a photo study: contemplative photography IV – seeing


From my research about “seeing” through the eyes of a photographer, I learned that within our day-to-day lives we usually connect with the visual aspects of our world through various cognitive lenses.  For example, a continuum of perceiving begins with sensory seeing on one side and conceptual seeing on the other.  Sensory seeing perceives that which appear to our senses, and conceptual seeing perceives that which appear to the mind’s eye. 

For example, while riding a train you glance up from your reading and do a quick glance at your fellow travelers.  You may see a young adolescent, with blue hair, engrossed by the sounds coming through his earphones, an elderly couple with multi-colored silk scarves loosely wrapped around their necks and their gray-streaked hair, a handsome man, in a gray-toned business suit, snapping a newspaper as he becomes engrossed in an article, and towards the front you see and hear a group of tittering, fashionably-attired women.

Sensory seeing takes in the colors and textures of this environment—the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and so on. 

All the rest of your experience is conceptual. You see the visual forms of the “young adolescent”, “elderly couple,” “handsome man,” and “fashionably-attired women.” “Young,” “elderly,” “handsome,” “fashionably-attired” are not visible to the eye; these adjectives are the result of the thinking mind, the discriminating mind. 


There are times as we move in and out of the dance of life, we become totally engrossed in the conceptual realm which blinds us to the sensory elements that create our world. Other times, our thinking mind begins to hush and a door opens to a sensory world.  Generally, these two ways of being-in-the-world are in a mental flux in which we create stories with a blending and folding of what we are “seeing” overlaid with our “thinking.” It seems to me that this creative process serves to put-into-order the stuff within the environment so that there is an easing of uncertainty and to bring about a certainty of space and time; yet, this lessening of anxiety has the potential to obscure the richness and natural beauty of our sensory world. 

Reality is transformed by our looking at it, because we enter it with our baggage of concepts. …But it is not easy to abandon concepts. …The armor of a scientist is his or her acquired knowledge and system of thought, and it is most difficult to leave that behind. … religious seekers have always been reminded that they must let go of all of their concepts to experience reality… ~ Thich Nhat Hanh (The Sun My Heart, p.82)

Personal concepts such as what is beautiful, artistic, worthwhile become blinding filters that overlay a photographer’s eye as they direct a search for subjects that fit into these personal templates.  I was nudged away from my search for symmetric tree templates during a  project in which I would spend 5 minutes being present with a Michael Kerr image.  In time, I found myself slowly becoming freed from the fetters of this obsession to find the perfect tree. 

Contemplative Photography

The word “contemplate” means to be within a process of reflection that draws on a deeper level of intelligence than our usual way of thinking about things. The root meaning of the word “contemplate” is connected with careful observation. It means to be present with something in an open space. This space is created by letting go of the currents of mental activity that obscure our natural insight and awareness.

Contemplative photography is a method of seeing and photographing the world in unique ways—through fresh eyes—inviting us to open ourselves to  the richness and beauty through our sensory eyes.  For example: capturing the beauty of shadows, elegance of lines or clash of colors, the elements which a passer by, lost in thought, will be unable to see.

Photography can be used to help distinguish the seen from the imagined, since the camera registers only what is seen. It does not record mental fabrications. As the photographer Aaron Siskind said, “We look at the world and see what we have learned to believe is there, [what] we have been conditioned to expect… But, as photographers, we must learn to relax our beliefs.”

Sensory Seeing

…the right presence of mind’ involves an empty and open state of mind with no definite plans, thoughts, desires, expectations, purposes, or ego-involvement-but where all is possible. ~Eugen Herrigel, cited W Rowe, Zen and the Magic of Photography

One thing that all these explanations have in common is that it is the process of clear seeing that is central to being at one with the present moment; to connecting with what you are experiencing.

How does clear seeing produce clear images? When you see clearly, your vision is not obscured by expectations about getting a good or bad shot, agitation about the best technique for making the picture, thoughts about how beautiful or ugly the subject is, or worries about expressing yourself and becoming famous. Instead, clear seeing and the creativity of your basic being connect directly, and you produce images that are the equivalents (this is Alfred Stieglitz’s term) of what you saw. What resonated within you in the original seeing will also resonate in the photograph.

Henri Cartier-Bresson offers key insights into this approach. He is reported to have said,  “Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards—never while actually taking a photograph. Success depends on the extent of one’s general culture, on one’s set of values, one’s clarity of mind and vivacity.”

…the creative mind of a photographer is like a piece of unexposed film. It contains no preformed images but is always active, open, receptive, and ready to receive and record an image. ~Minor White cited: W Rowe, Zen and the Magic of Photography

Exercise:  Opening a Door to Sensory Seeing

The moment of clear seeing—an unfiltered flash of perception with silenced concepts generally last for a fraction of a second. Before the rush of the thinking, discriminating, conceptualizing, judging mind, we are gifted with a clarity of perception and basic form: color, light, texture, line, pattern, shape, space.  

To open ourselves to “clear seeing”, I’m inviting you to open yourselves to an experiential exercise; to become a sensor of experience to flashes of perception.  


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

  • First: place yourself in location where you feel free and relaxed…in your home or someplace outdoors.  Don’t scan the environment, just relax. 
  • Second:  ground yourself by connecting with the sensation of your feet on the ground, knowing that the earth is below and the sky is above.  Clear your mind and silence a desire to see and find something to photograph.  
  • Third: Imagine you are a camera with your eyes, your shutter, closed.
  • Fourth:  Breathe in…be aware of the flow of your in-breath.  Breathe out…be aware of the sensation of your out-breath… Breathe in…aware of the length of your in-breath.  Breathe out…aware of the length and sensation of your out-breath.  Breathe in…and be aware of your body relaxing.  Breathe out…smile with your relaxing body. 
  • Fifth: Slowly turn 180 degrees with your eyes closed. Breathe in…be aware of your in-breath.  Breathe out…be aware of your out-breath. Allow yourself to be aware of the sounds and physical sensations that surround you in this environment.  No thinking, no judging, no expectations, no planning…just awareness of you in your body with your eyes closed. 
  • Sixth:  Open you eyes suddenly.  Open them wide and let your eyes settle on whatever greets you. Noice what happens the first instant, and then what flows from there. After a few minutes, close your eyes as suddenly as you opened them before.  In a few moments, the after-image of what greeted you will begin to fade.  
  • Seventh: Move your body in a quarter turn and, with your eyes still closed shift your head downwards toward the ground. Repeat the in and out breathing exercise in the fourth step. 
  • Eight:  Open your eyes suddenly. Notice your experience. Then, after a few seconds, close your eyes and move your head upwards.  Repeat the fourth, sixth and seventh steps.  Continue this exercise for about five minutes, each time closing your eyes, shifting the tilt of your head, and turning absent of a preconception of what you will see when you open your shutter.
  • Ninth:  Return to the sixth step with camera in hand.  When you open your eyes, photograph that which greets your open eyes (if your mind begins to seek, compose, categorize, discriminate, negate, or judge close your eyes and allow the after-image to fade). 
  • Tenth: Close your eyes and move on to step seven, photographing what your eyes connect with.  Enjoy this exercise for 5 minutes.

I am finding myself excited about this learning phase of “a photo study.”  I am looking forward to your images and thoughts.  Let’s tag with #aphotostudy.

5 replies to “a photo study: contemplative photography IV – seeing

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this:
close-alt close collapse comment ellipsis expand gallery heart lock menu next pinned previous reply search share star