I’ve never been good at fitting myself into a category or labelling what I do. Unfortunately this makes life a bit difficult sometimes when people ask – as they often do – ‘what sort of photography do you do, then?’. It’s usually easier to say what kind I don’t do – portraits, weddings, babies, traditional landscape – but that only takes me so far. To some extent I’ve adopted ‘contemplative photography’ or ‘mindful photography’ as my label, but as always, I have trouble fitting myself comfortably into even these particular categories. All I can say is that this fits me better than anything else does.
Some time ago I ran a weekly ‘miksang Monday’ slot, where I posted one photo a week that showed a mindful approach. I hesitated over using the word miksang, for reasons that I’ll go into in a bit, but the nicely alliterative sound of it won out and in the end I went with it. ‘Contemplative’ simply doesn’t trip off the tongue in the way that ‘miksang’ does, and at the time I hadn’t thought of mindful as a term to apply to photography (annoying – mindful Monday would have worked well). But anyway, ‘miksang Monday’ was what I went for even though I knew using the term ‘miksang’ was likely to leave me open to accusations of the image ‘not being Miksang’.
Before I start offering my thoughts on these things, it might help to define ‘contemplative/mindful’ and ‘miksang’ as they apply to photography. As contemplative and mindful photography are very similar, I’ll use the terms interchangeably – ‘mindful’ is a more recent take on what has been known for a while as contemplative photography. The origins of contemplative photography as a concept are not clear, and as it refers primarily to a particular approach to the making of photographs, it’s certainly true that people were practising contemplative photography long before the term had ever been heard of. Two early proponents of it – those who articulated its core ideas, although they may not have referred to it by this name, were Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, author and photographer, and Minor White, a major figure in American photographic education, both practising before and around mid-century. Writings and quotations from many other major figures throughout the history of photography also strongly suggest that many of them were applying the same principles, whether or not they were aware of it..
Contemplative, or mindful, photography is largely about learning to see, without preconceptions or judgements, and because this entails a certain meditative letting go and opening up, it has become linked with Buddhist, Zen, and Taoist philosophies, all of which encourage these things as a general approach to life. Miksang is Tibetan for ‘good eye’ and has come to mean a contemplative approach to photography which is loosely based on certain Buddhist ideas. Really, the two are pretty much the same, but Miksang (note the capital ‘M’) was inspired specifically by the teachings on perception and expression of the Tibetan Meditation Master, Chögyam Trungpa. These are now taught by the Miksang Institute, who use the capital ‘M’ to differentiate themselves. ‘Contemplative’ photography is a more generic term that hasn’t – as far as I know – been adopted by any particular organisation and therefore has no-one to ‘police’ it.
I use this term advisedly, because I was a little shocked when I joined a Facebook Miksang photography group. Suddenly, there seemed to be a lot of rules about what did and didn’t come under the title of Miksang, and people were being criticised for posting photos that weren’t deemed to be properly ‘miksang’. It was implied by one or two people that it wasn’t possible to do miksang photography without having been on a training course. This is patently untrue. The sniping and bickering made it a very unpleasant place to hang around, and I unsubscribed from the group.
It seemed to me that instead of the very simple idea of miksang as fresh perception, which is by nature without rules, all sorts of judgements and regulations were being applied to it and that in turn led to a lot of people getting worried and insecure about whether their photos counted as Miksang or not. I didn’t feel that this was in keeping with the original idea of miksang, nor was it something I wanted to be part of. On top of that, many of these rules and assumptions didn’t strike me as being either logical or in the spirit of the contemplative approach. I’d like to take a look at some of these.
The first one is the idea that it can’t be miksang unless it’s in colour, as colour is part of the original perception. However, if black and white isn’t ‘allowed’ then miksang photography would have been impossible until colour photography became commonplace. In fact Thomas Merton (mentioned earlier) always – as far as I’m aware – photographed in black and white. Most of Minor White’s work was also in black and white, and in fact, colour film wasn’t commonly used until the 1950s. I really don’t believe that immediate or fresh perception is something that only came along with the advent of colour film.
But to take this a little further, much is made in miksang photography of the idea of ‘seeing reality as it is’. However, any first year philosophy student is aware that the idea of there being some objective reality that exists independently of us is very problematic. And any psychology student will tell you something similar – ‘reality’ is always filtered and interpreted through our minds and senses and as such is different – sometimes subtly, sometimes radically – for each individual. Someone with colour blindness will see the external world differently to someone without and her photographs will reflect that. That doesn’t mean that she isn’t seeing clearly or experiencing fresh perception. Someone with perfect vision might ‘see’, in his mind’s eye, the scene in front of him in black and white and choose to record it that way. The true meaning of ‘seeing reality as it is’, to me, is to see without judgement or preconceptions
And then there’s the camera. The ‘eye’ of the camera and our own eyes work very differently. Lenses can stretch space or compress it, they can bend vertical lines, change colours, blur or sharpen, make things look bigger, smaller, closer or further away. You see, then you use the camera to record what you see, but it will never record exactly what that is. The best you can hope for is that you have enough knowledge of how the camera works to get it to come somewhere close to what you’re perceiving yourself.
The biggest misunderstanding, to my mind, is that the original act of perception and the resulting photograph are one and the same thing. Contemplative photography is largely about the process of photography rather than the end result – in fact, this is one of its tenets. Unfortunately we have a tendency to mix the two up, which leads to criticisms that an image isn’t miksang. Well, no, it isn’t – the original perception was miksang and the photograph is just the result – a kind of by-product. Hopefully it will reflect what the photographer saw, but it’s quite possible to see freshly but not have the ability to use your camera to express that. Sometimes, it’s true, you can be fairly sure by looking at an image that it hasn’t resulted from a contemplative/mindful/miksang approach, but you can never be certain.
And one area where my own practice veers wildly away from what’s regarded as acceptable in both contemplative/mindful photography, or miksang, is post-processing. In the spirit of going after ‘reality as it is’, anything much beyond straight-out-of-the-camera shots is frowned on. However, my view is that simply by taking a photograph we have already gone beyond ‘reality as it is’, and if you shoot in jpeg format the camera will have done some processing for you anyway before it presents the image to you. I would rather regard post-processing as part of making tangible the original perception – that is, to help get the image to resemble what you saw at the time. I know there will be lots of people who’d disagree with me on this, and I accept that..
And I’m not trying to put miksang, or even Miksang, down – far from it. There is much of value there and it’s well worth looking at the various Miksang sites. I also think, like many things, it has become distorted by misunderstandings. However, to come full circle, what I expected to happen with my miksang Monday slot, eventually did. I got emails from a couple of people asking me how a particular image could possibly be miksang, because……..insert one of the reasons above. They were very nice emails, and had more of the air of a general enquiry, but still I thought it best to call a halt, because I don’t fully fit into the miksang box. Mainly because of the post-processing issue, I don’t even fit properly into the contemplative/mindful box, but at least I don’t feel so cramped in there.
Because of all this, sometimes I feel a little fraudulent referring to myself as a mindful or contemplative photographer, even though I think that’s what I am. Now that I’m running classes and workshops on mindful photography, it seemed time that I put on record where I stand and why I might not always conform to accepted ideas on these things..