If you should find yourself in London between now and March 2016 I recommend that you visit the Alec Soth Gathered Leaves exhibition in the Media Space at the Science Museum.

This is the first major UK exhibition from this award winning American photographer and surveys a decade of Soth’s work, highlighting his career as one of the world’s top photographers. The exhibition includes four of his signature series, including the UK première of his recent project Songbook.

I particularly found his Broken Manual series inspiring. Soth explores what it is to desire to run away, survive and look into who we are. His work documents several men living unsupported in the wilder parts of America and is melancholic and moving.

The exhibition has a refreshing attitude to photography. You are encouraged to take photographs of the photos and share. The photo above illustrates my desire to capture the relationship between photo and viewer; present, engaged and inspired.

 

“I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between the two worlds – the one inside of us and the one outside of us. As a result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.”

Cartier-Bresson ‘The Decisive Moment’ 1952

Theory

What we choose to photograph. How we chose to photograph. These are the choices that reflect our inner world. This happens even if we don’t plan every creative decision. Every photo we create is an element of us; a small part, an instance. Maybe a disposable moment. Maybe a decisive moment. But each is a moment that reflects our conscious and sub conscious thoughts.

Sometimes we set out with an intention. We chose a location, time, place, a circumstance, to tell a story. How we tell that story reflects part of who we are. No two photographers at the same place and time will take exactly the same photographs. There will always elements of our experience, our self in the photo.

Sometimes we set out with an intention to create one type of photo, but because of our inner world experiences another type of photo emerges. When this happens we may be disappointed by our deflected intention. Later we may recognise that what we created was a contemplation of our experience in the moment. A personal story of how the world was for us in that moment.

Practice

Yesterday, I walked back along Swansea Bay promenade from Mumbles, with my hound Monty. It is a flat 3 mile walk along a bike path and beach and I decided to practice Mindful Photography. I didn’t have any clear intention, but I imagined that I would just be present with the visual stimulation and create photographs of what caught my eye.

I had my compact camera with me that also has full manual features. I mention this because the photos I created made full use of the manual settings. I found that nothing caught my eye. I was immersed in my thoughts. What emerged was a response to those thoughts, a desire to create something that reflected how I felt.

Of course what I was experiencing emotionally may not be what you experience when you look at these photos. That is both the beauty and challenge of photography. But I offer them anyway, without title or explanation. Simply a reflection of my inner world at a particular moment.

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I lived in Paignton between the ages 11 and 16. It was the early 70s. In fact I have just created a 70s playlist to accompany me as I write this piece. I am currently with The Eagles ‘Take it easy’; Neil Young, The Steve Miller Band, Bob Dylan, Supertramp, Thin Lizzy and the Vapours are all on their way!

So when I visited earlier this week there was a nostalgic video of teenage high (and low) lights playing in my head. In fact, many of the memories of actual events were also jumbled up with memories of more recent dreams of the streets, parks and areas of Paignton I frequented. This fragmented video track was stimulated by my route through the town and down to the seafront. Of course it all appeared a lot smaller than it used to be and a lot less busy.

I parked at the back of the town centre park, close to where I recall the library used to be. As a kid I visited this many times and still check out books in my dreams. But the library was long gone, in place was a new development of retirement flats. I wandered on through the park, remembering the shortcut to the seafront I used to whizz through on my bike. This was all much as it used to be, but with an absence of ducks.

My summer memories of Paignton seafront are of a beach and lawned area rammed with grockles (tourists). Often there was hardly a patch of grass or sand to be had by lunch time. This time I wandered through and found it busy, but with plenty of space. Once down on the front I found the photography flowed. I felt comfortable, at home amongst familiar scenes, and I believe that the photos below carry some of that warmth, as well as a curiosity to capture the British tourist at play.

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It is easy when beset by difficulty to loose sight of the positive aspects of our lives. A darker mindset may squeeze out the light from these often simple but uplifting corners of our day. I have for several months been reflecting on my day and identifying the things that I am grateful for. In past times our forebears called this counting your blessings, the phraseology may differ, but the intention remains.

At the end of each day, before you drift off into your night time routine spend a few moments reflecting on those aspects of your day that you are grateful for. These may be of any size, from a special event to a smile from a stranger. They might be quite simple, such as the way light fell upon a stream, or quite momentous, as one of your children exceeds their own expectations. Each night, reflect upon your day noting those moments that your are grateful for.

Lately, I have been following this practice in a more structured and sharing manner. Every night I reflect and identify 5 things from the day that I am grateful for. I then email those things to my sister in Canada. Kim, then at the end of her day (breakfast time for me!) sends me her 5 gratitudes. Not only are we getting positive vibes from our days but we are maintaining contact and involvment in each other’s lives, something that neither of us usually score top marks for!

Those of you who are interested in neuroplasticity, the science that investigates how our activities and behaviours can shape the formation and development of our mind, might be interested in this practice from its potential to change a negative perspective to a more positive one, in a gentle and progressive manner. I can’t speak for the certainty of this, but on a personal level, I do find it a supportive and affirmative way to end each day. Why not give it a go with someone who you love, but perhaps don’t see as much as you would like?

The Science

Here’s an interesting link to the science of gratitude from the University of Claifornia, Berkeley

I first thought of this idea as a literal photography activity, actually choosing to create photographs from a different perspective. In the example above, as if I was Monty, a chunky Bijon Frise viewing the world about 12-18″ from the floor. In itself I could see the potential for photographs that felt different. I later realised that the activity and photos themselves could also work as a metaphor; that they could represent an intention to see the world in a new way.

A photo activity

This is the photography activity you can try. Your mission is to create photographs from the perspective of your pet – a cat or dog would be ideal. I imagined that in order to create a Monty like view I would need to take photographs from his height and in the places he frequented.

I also considered what camera lens combination I was going to use. Dogs have a wider peripheral vision than us and although I have no idea what kind of focal length their eyesight is (ours is around 50mm) I decided to settle on a wide angle view.

I chose to use my Canon G7X on its widest view (equivalent to about 24mm) so that I could make use of the hinged screen. This enabled me to hold the camera low, pointing in a ‘Monty manner’, and angle the view screen so I could see what I was potentially receiving.

You could chose to use any camera/lens combination, but I feel that it is wise to then stick to that combination to create a series of photos from the same perspective. This will create a ‘feel’ or ‘style’ which you could identify as the ‘pet perspective’! As in the photo above, you can imagine how it must be to be confronted by a much larger dog. That the giant hound actually ran away from Monty is also hinted at in the lack of eye contact.

I invite you to try out this activity. Be lighthearted. Create a ‘pet perspective’ and play with it. Imagine you are the pet. Create lots of photos. Share your favourites with me (return of email) and I will share mine.

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Changing your perspective – photographically

Viewing the world from a different perspective enables us to see our ‘normal’ world differently. In photography we often call this ‘point of view’ (POV). It is one of the guidelines for effective composition. By changing our POV we change the shapes, colours, patterns and perspective that our camera sees.

I was reminded of this a couple of nights ago when watching the excellent documentary ‘Finding Vivian Maier‘. Vivian Maier was an eccentric American with some compulsive habits. One of these was taking photos and when she died, at a fortunate auction, an enormous quantity of developed and undeveloped photographs was discovered amongst her other large collections of boxes, newspaper cuttings, accessories and all sorts.

I am going to focus on the impression her photos make on me because of her POV, but I do recommend that you catch the movie or have a look at the website created by the man (John Maloof) who first discovered her photographs. The website is full of great photos and fascinating stories.

Vivian Maier was a prolific photographer. Much of her best work in the 50s and 60s was taken using a Rollieflex twin lens camera. She used this camera out and about on the street. The camera has a waist level finder which, as the name suggests, means that you look down into the camera held at your waist to compose the photograph.

Many of Vivian’s photographs provide the subject with a sense of power. She often was quite close to the subject and was shooting up into their face. This provides a towering perspective, something that then creates a style that is noticeable in her work.

Changing your perspective – in life

We are the product of our experiences. Those experiences have shaped who we are. They also determine how we experience the world moment to moment. Habit and familiarity guide us to a certain view of the world and each moment in it.

I know that the world is how it is. Until some fundamental change alters my world seeing events, moments and experiences from a different perspective is challenging. Why might we want to see a different perspective? Maybe because we want change, in ourselves, in our circumstances. Maybe we want to shed a little light on a darker corner of our world.

I have found this difficult. It is challenging enough to see a new perspective when a key aspect of your life changes, never mind choosing to see an experience, before it changes, in a new light. The cultivation of certain attitudes can help. There are 7 attitudes that underpin mindfulness that support our ability to be totally in the moment and to experience the reality of a situation or experience. This reality is often a new perspective!

The 7 attitudes are non-judging, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance and letting go. That is some list. As part of my own mindfulness practice and life enquiry I have started to write about these attitudes, their relevance to my life and to photography. You can find them via the tag cloud ‘7 attitudes’ in the right hand column of this blog. I hope that you find them of interest and I would welcome your thoughts.

Eric Kim is a passionate street photographer and prolific blogger based in Berkeley, California. I found his blog when looking for photographers who combined photography with a philosophic approach to life. It was probably through some random google search combining photography and zen, and Eric tumbled out.

Eric’s blog is a well of wisdom for the street photographer and is underpinned by his belief in open source photography, which basically means that he believes in sharing, for free, all of his knowledge and resources. His mission is ‘to spread and promote the love of street photography’. And boy does he do that!

In addition to his regular posts he offers a number of free e books, covering topics including: an introduction to street photography, street portraits, overcoming fear of street photography, a social media overview and my particular favourite, Zen in the Art of Street Photography. Eric describes this as “a compilation of all of my favorite articles on Zen, Taoism, Buddhism, gratitude, and other random philosophical musings.” It is an intriguing and thought provoking read.

However, the best starting point is this page which shares: the e book links, a free online introductory course, videos, popular and must read articles, posts on master street photographers, composition, philosophy, equipment, marketing, business, travelling, recommended books, other blogs, collectives, movies, laws, Flickr groups and the Streettogs Academy. That is some list huh?

The last item, Streettogs, is a Facebook group for doing, sharing and commenting on street photography assignments. It also has separate pages for discussion, critique and equipment.

I have always been drawn to the challenges and life of street photography. It is not something I have done enough of and would certainly be something I could develop as a mindful project. Thanks to Eric and his marvelous blog, I will have any question that I might have answered.

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The Activity

This photography activity is inspired by my friend Mel’s ‘Walk/Listen/Respond Project’. I have taken Mel’s base rules and adapted then for my needs!

My rules are: [1] Plan an album length walk. [2] Choose an album to match your mood/weather/walk/whatever. [3] Walk. [4] Respond to the music intuitively. Let it play through you. Create photos that reflect how the music makes you feel. [5] Edit photos whilst listening to same album. [6] Share your favourites.

The Album

I chose to listen to War, Peace and Diplomacy by Tom Hickox and you can listen here.  I love his soothing, deep voice and thought it would be uplifting. I was forgetting the title of the album! Whilst the songs are tales of war, peace and diplomacy and the overall tone is somewhat melancholic, there are also themes of love and hope. Phew.

I didn’t set out to create a photo for each song. More to allow the music to flow through me; the words seeping into my subconscious and the melodies into my bones. from there I simply responded to the visual stimulation.

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