a photo study: contemplative photography VII – visual engagement

There are no colors out there in the world, Galileo tells us. They only exist in our heads. In the first of our dialogues about the mind, Riccardo Manzotti and I established that by “consciousness” we mean the feeling that accompanies our being alive, the fact that we experience the world rather than simply interacting with it mechanically. We also touched on the problem that traditional science cannot explain this fact and does not include it in its account of reality. That said, there is a dominant understanding of where consciousness happens: in the brain. This “internalist,” or inside-the-head, approach shares Galileo’s view that color, smell, and sound do not exist in the outside world but only in the brain. “If you could perceive reality as it really is,” says leading neuroscientist David Eagleman, “you would be shocked by its colorless, odorless, tasteless silence.”

…the subject/object divide, not to mention the addition of a feeling or “percept,” is particularly pertinent when we talk about color.

…when scientists look inside the brain to see what’s going on, they find only billions of neurons exchanging electrical impulses and releasing chemical substances. They find what they call correlates of consciousness, not consciousness itself; or in this case, they find correlates of color, but not color itself. There is no yellow banana in the head, just the grey stuff

..the other traditional claim, still widely taught in school, that colors exist in light, or that different colors are different wavelengths of light. And of course the colors of the rainbow immediately come to mind. But that explanation doesn’t work 100 percent either. The same wavelength, for example, will give rise to different colors if the surrounding environment is different.

…Three hundred years on, what and where colors actually are remains a mystery.

~cited:  NYR Daily, The Color of Consciousness by Riccardo Monzotti & Tom Parks

We often take something that is clear to us initially, and we begin to embellish, over-think and romanticize it, and then translate it into the photographic medium all the way through Photoshop and filters and everything. We begin with our original experience, and, when it is done, there is little or no relationship between the original perception and the final result.  This the Miksang version of “lost in translation.”

~M Wood, (Opening the Good Eye)

Contemplative practices cultivate a critical, first-person focus, sometimes with direct experience as the object, while at other times concentrating on complex ideas or situations. The practical, radical, and transformative aspects of this practice is noted to increase a deepening concentration and quieting of the mind.

Mindfulness is:

  • Spacious presence
  • Focused attention
  • Wakefulness
  • Recollecting recognition of experience
  • A presence of being that is:
    • Relaxed
    • Aware
    • Receptive
    • Inclusive

To experience photography as a way of seeing and as a contemplative practice, an attitude of genuine receptivity is required. The absence of expectations and preconceptions opens us to the beauty within the ordinary. We are more able to become engaged with the variables within colors, lines, light, forms, textures, space so that within this silent stillness an intimacy inspires us to pick up our camera in order to see through the viewfinder and then…

…we begin to see the difference between a perception and a conception, and our allegiance begins to align with freshness.

~A Karr & M Wood (The Practice of Contemplative Photography)

Being present with a perception of an object that has visually awakened you allows for what is referred to by M Wood as visual discernment in which the photographer delays picking up her camera and allows a resting in a contemplative state of mind.  Within the stillness of this pausing, it is noted that the relationship between the brain, light, and visual form of the object will silently and visually begin an introduction.  To be relaxed, aware, receptive, and inclusive in these moments is to begin to become acquainted with…the photographer, the external form, eyes, eye consciousness, and the  brain’s processing of light, colors, shapes, lines, texture.

And yes, most likely during this process your discursive mind will interrupt the process, like a jealous child.  So, when you become aware of the dialogue, simply note and smile at the thoughts and return to the silent visual introduction…with a relaxed, letting go, and aware presence.  If, you find that you are unable to return…just let go of the experience…other objects of perception are waiting for a similar moment of connection and introduction.

In the fourth posting of contemplative photography, an exercise, Opening a Door to Sensory Seeing was offered as a way to experientially explore what A Karr and M Wood identify as  “flashes of perception.”   Within The Practice of Contemplative Photography, they offer us a process of discovery, Looking Deeply by which to experience “visual discernment.”

  1. Sit within a room that has at least one window.
  2. Gaze around the room in an relaxed and receptive manner with no intention to see anything in particular.
  3. Gaze at the wall in front of you and allow the qualities of the wall, it’s color, texture,  light, shadows, and changes associated with variations of light to introduce themselves to you.
  4. Gaze at the ceiling and notice the the various qualities of the ceiling and the seam where the wall meets the ceiling.
  5. Move your gaze to the floor open yourself to the qualities  of the floor and the elements within your perceptional field.
  6. Gaze at the furniture in the room and identify their unique qualities and differences; i.e., smooth vs rough, heaviness, reflections, colors.  Allow your gaze to shift between different objects within the room.
  7. Look at the window in a way that you  become acquainted with it’s design, sense of feel, texture.  Extend your gaze beyond the window in a similar manner as you have the room…introduce yourself to the sky, clouds, trees, buildings, quality of light.

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This is the type of extensive engagement with the world that opens us to the subtleties of perception, of becoming aware of  the meeting of our eyes and eye consciousness as we  silently open ourselves to this amazing world.

I would love to hear about your thoughts about visual discernment and the Looking Deeply exercise.

5 thoughts on “a photo study: contemplative photography VII – visual engagement

  1. Well, fascinating, but I lost the plot a bit with the ‘no colours in the world’ …. Our eyes have different receptors to pick out different colours…or don’t they?

    1. This perspective is, in my book, a mind bender. My primary exploration into light tells me that the colors my eye receptors ‘see’ are the light waves not absorbed by an external object. So…what color, in reality, is the color of object? The colors absorbed? So if there were no light waves, then…? Are we having fun? Does this fall into stoner talk? 🧐🙃🤓

  2. The part about colors reminds me of something I read once about blind people “feeling” colors. Maybe it was Helen Keller who wrote about it? It’s certainly intriguing that there’s no absolute explanation of color. No doubt there is some subjectivity to our perceptions of color. I am keenly aware of color, but my husband, who is color-blind, has a more limited “spectrum” of color. I also like the description of the meditative process of taking a photo. I think some of my best photos are when I stop first to take in the scene and then pick up the camera in a relaxed state. Fascinating!

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