BRINGING ATTENTION TO SPACIOUSNESS
DISTANT HILLS Mt. Koya, Japan
If you close your eyes and visualize your living room and the various elements within the room, what do you see? A sofa, a coffee table, an entertainment center, a TV, artwork on the wall, and probably quite a number of other elements. Now, let me ask you - which element is the largest in the room?
If you are like most people, your response might be - the sofa, the TV, or the entertainment center. If you think a bit more cleverly, you might say - the walls. What most people don't recognize is, there is much more "space" than anything else. By far. Physicists tell us that 99.999% of the universe is space. If you removed all the empty space from the entire human race, leaving only electrons and the other subatomic particles, all seven billion human bodies would fit in the space of a sugar cube. That's just mind boggling stuff, right!? But that gives you a sense of how much space there is in relation to form. Yet, as humans, we rarely bring our attention to the space, or spaciousness that is all around.
With the living room exercise, it clearly points to how our attention is primarily form-based. Both externally and internally. Externally, our attention flows from one form-object to the next to the next, continuously through the day. Internally, our attention flows from one thought-form to the next to the next, continuously through the day. We are form-conscious beings. But, is this our natural state? Isn't it odd that 99.999% of everything is space yet we hardly bring our attention to it? What would our life and this world look like if we had balance in this area with our attention?
LONE KIAWE Maui, Hawaii
During photography workshops, I inevitably work this into the discussion. Admittedly, I find it extremely fascinating. But I also think it’s relevant to photography. Photography is part science, part art; part technical, part creative; part thinking, part feeling; part form, part space. If you only develop one side of this, then your work will never fully develop, never sing and resonate with a viewer the way you may like. You can see how the typical form-based mindset will focus on technique rather than creative perspective, on thinking rather than feeling. But when someone resonates with a piece of art and is truly moved by it, is it something that the thinking-mind is responding to, or something else? I believe it's not the mind at all. At this moment when the viewer is moved by a piece of art, the mind quiets and something else is awakened. I call this the "feeling body". We all have one - it's that part of us moved by something beautiful or inspiring. A magical sunrise, an epic movie, a fabulous musical piece. It renders us still and quiet-minded. It is within this state that we appreciate artwork, and it is within this state that we must learn to make artwork! This is something that is not widely recognized, which is exactly why there is so much photography in the world right now that may be technically sound, but does little to move the viewer to emotion. This becomes one of the primary most important things to recognize in creating evermore dynamic and expressive work - that you have to delve deeper than the technical, thinking, scientific, form-based nature of things and activate your inner creative, feeling, artistic nature.
I often quote Elliott Porter saying, "The essential quality of a photograph is the emotional impact that it carries, which is a measure of the author's success in translating into photographic terms his or her own emotional response to the subject." This sums up much of what I'm pointing to. You can not expect to evoke an emotional response in a viewer when you are not connecting emotionally to your subject, or to the process of making the photograph. Once this is recognized, then the obvious question to explore deeper becomes - how do I connect more emotionally with my subject? How do I quiet my mind and activate my feeling-body?
Compositionally, the technical-seeking form-based mind would love to sit down with a 473 page book discussing every possible rule and theory regarding photographic composition throughout its sixty-something chapters. I am sure there are many books like this that you can read and feed your mind with more more more. The mind loves it. Form devouring form. It's important to recognize that this aspect of ourselves - the form-based thinking-mind - is never satisfied. It will never get to a point of having enough information and being satisfied with what it has consumed. By it's very nature, it wants more food for thought. More to chew on. More to take in. More more more.
STRATA Morro Bay, California
Edward Weston said, "To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the laws of gravitation before going for a walk." He's poking fun at the analytical mind that wants to theorize every little minute aspect to composition. Composition isn't technical - it's creative. It is not form - it's space. I definitely come from the same camp as Weston here, and therefore minimize my discussion points on composition to a handful of important guiding principles to be mindful of, and to bring greater attention to. Not necessarily more things to think about. One of these primary points is - give equal attention to the 'space' and the 'form', within a composition. You can see how our tendency is to look at the sofa, entertainment center, TV and other physical elements of our living room; or to look at the palm trees, beach, rocks, and other physical elements to the scene which we are interested in photographing, and to never pay any attention to the space surrounding it all. But, what happens when you give equal attention to the space and the form?
To recognize the space between the hanging branch of a tree and the horizon. Or, between the line of this rock and a distant mountain. Adjusting your camera position subtly up-down, side-to-side, mindfully making the space around the forms balanced and optimal, clear and concise, is very powerful. The space within our compositions are of equal importance to the forms, and when our attention is equally with both, compositions naturally become more dynamic and successful.
BRIDGING SPACE San Francisco, California
In many ways, it started as space-awareness in my photographic compositions, but it soon spilled over into the rest of my life and became transformative on a larger life level. For an example, imagine that you have a negative emotion building within. For an example, lets say a frustration that arises from being behind a slow vehicle that you are unable to pass. Without awareness, the frustration builds and builds and before long, takes over your emotional state. You are now overcome with frustration. At this point you may be murmuring aloud, or even cursing the other driver. This is having the form of an emotion take you over. It’s too much attention to the form, and there is no attention at all to the spaciousness. You are overcome by frustration.
Now, visualize in your mind that frustration as a tiny grain of sand. The grain of sand is so close to the forefront of your attention that nothing else is visible. There is only the form of the sand. Now, visualize pulling that grain of sand away and picture holding it out in front of you. Notice the spaciousness around the grain of sand, and your hand that is holding it. Bring awareness to the space around the form. You will begin to notice the form of frustration already begins to dissipate.
To continue, visualize pulling the sand away further, and now set it down on a big, long beautiful beach. Now, see that sand grain as one of millions or billions of sand grains. Now, draw up and away and visualize looking down at that beach from 1,000 feet up, and notice all the spaciousness around the beach. Draw back miles and miles up into the atmosphere and now visualize the planet, floating in space. Now draw back light years and see the planet as a distant speck of light, one of many faint stars in the distance. All you see at this point is 99.999% spaciousness with little specks of form. This visual exercise takes as little as one minute, yet is so powerful. The frustration that just had you cursing aloud, now has you focused on spaciousness and the frustration has completely dissipated away. Paying closer attention to the space within a photographic composition, or to the space around a thought-form, or to the space around the form of an emotion - there is no difference. A deepening of attention to space in one stream is a deepening of attention to space in all streams. Space is space.
While technique, camera gear, scientific equations, and 473 page books on compositional arrangements may have their place on the photographic path, it makes up only half the equation. Delve deeper into both sides of making images - the science and the art, the technical and the creative, the form and the space. From here, you may just find that you begin to make images that truly sing. You may just find that the lessons learned in making more expressive, more compelling photographs, are also lessons toward living a more fulfilling and joyful life. Could it be that the no-thingness of empty space holds the most powerful truths for us to learn? Is joy, happiness, and peacefulness found in the forms of the world, or in the spaciousness? What happens when we bring equal attention to the space and the forms of life?
Exercises to Try:
Space & Form: Try the visual exercise mentioned above and begin to look at thoughts and emotions as forms. This alone can be transformative. Because we as photographers are visual people, be sure to visualize this in your mind’s eye. See it. Then, bring attention to the space around the form of the thought or emotion. Play with this and become more aware of this in your daily life and see what happens.
Soft-vision: Another exercise that can be fun to experiment with, one that I learned while training in Aikido many years ago, is to bring more attention to how our attention flows from one form to the next to the next. You can learn to look at things more in a soft-vision kind of way, where you’re really not focusing on any one thing, but instead looking at the entire scene at once. Try it. Look out to your space now and instead of allowing your focus to go to individual elements, take it all in without focusing on any point. Go soft with your vision. While you do this, also bring attention way out to your peripherals, to the far sides of your vision. This is a great way to play with perspective, begin to see the world more fully and in a more integrated way. You’ll find that you begin to feel more interconnected to the world and will be able to take in more. This is great for finding compositions!
Head-space: Finally, bringing attention to the spaciousness around the mind chatter is one of the most valuable and powerful things we can do. Meditation is such a powerful tool and one I believe we can all benefit greatly from. We need to be reminded of the fact that we are not our thoughts. Thoughts happen. And, they happen continuously, on autopilot, for most of us. To sit quietly and witness these thoughts pass through our mind - we are reminded that there is a witnessing presence behind the thoughts. The witness is our true self/nature. This is where our true power lies. This is life-changing stuff. Try it for 10 minutes a day for 2 weeks and I’m sure you’ll see for yourself. The app Headspace is perfect for beginners and makes it easy to begin.