decide it was simply too whole and marvelous to capture with the camera. that i was unable to put this massive 'experience' into one tiny frame, or to take in everything without losing it all at the same time. that one time, i put the camera down and sat in awe of what was before me. this is probably the most profound 'picture' i have ever taken and it stays with me to this day.

  13. says

    Since I took up photography I reflect on what I see in a more contemplative way. Every day things, familiar places as well as events and activities that interest me. Often I'll pull out the camera and capture that moment to share with others but from time to time I'll just enjoy the private moment and keep it to myself.

    Yesterday I was driving to meet a friend for lunch and noticed heaps of black swans flocking on a coastal inlet. I pulled over the car I was so mesmerised by their gracefulness. Their peacefulness and natural beauty. I reached for the camera bag to take a photograph but instead just sat and watched them for a while. Observing their tranquility I felt at peace in an otherwise busy day.

  14. says

    First, thank you for this wonderful interview. This is right where I am, actually, where I want to be.
    I will definitely be obtaining a copy of Andy's book, as this technique is something I've found very theraputic in the past.

    I experienced this wonderful phenomenon by surprise one night when I was shooting images of a river with moonlight streaking across the surface. The water looked black and I could barely make out the ripples in the water. I was certain they would all be under-exposed, but I kept shooting, as it felt magnetic. When I uploaded and looked at the shots, I nearly cried. I don't know why, but it just felt like home, very unknown but familiar, full of risks and safe at the same time.

  15. says

    Thanks for introducing me to this photographer and this book. I find that my iPhone allows me to practice photography more this way–less about the technical aspects and more about just what I see in front of me. This photo is from a random walk with my dog a few weeks ago. I noticed all the interesting patterns reflected in the puddle, grabbed for my phone, and shot.

    Great giveaway, thanks for the opportunity.

  16. eileen says

    I just got back from Havana, Cuba and discovered amongst the crumbling buildings, politics and a lack of civil liberties; the people still choose to connect beautifully with each other, physically and emotionally. In most doorways, stoops and windows, neighbors are talking, laughing and helping each other out with chores such as hanging laundry and washing the floors. If people are walking in pairs (lovers, friends, parents, etc), they will most often be holding hands or touching in some way. There is a real and raw intimacy in the Cuban culture.

    Living in Cuba is a tough life and there’s so much intellectually that I was trying to “figure out” about their circumstances but after awhile my heart because to come more alive and allowed me to see the intimate beauty in front of me.

  17. says

    As I was driving my son home from school the other day, an old and broken barn caught my attention. I pulled over and the sun was streaming through the broken doors…it was beautiful. I love finding beauty in things most people would overlook! Thanks for the chance to win.

  18. says

    Great interview!
    After starting to photograph more seriously, I walk around my life with open eyes ready to capture the tiniest magical moment. I love to travel and while being in farway countries and cultures I love to capture the details of everyday life, the smiile of the children, the joy of the people and the beauty of landscapes and natural wonders.

  19. Erika says

    I think I have the technical aspect of photography down. I am in the process of learning to be more intentional in my images, adding more heart and soul, seeing the world and everyday in a new way. Would love a copy of this book to help me on that path.

  20. says

    What an interesting way of looking at the world.
    The way I approach photographing nature is in a conteplative way. I am riveted by patterns and details and what makes each thing special. I end up with pictures of trees and flowers and sky that people around me wonder what I was thinking that I took so many, but I think it's my way of seeing what's in nature and interacting with it and appreciating the world for what it is.

  21. Sharon says

    Karr's book looks fantastic. It's found a place on my wishlist and I'm keeping my fingers crossed here as well.

    I had to get a decent portrait of my son for his school yearbook and he just wouldn't smile. I didn't get the picture I intended but rather snapped a whole series of images of my boy in the process of growing up . . . a range of emotions and strength reflected those blue-grey eyes of his.

  22. says

    I have been photographing the same location –a lake in WI — for a number of years now. Every year I wonder how I can possibly see something new on the same few acres. But I tell you, every year is different. Half the time it's only by framing the shot in the display that I see the combs on the hummingbird's feathers, or the way the clouds seem sunk low and dark like lead in the lake, or the way a nearly dead peony is wooden at it's core and so,so spectacular. My little automatic camera is an unexpected joy in my life. It helps me slow,look,look again,and soak the world in.

    Thanks! That was fun to write. You've got great blog going here.

  23. says

    Profound thoughts and such a thought provoking book!

    For me the moment of seeing the beauty in everyday came when Sussanah Conway of the Unravelling class asked us to take pictures of our feet where we went. Before that to me the camera was meant for special occasions and travelling. But to mark that moment in time – that I had been there on that road the day when the tree gave up it's spring flowers, it was freeing!

  24. marina says

    this book is soooooooo what I was looking for! I have just bought it and I am so looking forward for it to arrive!
    thank you so much for the interview and for introducing me to these amazing people and book!

  25. says

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  26. says

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