Although I photograph in both film and digital modalities, I much prefer the film and chemical process. It’s much slower and more thought-provoking. I enjoy the tactile experience of handling wet paper. And I appreciate the challenges that fine craftsmanship demands.
Beyond mindful shooting, contemplation occurs when I’m processing film—which, although it’s not necessary, I prefer to do in total darkness with no distractions. No radio or stereo. (In a future edition of this blog I’ll describe the journey of imagination I take while the film is in the developer).
Contemplation in the printing stage is always spontaneous, beginning at the point where I turn on the white lights and lift the dripping print from the fixer to ascertain whether or not the image has enough potential to devote more time to it. Another moment ripe for contemplation is when the print is being archivally processed. The hypo clearing agent and selenium toner solutions heighten the paper’s glossy surface, thereby deepening the blacks and brightening the whites. That’s when a print reveals itself to me as “numinous,” one that touches the transcendent nerve. Or not. One indicator is if I exclaim “WOW!” out loud, the volume of my voice being proportional to the degree of joy I experience. Another is the sense that the photograph and the seeing that gave rise to it are and were beyond my capability—a guided, great leap forward.
A more subtle burst of joy comes when I take the print out of the dry mount press to flatten it between sheets of cardboard. Another comes when I’m spotting the print, using a single-hair brush to eliminate dust spots and other imperfections that were on the negative. Afterward, the print is pristine. And so I get another burst of joy doing the provenancing, using a soft pencil to title, date, number, indicate the location and sign the back of the print before putting it in an archival envelope.
I offer this information because I don’t want to give the impression that in any of these moments I stop the creative process to sit and contemplate. I don’t. Part of contemplation is being mindful throughout the process, being present and appreciative of the materials, the image and what it might reveal as it unfolds. The bursts of joy, sometimes bold but more often subtle, are indications that I’m on track, fulfilling my purpose and acting authentically. And when the joy goes out, I consider it a signal to move in a different direction. Like a pilot flying a jetliner, I want to find the trajectory that leads to my destination and stay on it. In contemplation, the destination is always connection to the Ground of all being.
If spontaneous reflections elicited throughout the creative process help me to know when I’m on and off the trajectory of purpose and authenticity—like trying to align with a laser beam by crossing it back and forth—it’s the photographs themselves that generate a numinous experience and propel me along it. For me it has always been the quality of light—contrast, gradations, specular highlights, revealing shadows—that moves me most. What attracted me to photography in the first place was the ability of the light without to reveal the light within. And so to align with it, to flow through the beam with focused attention, I will spend more time with the numinous photographs.
My contemplations tend to take three forms. Most frequent are reflections that occur at night, before going to sleep. An image that I’d been working on comes to mind and it sets me to thinking. I can’t count the number of times I had to get up in the middle of the night to take notes on the insights and ideas an image evoked. Then there are times when an image is so evocative I’ll just sit with the print in front of me—or on the computer screen—and close my eyes, allowing it to take me where it will. More recently, in generating a backlog of contemplations for this blog, I’ve discovered the many benefits that come from writing them on the computer with the image in front of me, most especially coherence, the focusing, refining and ordering of thought.
Whatever our process, the real deal is ascending to the heights of consciousness and imagination. What matters is the journey, that we take it. So if you find these notions appealing, I would encourage you to follow this blog and visit other sites that feature contemplative photography. Especially, try it yourself. Take your camera out with the intent to see through fresh eyes and capture some images that are evocative. And then, once you’ve taken such a picture, let it take you.
© Copyright, David L. Smith, 2014. The images and the associated contemplations on this site are protected against any and all commercial and promotional use without the permission of the author. However, permission is granted for individuals to download the images and print them for private, non-commercial, non-promotional use.