I’m learning — by observing my own experience, and by reading about the experience of others — that any repetitive daily practice, with attention and intention, begins to feel like mindfulness meditation. Reading, writing, walking, running, gardening, baking, sketching, painting the piano, even making photographs.
I have been reading a lot of photography books. Some focus on the craft of photography, others on contextualizing the evolution of photography as an art form, yet others on a genre like street photography. Three books I read recently treat photography as a creative practice, even a spiritual practice. ‘Extraordinary Everyday Photography’ by Brenda Tharp and Jed Manwaring encourages us to look for photographic inspiration in our homes, neighborhoods and cities. ‘The Soul of the Camera’ by David duChemin emphasizes the importance of photographing what we love. ‘Zen Camera’ by David Ulrich explicitly relates principles from Zen Buddhism to the (spiritual) practice of making photographs.
In the last four months, photography has become my primary creative and spiritual practice, and I’m not even sure if there’s a difference between the two for me. Making photographs has become a catalyst for observing my world attentively and learning to see it with a beginner’s mind, and a daily ritual to create immersion and flow in the act of seeing a composition, framing it in the viewfinder and capturing it in the camera. Learning to make photographs has become a catalyst for learning about the history of painting and photography, the intricacies of visual design, and the craft of seeing, capturing and creating light, color and balance. Writing about making photographs has opened up a new vocabulary for describing the nuances of the possibilities I am learning to see with my eyes, with the viewfinder and with the editing software, and a new style of writing that is more show than tell, more poetry than prose.
And, now that I am writing about learning photography, I am writing regularly again, after almost a decade. I am finding that writing about the details that I can see and show in photographs grounds my words, makes them feel real to me. Focal length, aperture, shutter speed, hue, saturation, luminosity, highlights, shadows, whites, blacks, depth of field, field of vision, sharp focus, background blur, color, tone, clarity, contrast, texture — these are not only words to me anymore, but physical things I can create by changing light and camera settings, see through the viewfinder, capture via the lens, and enhance in Lightroom or Photoshop.
I have a tendency to think in big ‘meta’ abstractions, in broad narrative arcs, so being grounded in small specific details is good for my writing, good for my (left-leaning) brain, and good for my soul. When I don’t know what to write, I make photographs, until I see something I want to write about. With the right brain, I see the work of other photographers and painters; with the left brain, I read about how to see visually; with the right brain, I make photographs; with the left brain, I write about the photographs I am making. I have known intuitively that the visual right brain is the key to unlock the words in my left brain. I tried to develop a daily sketching practice two years back, but the gap between being able to see and being able to make was too wide, unlike photography. Now that my right brain is awake again, I am beginning to feel the desire to go back to sketching (in charcoal) and painting (in water color). Soon, I think.