Mindfulness and Artistic Photography

“We look at the world and see what we have learned to believe is there. We have been conditioned to expect… but, as photographers, we must learn to relax our beliefs.”
— Aaron Siskind

Over the past few years, I’ve heard quite a bit about “mindfulness” from many different sources1. It’s become a bit of a catch phrase in a culture that offers so much in the way of material things, but scant nourishment for the spirit. Mindfulness consists of actively focusing one’s awareness on the present moment. The pursuit of mindfulness in one’s everyday life is ultimately an attempt to find contentment and meaning by living in the moment, in one’s current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future.

From my experience I’ve found that photography offers a way of connecting with the world, a way of making sense and finding beauty and grace in every situation, at every moment. It has the effect of focusing my attention on the here and now, on the environment around me, and pulling me out of my head. In this way, it is a very mindful experience.

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
– Elliott Erwitt

Seeing, Not Looking

Like Clockwork (black and white street photography) by Paul Politis

“Above all, look at the things around you, the immediate world around you. If you are alive, it will mean something to you, and if you care enough about photography, and if you know how to use it, you will want to photograph that meaningfulness. If you let other people’s vision get between the world and your own, you will achieve that extremely common and worthless thing, a pictorial photograph. But if you keep your vision clear, you may make something which is at least a photograph, which has a life of its own, as a tree or a matchbox has a life of its own.”
– Paul Strand

I’ve learned again and again during my wanderings with my camera that there is beauty everywhere, but the mind is most often unperceptive to it by default. It is, of course, for practical reasons — our minds need to help us navigate safely and successfully through the world, to filter out distractions that are unnecessary to fulfilling the immediate task at hand, whatever that may be, and keeping us out of danger. But when the task at hand is to be open to the beauty of the world, to explore it with wonder and without preconceived ideas, it can be very difficult to get ourselves into a state of mind that allows that to happen, where we can see things as they are rather than our preconceived notions of them.

An Approach to Mindfulness in Photography

Courtyard Abstract - black and white photograph

The joy of photography, for me, is in the creative journey; in authentically discovering what truly attracts and fascinates me, not in trying to replicate what others have done. From experience I’ve found that by my nature, I prefer to discover photographs in the environment (or, rather, be open and allow them to find me) rather than to seek out specific situations. I’ve found that this is the key, to not have preconceived notions, and to empty the mind of learned ideas about what is photogenic and other people’s ideas of what a “good” photograph is. Practically speaking, I simply wander around, trying to empty my mind of self-centric thoughts and feelings and connect with the physical world that surrounds me. At some point, I’ll invariably have achieved a state of mind where I’m no longer aware of myself, my mind is clear, and I’m open to a deeper connection with the present moment. Inevitably, something will attract my attention, I’ll have an emotional reaction to something I see. I’ll take a photo, intuitively, and often very quickly without any conscious thought, and I’ll move on. Sometimes I’ll explore the subject for a while, strongly connected to this object or scene in front of me, unaware of my self.

To many who haven’t experienced this it may sound like some kind of mystical thinking, but there is absolutely no magic, and what I’m describing has been written about by many before me. What I’m effectively describing is simply the Zen idea of mindfulness, and achieving what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has named as a state of “flow”2: a state of concentration where the active mind becomes calm and there is complete absorption with the activity at hand. There is pure, focused, connection with the present moment. Another way of thinking about it is as being “in the zone”, which is how I thought of it to myself when I first discovered it while out photographing. At that point, I started to try to figure out ways to get myself in this state of mind more often, and this is when through online research I discovered ideas like mindfulness and flow.

“… It’s thrilling when your eyes get ahead of your brain”

“To see we must forget the name of the thing we are looking at.”
— Claude Monet

More recently, I began to realize that many master photographers who I have long admired had been telling me about this all along, I just didn’t have the experiential knowledge to really understand what they were saying when they were referring to it. See, for example, my previous short articles about Henri Cartier-Bresson and Henry Wessell. Both of these artists have spoken, in their own ways, of achieving this communion with the physical world. Wessel, for example, has in the past referred to the process as ‘soft eyes’. “It has to do with the discipline of being actively receptive.” he says. “At the core of this receptivity is a process that might be called soft eyes. It is a physical sensation. You are not looking for something. You are open, receptive. At some point you are in front of something that you cannot ignore.”

For myself, I still struggle to truly see, sometimes finding myself repeating cliches or templates (my own or others). My attitude to this is that this can’t always be helped and that there’s value in this as well. The discoveries I make along the way during my more intuitive and mindful experiences with a camera become a part of me, a part of my knowledge and learning, and it’s natural and even important that I explore these things again and again, more deliberately and in different situations. It’s all a necessary part of the creative process, the ongoing conversation with myself, my art, and the external world.

“It’s a pleasure for me. The process of photographing. Being physically in the world, eyes open, attentive, sensing, and at some point, connecting. To be in the world and of the world. To be, at the same time, out of your head, yet absolutely, exactly, there. It’s thrilling when your eyes get ahead of your brain.”
— Henry Wessel

– Paul Politis, January 2018

Learn more

1 Mindfulness (wikipedia.org)
2 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Flow, The Secret to Happiness (ted.com)