Spirituality and Photography: Mindfulness

Recently, I’ve given a couple of lectures on Spirituality and Photography (combining two of my interests and giving me to a chance to show off some of my photography while talking about something I’m actually qualified to talk about, spirituality). A number of people have asked to look at my notes for the lectures. And I’m really flattered, but . . . that rather assumes I’m working from a rather more fully outlined schema than I in fact do. When I make notes for a lecture, class or sermon, I put down just enough words to remind myself what I’m trying to say, and the basic structure of what I’m trying to say. Often, I won’t even look at those notes during the lecture, but they exist in case I need them.

Nonetheless, people have asked for me to share, so I figure I’ll go ahead and write a series of blog posts on the subject of Spirituality and Photography, beginning today with Mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of attempting to be aware of everything about something. So, if it is a sitting meditation, it might be a complete awareness of your body, breathing in and out, how your weight is being transferred to the chair or ground, and all thoughts that wander through your brain as you are trying to have no thoughts except those about your breathing, etc. If one is eating a piece of chocolate, we attempt to focus on the taste, the mouthfeel, the scent. To really notice the chocolate.

Looking at a photograph is very similar.

Blooming Dogwood
Blooming Dogwood

When we look at a photograph, we are completely aware of everything within the frame. Conversely, nothing outside the frame comes to our attention. In the photograph of the Blooming Dogwood, there could be a gorilla jumping up and down just to the right of the frame, but because it’s outside of the frame, we don’t pay it any attention. Our attention is limited to what is actually in the frame. (For the sake of relieving those of you who were concerned, there was, in fact, no gorilla in evidence when I took this photo).

This artificial limiting of what we pay attention to focuses our attention on what is present. The longer we look at the photo, the more we see. Color, composition, the things we can almost but not quite see, and our emotional response to the photo are laid more bare because our field of view is limited by the photographer’s choice in framing the photograph. To look at a photograph closely is to engage in a type of meditation.

When you take a photograph, the process is even more exacting. A photographer needs to develop the ability to truly see what we look at. It can’t be just about “gee, that’s pretty,” because what our brains see as pretty in real life will most often not translate to a pretty photograph. Our brains are able to filter out extraneous parts of an image. But when we create that frame of the photograph, we notice everything.

Forsythia
Forsythia

For instance, take the photo of Forsythia. I looked out my window one day a few years back, saw pretty flowers and took a photograph. When I took the photo, I wasn’t paying attention to the house in the background, the dead raspberry canes in the foreground, or the intersecting fences. Yet now, looking at the photograph, each of these intruding elements interferes with my attempt to show the profusion of yellow that spring forsythia blossoms bring. We are aware of the other visual elements because our brains do not filter them out in a photograph as our brains do in real life.

The photographer must learn to see real life as it will appear once photographed–to see all that is there, not just the part the brain wants to focus on. This is a form of mindfulness, of awareness of the world. Seeing what is instead of what we perceive. Paying close attention to the world is a common spiritual practice, across religious traditions. Doing it with a camera is just one more way of engaging our spiritual selves.

Making a Photo versus Taking a Photo

As I’ve ventured ever further into the world of photography, I begun to conceptualize a distinction in my mind between “making a photo” and “taking a photo.” Taking a photo is what we all do when we snap a picture of friends, or take a quick shot of pretty sight. Then we print it, email it, post it to the web, whatever it is we do with our photos now.

Making a photo is a more intentional process. It begins with seeing something, and saying, “wow, that could be  a cool picture.” Then we “compose” the photo (try to figure out what we want in the frame, and where). Then we take the picture. A case in point:

 

When I took this photo, I was intrigued by the flow of the rain over the car window. I thought it might make a pretty cool photo, especially Photo before editingwith the green background. I focused on the window itself, rather than what was visible through the window.

Unfortunately, you’ll note it looks kind of boring, washed out even. Frankly, just kind of gray.

So I began working on it with my editing software: I punched up the contrast so you could really see the impact of the water flowing over the grass. I added a bit more saturation and vibrancy to the colors.

Is this cheating? Shouldn’t photography be about faithfully representing what the eye sees?

Edited photo

I don’t think so. The camera cannot faithfully reproduce what we see with the naked eye. Our eye sees a wider range of light than a camera, a greater contrast than camera can capture. For me, one goal of photography is precisely not to replicate nature exactly, but to show something that we might not normally see, whether that be an image of flowing water stopped in time, or an examination of a smaller part of the light spectrum than our eyes would normally focus on.

As I said, there are those who think of this as cheating. But for me, this is the distinction between making a photo and taking a photo.

Learning Something New

About ten years ago, I began to play with photography as something more than just taking snapshots to record events. I began to regard it as a hobby, a skill I wished to improve upon so that others would want to look at my photographs because they were pretty or thought provoking or interesting. Now, I want to be clear, I have not been working on this consistently over the last ten years, but I have, at least intermittently, worked at becoming a better photographer.

I am a much better photographer than I was. Family members and some friends tell me I’m a great photographer. I know better. I take a nice photo, but I’m not even among the top ranked of the amateurs I know (see Neil Schulman, for example, or Aaron Hockley). They are truly amazing photographers. I am at the point where I am willing to call myself a good, but not exceptional, photographer.

As with most photographers with cats, or frankly, people with cats, I take pictures on my cats. They tend to make interesting subjects, and, more relevantly, they’re around (by the way, that also explains why when, during rabbinical school, a class assignment was to work on our “free-form blessings,” I was chasing the cats around trying to get them to sit still for a misheberach–they prefer to be photographed than blessed).

In January, three new cats entered our lives. Two of them are mainly black with a little bit of white. For months, now, I’ve been frustrated by this. Do you know who first decided that black cats are bad luck? I am positive it was the first person who tried to take a portrait of one. Getting black features to appear against a black body is just not something that works well for a camera, whether film or digital.

Today, therefore, is a triumph for me. I finally managed to take some decent shots of the black and white cats. The first photo is of Rosie. The second photo is of her brother, Dancer.

I admit, I may have cheated just a bit in converting the pictures to black and white. And someday, I will succeed in getting a good color picture of the cats, without too much noise showing up in the fur. But for now, I’m feeling quite clever and pleased with myself. I am also very pleased with Rosie and Dancer, who were patient subjects. Nom Nom, who took off the instant I got the camera out, I’m somewhat less pleased by, but I’ll get his photo, too, one of these days.

Pictures from the Zoo

I went to the Zoo recently with Eva, a friend and the friend’s not quite 2 year old (then; since then, the child has become 2). While there, I took some photos, as I am wont to do. So I’m sharing them with you  all, also as I am wont to do. Because, after all, isn’t everyone’s day improved by the presence of a polar bear?

The Polar bear was definitely among the most photogenic of the animals we saw that day. In fact, there were two polar bears wandering around together. And by together, I mean at the same time, but not really ever getting around to acknowledging one another’s existence.

As everyone knows, I’m a cat person, and that extends to the less domesticated of the cats who are present at the Zoo. The ocelot, a small cat, despite a name that sounds like it should belong to a marine invertebrate, was a challenging subject. He was walking quickly, and often not where I wanted him to. Did I mention that he’s a cat?

A much easier photographic subject is the rhododendron. It stood completely still, for which I was very glad.

I’m particularly pleased with the texturing of the flowers in that photo.

In the gallery below, you can find a few more photos: Elephant, warthog, sunbear.

All in all, a day at the zoo.

The Cats of Israel

I suspect that many of you who read my blog know that I am fond of cats. The recent trip to Israel provided a great opportunity for cat watching–and photography. Throughout much of the Mediterranean, street cats are a constant presence, and part of the urban ecosystems. Israel is no exception, and I had some fun with the camera.

This cat and I made our acquaintance in Acre. A friendly sort, he enjoyed conversing and lounging. He was, however, very clear on one point. That was his tree.

Like many of the cats, he was fairly solitary, though there were a few other cats in the neighborhood.

In other places, there were groups of cats hanging out. In Capernum, for example, there was a group of three cats who were a posse. Making themselves at home, in around, under and on top of this bench, they napped and groomed, seeming to enjoy the heat of the day. It was quite warm that day, which made it perfect cat weather.

As with everything else in Jerusalem, the cats of Jerusalem are special. They clearly regard themselves as the guardians of the city, and take that responsibility quite seriously.

Admittedly, there are some who seem a bit more, ah, engaged in the whole watching over everything than others. Case in point: this feline somehow managed to find a soft couch to use as his base of operations. Most other cats in Jerusalem were out and about, whether supervising the Western Wall crowds, as these two kittens were, or stalking the wild discarded pizza, like this leopard-like fellow.

And then, there were the cats who simply sat and supervised, whether amid archaeological ruins or a wall in the old city.