Slow down. Photography is meditation.

I read with great interest David duChemin’s July 5th post on his thoughts about sharing, or ‘over-sharing’ as he puts it, and how he thinks some of our new ways of connecting can, and have, affected the photographic process.  David raises some interesting questions about the value of photography and how the nature of social media has accelerated the pace of photography, and does that increase in both producing and sharing photographs have a negative impact on the process itself.  I would say in many ways, yes.  Even as we are making photographs, we are now predisposed to be considering when and how best to share them, get them into the photographic stream.  As David says in his piece, we all like to share and welcome comments and messages that tell us others are looking at our images, but that has with it a sense of immediacy, a feeling that is contrary to some of the reasons we make photographs, and art, in general.  The phrase that really caught me, though, was: “But I do not love those things the way I love the quiet making of a photograph, the private wrestling with the muse that happens while I write a paragraph or a book. I don’t love those accolades the way I love holding a print in my hands the first time and knowing I made this new thing.”

That phrase of David’s made me think about some of my own experiences making photographs, the “quiet making” of them.  There is also the quiet consideration of images where for a time they are just resting, waiting to be discovered.  The act of making photographs can be a solo, meditative experience, whether shooting landscapes in a remote area or watching a street corner in a busy urban area.  For most of us it is the landscape, escape from distraction.

In 1988 I was in Peru, and like most travellers, made the trek to the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu.  Arrival is usually around midday and the area is covered with tourists, visitors and travellers.  As the noon sun beat down on the mountains, cameras were ablaze in less than dramatic lighting conditions.  I opted to find a shady spot behind a wall (within the ruins), and rest while I waited for the light to change.  By late afternoon when the sun started to drop the thousands of people were gone, few spending the night at lodging nearby.  As I began another walk through the ruins I was keenly aware that there was almost no one else around, perhaps a few in the distance, so for the most part I was alone.  A solo, meditative moment, with no concern for the after (what will I do with this image).  The photograph shows the silence, the calm.  On the staircase (lower right) sits a lone figure, thus establishing scale.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru ©RILEY

The following year, 1989, I made my first of many trips to Canada’s arctic region, landing in Cape Dorset on Baffin Island (eastern arctic, province of Nunavut).  When I was not in my temporary studio making portraits I was out on the land, travelling by snow machine, sleeping in a tent, trying to capture the vastness, the subtlety of the landscape.  I often thought about one of my mentors, a painter/sculptor, John McCombe Reynolds (or Uncle Mac as he was known).  I learned about portraits by photographing his busts.  Sculpting requires meditation, putting a project aside at times to allow for consideration or reworking.

John McCombe Reynolds, sculptor and painter

John McCombe Reynolds, sculptor and painter (self portrait)

Mac was a landscape painter, too, and painters have such a strong sense of the delicacies of the landscape.  Again, a slow process sometimes to get the vision onto the canvas.  So I often thought of him when looking at the arctic, trying to compose, to see.   Soft light on an overcast day, gentle pastel colour.

I could spend a long time in one spot, appreciating the quiet.  Like David says: “the quiet making of a photograph”.  As many of the early images were film, time would be taken to pour over contact sheets, considering each frame as film was precious (and expensive).  Even in the early stages of digital photography we weren’t producing the quantity that we are now, and there was no place to rush to for sharing.  It all took time.

arctic landscape, Baffin Island

arctic landscape, Baffin Island ©RILEY

arctic landscape, Baffin Island

arctic landscape, Baffin Island ©RILEY

arctic landscape, Baffin Island

Iceberg on the horizon ©RILEY

arctic landscape, Baffin Island

Arctic moon ©RILEY

arctic landscape, Baffin Island

Open water, Baffin Island ©RILEY

Sunrise, Cape Dorset

Sunrise, Cape Dorset ©RILEY

The same process of looking, seeing, and contemplating occurs everywhere.  The photo below was taken in Kenya, on the road to Lake Magadi.  I would always stop at this spot, breathe deeply, take a quiet moment.  I did this a number of times before I made this image, always waiting for the right day when the photo would appear before me.  As with the previous images, these are not ‘new’, they didn’t find their way into the technological stream with any urgency.  They are shared when the time is right.  We must not always cave to the pressure that one must share quickly.  I know many successful photographers who do very little social media, bucking the trend.  What is paramount is making good, or important, images and maintaining balance in your life.

Road to Magadi (Kenya)

On the road to Magadi (Kenya) ©RILEY

2 thoughts on “Slow down. Photography is meditation.

  1. elva

    Thanks for that Jerry. I actually slowed down long enough to read the whole thing.
    The “urgency” we experience everyday seems to have increased beyond reasonable. It is impossible to keep up with all the information that we are bombarded with. Information that may be critical gets grazed over like a melting popsicle in July. Slowing down and paying attention to one word at a time and then a whole paragraph, is becoming more of a struggle for my distracted brain. Images on a news feed are more like visual clutter and sometimes just clues to weather or not I should pause to see what it means.
    I think all the different presentations of images have a place. Maybe even more so, since our reading skills might be compromised by urgency and information overload. Your call to slow down and be present is a thoughtful gift. I especially love the “Arctic Moon” and “Open Water” – where reality is stranger than fantasy. Your images remind me that anything is possible.

  2. Dunstan Morey

    I also, despite my distracted intentions, read the whole thing. Funny that one has to wrestle with an urge to “hurry up and slow down!”
    Maybe we need to take a “raise or fold” attitude to the onslaught of information we’re presented with: i.e. choose either to absorb something in its entirety, or pass it over altogether, but in no case to flit idly from one tidbit to next. Not literally possible, perhaps, but an interesting challenge. Involves risk in either case: the risk that you’ll miss out on something good against the risk you’ll waste your precious time.
    Thanks for challenging me to take the time!


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