Spirituality of Photography (part 1)

I have been giving much thought in recent weeks to the concept of spirituality and mindfulness as they relate to the process of photography. This is not a new subject for me, as I have been working through these concepts for several years now; my Tao Project and Wabi Sabi blog have been attempts to formalize a spiritual and meditative approach to daily photography. However, these projects are primarily literary and journalistic. The Tao Project involves matching existing photographs to relevant chapters of the Tao Te Ching. The primary work of the project is editing and curating, and does not involve what I am referring to as active photographic spirituality.

Harry Callahan said that he believed a picture was like a prayer. The photographer offers up a prayer to get something, and if that prayer is answered it is like a gift from God. Callahan felt he had little or no control over his images. Minor White often began his photographic wanderings with the question “What shall I be given today?”, and went far beyond Callahan in his belief that photography was an inspired and even mystical act.

This subject resurfaced for me during a recent weekend trip to Montana to celebrate the 50th birthday of a lifelong friend. Three photographers spent a Saturday driving 350 miles through the Big Hole Valley of southwestern Montana. We were on no specific photographic mission, and I personally had no pre-conceived ideas of what I wanted to shoot that day. I have driven thousands of miles along the scenic hiways of Montana, but the Big Hole Valley was brand new territory for me. I was experiencing the rush that comes with gorgeous new surroundings and I was open to whatever gift I would be presented with.

At several different stopping points that day the three of us experienced simultaneous mystical moments even as our cameras almost always pointed in three different directions. None of us were seeing the same things, and yet we were all in a state of ecstasy. What Minor White calls “moments of intensity or lucidity when one feels as if one is an instrument of transmission like a narrow channel between two oceans”. (We were between two mountains!) We all felt it. The giddiness. The rush. We were speaking in tongues. We were drunk on images.(Sontag)

An interesting sub plot to the Montana trip was a conversation I had with an eccentric gentleman during a bumpy flight from Denver to Missoula. The fellow was returning from a six week solo journey to Australia and New Zealand and that might explain his nonstop stream of conscious story telling throughout the flight. One story involved the car he had bought and sold in Australia, and centered around his belief that machines have “feelings” and if you treat them right, they will treat you right. I didn’t give this idea much thought until after returning home and reading a 1957 essay by Minor White in which he discusses the ideas of a German writer, Roman Frietag, who felt that each camera had a subconscious. White equates this concept, in typical eloquence, as the “still, small voice”. He places the act of photography at "the service of an outside power, so that when I photograph an outside (or inside) power may leave it’s thumbprint”.

My prayer is to remain ever mindful and ready to receive photographic gifts, and to always listen to the still, small voice within my camera...

When we look at things in the light of Tao,
Nothing is best, nothing is worst.
Each thing, seen in it's own light,
Stands out in it's own way.

-The Way of Chuang Tzu

Harry Callahan, from Inside the Photograph: Writings on Twentieth Century Photography. Peter C Bunnell, Aperture Foundation, 2006

The Camera Mind and Eye, Minor White. from The Education of a Photographer, edited by Charles Traub, etal. Allworth Press 2006

Found Photographs, Minor White. from Photography: Essays & Images, edited by Beaumont Newhall. Museum of Modern Art. 1980

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