Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.
— André Gide
Last spring, I was invited by my friend Melodye to take part in a yoga and mindfulness retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains, and to offer a workshop to participants introducing the concept of Contemplative Photography. I have taught workshops about creative journaling, but I had never thought about offering anyone lessons in photography – that’s best left for the professionals, not someone who just messes around with a camera and occasionally gets a good photo in the process.
But then, the point of this particular workshop wasn’t meant to be about photography, so much as it was about contemplation. Though I’d never heard or paid attention to the phrase “contemplative photography” before, it pretty much sums up how I operate. I go for a walk somewhere, look at the world through my camera lens, and push the button when I see something interesting. My problem was, how do you teach something you just do instinctively on your own to a group of other people? I had to be somewhat more organized than, “go out and take some pictures.”
I won’t go into the all the iterations of thought that I tried out, but in the end, I managed to put together a simple lesson plan to introduce the concept and quickly get people out there shooting mindfully. I even made a simple pocket-sized card for the participants, laminated, as a way they could carry the simple lessons with them.
Here’s what was on the front:
In my view you cannot claim to have seen something until you have photographed it.
- Emile Zola
1. Be an observer, not an interpreter2. Know your camera3. Detach from judgment4. Rule of thirds5 Try another angle6. Your feet are the best zoom7 . Exposure = ISO, Aperture, Shutter speed
Photo Walk Themes:ColorTextureLightSpacePatternsSimplicity
In retrospect, this list seems kind of random and mixed up. I see technical info (2, 6, 7) and artistic recommendations (4, 5) alongside contemplative encouragement(1, 3). Though I don’t don’t disagree with any of the little tidbits of advice I’ve offered, neither can I look back at the list and get a clear picture of what vision I was trying to offer in the 90 minutes we were granted that day.
I guess whatever I was doing worked, as I’e been told participants really enjoyed the session. Of course, even the worst workshop in the world would have been enjoyable, wandering among the redwoods as we were!
In order to get a better grip on the what i’m doing for the next time I teach this subject, I’m going to be writing about the different topics I listed on that card, and some different ones that I’ve come up with since. And yes, I will be teaching this again! You can join Melodye and I next June, along with author Jeannine Atkins and other special guests for Candles in the Window: A Writing and Yoga Retreat (with Chocolate!). Here are the details from the website:
CANDLES IN THE WINDOW:
A Writing and Yoga Retreat (With Chocolate)
Just as yoga helps bring us home to our bodies, writing helps bring us home to ourselves. Drawing inspiration from both disciplines, we’ll create a nurturing space in which to explore new ideas and develop our own essential truths. Here, our personal experiences serve as traveling guides, and our imaginations glow like candles in the window, inviting us home.
Retreat Location and Itinerary
Nestled into the redwood groves of Soquel, California, Land of Medicine Buddha is the perfect place in which to nurture ourselves, and to feed our creative urges! It’s about 80 miles south of San Francisco, and 8 miles from the sparkling beaches in Santa Cruz.
Together in this beautiful environment, we’ll enjoy:
- Writing workshops (guided and unstructured activities for writers in all genres)
- Gentle yoga classes, designed for beginning to advanced yoga practitioners
- Photography walk
- Chocolate-infused writing session, courtesy of EarthHoney Chocolates
- Access to the Tibetan Buddhist Library materials and the Wish Fulfilling Temple
- Six farm-to-table, vegetarian meals
- 2 nights’ lodging (single or double-occupancy rooms; prices adjusted accordingly)
You may also schedule a massage, collaborate on your writing projects, or take a 6.5 mile run/hike through the Enchanted Forest. Avail yourself of these experiences and more, in this transformative place!
Please click to learn more – early bird registration is open now, and I’d love to see you there! In the meantime, you can look forward to (hopefully) weekly posts on the topics in this lesson plan. If you have any feedback or additional topics you’d like to see, please let me know.
My annual “how’d you find me” post isn’t going to be as much fun this year as it used to be, thanks to the increased number of results from Google showing up as “unknown search term” – more than half of my search term results were unknown, so I can’t guess what those people may have been looking for at all. Did you find it?
But here’s some of the more interesting stats:
Variations of my name – 10
People looking for bookmarks – 24
Creative journaling and/or lettering – 15
Juan Cabrillo – 2
Tim Burton / Beauty & the Beast – 4
And some of the more unique single hits:
Stairs in the wood
Sight magical sensitivity castle marrach (sorry, I have no clue how to get this!)
Texture page from old book pages with turned and torn edges
Guys with huge feet
Just to see if anyone is paying attention, I will send a prize to the first person who identifies the post that last one refers to. Leave your answer in the comments!
(Picture is unrelated, but I thought I’d share it. Taken last August in New Hampshire, at “America’s Stonehenge.”)
It all starts pretty simple. I don’t know at at this point what I’m going to make, or what message I am sending myself with this page. I just look through my collection of clipped images and pick one that speaks to me at the moment. And one that complements the pre-painted background in my journal.
All the pages in my journal have watercolor backgrounds pre-painted. This saves me a big step in getting started – both having to pick a color, and then waiting for the background to dry. I can always change or enhance the color during the process, if I need to!
I like being able to take in-process photos with my phone now. (Though I may need to rethink lighting and processing now that I see them on the big screen.)
I have an old dictionary I picked up at a used bookstore. I tear pages out of it, not always at random, to build borders and foundations for my pages. The paper is super fragile, which is good when I want to tear it, but not so good when the glue stick catches it and tears it accidentally.
A vine hand drawn with with marker. Outlined in a contrasting color to give it some pop. I outline almost everything on the page. More color on the page with watercolor pencils.
Words add some highlighting to the stem. I didn’t know where to put a big title for this page, so I just didn’t add one. But somewhere along the line I started calling it “Chrysalis.”
Part of California’s Transverse Ranges, the Tehachapi Mountains of Kern and Los Angeles counties cut an east-to-west divide between the fertile San Joaquin Valley to the north and the inhospitable Mojave Desert to the south. Cresting between 4,000 and 8,000 feet, they connect to the mighty Sierra Nevada to the east, and to the Sierra Pelona and San Emigdio Mountains to the west.
Anyone who has traveled I-5 between Northern and Southern California knows the Tehachapis – at least the western terminus of the range. Tejon Pass – the precipitous climb known colloquially as “the Grapevine” – marks place where the Tehachipis join the San Emigdio Mountains. The Grapevine is one of the oldest continually used passes in California, with a pre-Columbian history going back hundreds – if not thousands – of years. “El Camino Viejo” the Spanish called the route – the Old Way.
The Tehachapi Pass, which marks the eastern end of the range, has an equally venerable history and is the site of the main line of the old Southern Pacific Railway (now owned by Union Pacific). Today, 40 trains a day traverse the famous Tehachapi Loop – a landmark of civil engineering completed in 1876 – making it one of the busiest single-track mainlines in the world.
The Kawiisu people are one of several Native American tribes that have inhabited the Tehachapi mountains. Hunters and gatherers, they roamed between the desert and the mountains depending upon the season, and lived in villages of 60 to 100 people. The name “Tehachapi” may come from the native Kawaiisu word “tihachipia” – translated as “hard climb.”
“When you feel lost or depressed — when the ground shifts beneath your feet — when you pull down into the depths of yourself to face the demons there, you are the heroine gone underground. It might take days or weeks or months or years but eventually you rise, stronger for the broken places.” Justine Musk
In August, we paid a visit to the seaside in Maine. It was the first time in Maine for my mother, and the first time my daughters had seen the Atlantic Ocean. We couldn’t have asked for more beautiful weather. The sky was blue, the sea was bluer, and sun and wind had conspired to produce the perfect temperature for strolling along the cliff-side path at Ogunquit.
It was crowded, of course. Ogunquit has perfected the concept of “charming seaside village” and it has become very popular as a tourist destination, for day-trippers and vacationers alike. (My girls were surprised to see Canadian license plates on a car in the parking lot – I had to remind them how much closer Canada was, up there in New England.) But the parking was free, the views were amazing, and there was lobster for lunch – so who could complain?
The one-and-a-quarter mile walk that winds along the cliff between beach and harbor is called The Marginal Way…just stop and let that roll around inside your head for a moment. The Marginal Way. It would be hard to come up with a more suggestive, more evocative name for a path, am I right? Marking the liminal space between the solidity of the shore and the ever-churning ocean, the path invites you to step outside your everyday constrictions, to walk between worlds, for just a little while.
All thresholds offer the chance of transformation, and perhaps it is the implicit call that inspired the cairn-makers of Ogunquit. It’s not surprising to see a cairn of rocks or two, balanced atop a boulder by the sea. But upon the rocky shelf that divides that Way from the waves, there were hundreds of such cairns. Maybe thousands – this photo only shows a small segment of the workmanship (and you will probably have to click through to the larger photo to really see how many cairns are there – the midday sun eliminated any shadows that would highlight the structures). It went on for an astonishing half-a-mile or more.
How many hands contributed to the building of these cairns, I wonder? Are they the work of locals, escaping the press of tourists in the shops and restaurants for a quiet moment by the sea? Or were they built by visitors, seeking to leave a mark of their presence behind when they depart? (Aside from the occasional guestbook, travelers are not usually welcome to change the places that the visit – look, but don’t touch.)
Both, most likely. Social beings that we are, when we see that someone has created something meaningful, we want to take part in that meaning ourselves. Thus one cairn-builder inspired the next, growing this makeshift monument, this spontaneous tribute, this marked threshold.
Did any of them stop to think that their handiwork would probably not survive the first Nor’easter that winter brought? The surge of stormy seas will doubtless knock askew the carefully balanced structures, restoring the rocky beach to its natural condition, unmarked by human artifice. But really, that impermanence only adds to the liminal sensibility of the effort. This moment, too, is marginal, balanced precariously between the past and the future.
I was not prepared, alas, to venture down onto the rocks for more effective photos – or to add a cairn of my own to the monument. Wrong sort of shoes entirely. But these photos are a bit like a cairn themselves, don’t you think? One photo stacked up on the next, held in balance by a thread of thoughts, marking a moment in time…or maybe a moment outside of time.