Musings on Photography


Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on April 3, 2007


Despite several posts that some folks have read as a condemnation of ‘contemplative’ photography, it’s a concept I can happily embrace.  I just happen to think that contemplative photography is not dependent on working in large format.  If folks experience a more contemplative process when they switch to large format, I think it’s largely because (as Guy Tal points out here) they have an expectation that something is going to happen, and that expectation is both self-fulfilling and also gives license to aim for a more contemplative process.

But there’s a lot of confusion, it seems, about exactly what ‘contemplative’ means in the context of the photographic process.  Mark Hobson seems to think that ‘contemplative’ is synonymous with what I’d call ‘conscious’, ‘deliberate’, or perhaps ‘thoughtful’, and argues for a process which is what I’d call ‘intuitive’.  But to my mind, ‘contemplative’ is not the same as ‘conscious’ or ‘deliberate’ or ‘thoughtful’, and it’s certainly not incompatible with ‘intuitive’.  It isn’t that I disagree with Hobson so much as I think he’s discussing something orthogonal to what I’m trying to work out.

So what do I mean when I talk about a ‘contemplative’ process?  It’s a word that’s hard to pin down, and the dictionary and thesaurus aren’t very helpful, listing synonyms as diverse as ‘attentive’, ‘cogitative’, ‘pensive’, and ‘speculative’, which covers an awful lot of ground.

To me the word ‘contemplative’ brings to mind the words of the Quaker writer Thomas Kelly, who in a little book titled A Testament of Devotion(no link, sorry, I’m quoting from memory augmented by Google) wrote

Life from the Center is a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene. […] It takes no time, but it occupies all our time. And it makes our life programs new and overcoming. We need not get frantic.

Now, Kelly was both a mystic and unabashedly Christian, and what he’s writing about here when he talks about ‘Life from the center’ is living our lives as a continuous contemplative religious experience.  Mystics from other religions have written similar things; it’s not a concept tied to Christianity by any stretch of the imagination.

Indeed, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written extensively about a state he calls ‘Flow‘.  Quoting from Wikipedia for those who don’t follow links, the entry reads in part

As Csikszentmihalyi sees it, components of an experience of flow can be specifically enumerated; he presents the following:

  1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible).
  2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
  4. Distorted sense of time– one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
  5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
  7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. When in the flow state, people become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975. p.72).

Not all are needed for flow to be experienced.

We can take various writings on mysticism, fuse them with Csikszentmihalyi’s psychology of optimal experience, and discover that perhaps the ‘contemplative’ state that Thomas Kelly was writing about is closely related to the ‘in the zone’ experience that distance runners talk about. 

So how does this tie into photography and artmaking?  Remember, this isa blog about photography and artmaking.

The connection is this: I think that what people are talking about when they say ‘I find the large format process to be more contemplative’ is that they find it easier to achieve ‘flow’ with a view camera than with other formats.

But if people can have flow experiences using equipment as diverse as running shoes, a musical instrument, a pair of climbing shows and a challenging rock wall, or a high powered automobile on a racetrack, then it’s not the equipment that generates this contemplative flow state.  It’s more a matter of (as Czikszentmihalyi put it) ‘balance between ability and challenge’.

So the interesting question for me, the question I was trying to chip away at in my previous post, was “what aspects of camera design are conducive to the photographer having a ‘flow’ experience while photographing?”

I think that part of it is this: with a view camera, the challenges of making a photograph are sequenced into straightforward challenges that are a close match to the ability of the photographer.  We set up the camera (easy), open the shutter and compose (not too hard but not too easy), focus (again, not too hard, not too easy), then calculate exposure (neither hard nor easy), and finally make an exposure (requires some attention to close and cock shutter, put in filmholder, pull darkslide, release shutter, put in dark slide without a goof).  This sequence of challenges occupies our attention but none of the challenges are insurmountable.

And in contrast, we put an automatic SLR on the tripod, compose, hit the shutter button.  None of these are significant challenges except for composition, so any ‘flow’ experience we have is going to occur, not when fiddling with the camera, but when we’re interacting with the environment we’re about to photograph.

Curiously,  if you get to the point in large format where you have this ‘flow’-like contemplative experience, then it seems it’s easier to get a similar contemplative experience with a different format (e.g. a digital SLR).  It’s as if, once you’ve been infected by the ‘contemplative/flow’ virus, it doesn’t go away just because you’ve switched formats.

I think that’s pretty interesting.

4 Responses

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  1. Oren Grad said, on April 3, 2007 at 9:33 pm

    Paul – the “flow” concept is exactly what came to mind when you started writing about “contemplative” photography.

    When out alone with a camera, I might as well be on another planet. It doesn’t matter whether I’m using a 35mm camera or a big 11×14 view camera. Of course the mechanics are different, and I’m guided by an intuitive understanding of what one can render effectively that the other cannot, but there is a fundamental similarity in the underlying psychological state.

    I think the “not all are needed” point in the Wikipedia summary is right – I’d toss #5 and possibly #1 as well, depending on exactly how it’s defined, and qualify #6 to observe that a bit of fumbling with the controls, say with a camera I haven’t used in a while or on a challenging setup, isn’t enough in itself to break the spell.

    I’d disagree with Mark Hobson’s definition to the extent that he is specifying a necessary condition. It reminds me of Ansel’s previsualization, a concept that I understand in a literal way but cannot grok as a way to actually do photography. Hence also my (possible) issue with #1.

  2. Howard Slavitt said, on April 4, 2007 at 7:11 am

    I agree with your insight that once a photographer achieves the “flow” experience with a view camera, the ability to reach that state translates into other formats, like a DSLR. That’s my experience, anyways.

  3. Food For Thought « New Words said, on April 6, 2007 at 6:48 am

    […] Butzi recently wrote about Contemplation , getting ‘in the zone’, so to speak, while photographing. I love that […]

  4. Beginner « Musings on Photography said, on January 4, 2009 at 8:17 am

    […] written before about ‘flow’, the idea that we find pastimes most enjoyable and rewarding when they […]

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