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Contemplating Contemplative Photography

April 25, 2011

Chögyam Trungpa took his first photograph as a teenager in Tibet. He photographed his root teacher, Jamgon Kongtrul, on the roof of a monastery. It is a wonderful black-and-white portrait of this mountain of a man who was so formative in Trungpa Rinpoche’s own development.

After walking ten months to get out of Tibet (unfortunately with no camera to capture the escape), Rinpoche took a number of photos in India. Those that are preserved in the Shambhala Archives, where much of his photographic work is kept, are mostly snapshots from pilgrimage spots in India. In England, where Rinpoche was a student at Oxford University, he began to do photographic “studies” of sky, clouds, buildings, flowers, water, rocks.

Much later, in 1979, I traveled to Mexico with Trungpa Rinpoche. About ten of us accompanied Rinpoche to Guadalajara, Lake Chapala, and Patzcuaro. My husband, Jim, had a new 35 mm single lens reflex Om One Olympus camera, the same make and model that Trungpa Rinpoche often used. Trungpa Rinpoche was giving Jim some lessons in how to use the camera, and he also was taking a lot of pictures on this trip, as was his Vajra Regent Ösel Tendzin. Someone seemed to be snapping pictures wherever we went.

I’ve included two of my favorites here. They show a visual joke and the joke trumped, so to speak: my husband and Ösel Tendzin making the first joke with a giant golfball at our resort in Guadalajara. Rinpoche making a much better joke with the same golfball. So let’s begin by saying that these are not examples of contemplative photography. Rather, these are examples of whimsical events captured with a camera.

My first clue about what contemplative photography might be came from seeing Trungpa Rinpoche’s photos from another trip. In 1978 I also traveled with him and a group to Nova Scotia, Canada. Again, he had his camera along, and I watched him snapping shots of water on a cold bleak day at a lobster pier on the north shore of the province. A few weeks later, when I saw what he had seen and captured on film, it literally stopped my mind. The images I saw projected during a slide show about the trip were of water that was at times shimmering, alive with pattern and a sense of rhythm, all of which I had totally missed.

Michael Woods, one of the authors of the newly published Practice of Contemplative Photography had a similar experience. He was an experienced photographer, but he too was shocked by what he saw or felt in Chögyam Trungpa's photos. That little spark of non-thought eventually led him to contemplate contemplative photography, so to speak, and to work on his own relationship to mind, perception, and photograph. Michael developed an approach to photography that he has shared with many hundreds of students. In the new book, he and his coauthor, Andy Karr, document that approach, and they share beautiful images from their own work and that of other contemplative photographers.

As part of the research for the book, Andy Karr and his wife, Wendy, scanned and catalogued more than 1,500 of Chögyam Trungpa’s slides in the Shambhala Archives. This was a much needed and appreciated project that ensures both preservation and access to this important body of work.

Andy and Wendy are going on the road in late April, presenting contemplative photography and other aspects of dharma art, the whole approach to artistic process that Chögyam Trungpa developed. Wendy is a senior teacher of the Japanese art of flower-arranging—another discipline that Trungpa Rinpoche practiced for decades.

Here is a partial schedule of the Contemplative Photography Tour and related events. You can also get a sneak peak of the book or purchase it here.

4/15-4/27
24 Prints from The Practice of Contemplative Photography, Print Show and Book Launch
Secord Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia

5/7
Contemplative Photography: Talk/Slideshow/Book Signing
Westminster Books, Fredericton, New Brunswick

5/7-5/8
Introduction to Contemplative Photography
Fredericton Shambhala Centre, New Brunswick

5/9
Contemplative Photography: Talk/Slideshow/Book Signing
Portland Shambhala Meditation Center, Portland, ME

5/11
Contemplative Photography: Talk/Slideshow/Book Signing
Boston Shambhala Center, Brookline, MA

5/12
Contemplative Photography: Talk/Slideshow/Book Signing
Trident Booksellers & Cafe, Boston, MA

5/15
Contemplating Reality: Afternoon Workshop
Nalandabodhi, Bloomfield, CT

5/16
Contemplative Photography: Talk/Slideshow/Book Signing
Hartford KTC, Hartford, CT

5/17
Contemplative Photography: Talk/Slideshow/Book Signing
Albany Shambhala Center, NY

5/18
Contemplative Photography: Talk/Slideshow/Book Signing
Manchester Shambhala Meditation Group, VT

5/19
Contemplative Photography: Talk/Slideshow/Book Signing
Sky Lake Lodge, Rosendale, NY

5/20-5/22
Introduction to Contemplative Photography or Dharma Art
Nalandabodhi, New York City

5/25
Contemplative Photography: Talk/Slideshow/Book Signing
Rubin Museum of Art, New York City

5/26
Contemplative Photography: Talk/Slideshow/Book Signing
Moonstone Arts Center/Robin's Books, Philadelphia, PA

5/27-5/28
Introduction to Contemplative Photography
Philadelphia Shambhala Center, PA

6/5
Contemplative Photography: Talk/Slideshow/Book Signing
Boulder Bookstore, CO

6/6
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche Photo Slideshow
Boulder Shambhala Center, CO

6/22, 6/24-6/25
Introduction to Contemplative Photography
Vancouver Shambhala Centre, British Columbia

6/27
Contemplative Photography: Talk/Slideshow/Book Signing
Steamboat Springs Dharma Center, CO


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2 Responses to Contemplating Contemplative Photography

  • John Eberly says:

    Very cool, Carolyn. I love the water photo,its so ALIVE. And thanks for the "sneak peeks" of the book, the snowy shoes were my favorite. Beautiful!

    Posted on April 29, 2011 at 12:26 pm

  • Judith Broadus says:

    How many times has my mind stopped simply seeing what is?!
    One indelible image is driving out of a mile-long gravel driveway over green hills about 10:30 am on a stormy Kentucky Spring morning, after a recent rainfall, and coming around a bend in the road to see the sunshine break through clouds backlighting about 30-40 black turkey vultures, all facing east towards the sun, sitting on fence posts every 8 - 10 ft. "drying"? their wet wings outstretched from their sides while the raindrops sparkled like jewels in the sunlight. I stopped the car to avoid causing them to fly away and to completely bask in the sight. The row of vultures covered a space almost a mile long, down the road to the barn, where one lone vulture perched atop the peak of the barn roof with outstretched wings but facing west toward the troops of birds. It was spectacular and I wanted to keep looking to be certain that I was really seeing what I seemed to be seeing. The air was clean and clear, and so was my sight. Thank you for sharing this with me.

    Posted on May 24, 2011 at 8:19 pm

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