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.