Photography and Mindfulness

Gerry Kopelow

A talk given by Gerry Kopelow to the Faculty of Architecture, University of Manitoba.

When I say photography has been good to me, you might automatically assume that I am talking about money. Of course, as a professional photographer, I have made some money doing photography. Of far greater benefit, however, is that it has moved me towards a more wholesome state of mind. I was introduced to photography through the compassionate impulse of my grade eight teacher. Seeing a very unhappy little boy in front of her she shoved her camera at me and said, “Here, try this, you might like it.”

I took it rather reluctantly and shot off some photographs, and to my great surprise, they worked out. I exposed a roll of black and white film and had it processed at the drugstore. When the pictures came back I laid them out and I had a really strong reaction to the images, even though I had made them in kind of a fog. Something about those images caught my attention and evoked a strong reaction, an emotional response. I could see there was something going on. There was an element of design; there was an element of harmony. They seemed a strangely compelling record of things and events and somehow they hinted that there might be an antidote to my childhood angst. Just looking at the images I experienced joy and a lessening of suffering.

I examined those first images with great curiosity and came to some conclusions as to what the photographic process was about and why it was so appealing to me. And then I experimented some more, and my work improved. Driven by that embryonic joy and the interest in the world that these photographs inspired in me, I started to make art… and other people called it art, too.

I was doing street photography, as it used to be called. I carried my camera everywhere and I photographed people. I started selling a few images and I had a few shows. When I was eighteen years old I received Canada Council grant which helped me hitchhike around the country and photograph folk and rock music festivals.

My photography involved collecting evidence of fleeting moments, intensely aesthetic fleeting moments: Think of time as an infinite continuum during which things arise, manifest briefly, and dissolve. I was concerned with creating art through photography, so I watched this flow of creation, manifestation and dissolution as carefully as I could in order to identify and extract individual scenes of aesthetic power. I responded to what my senses revealed to me and to what my limited worldly experience could illuminate for me.

I asked myself, over and over, “What is required to do this well?” Over time I was able to answer that question empirically. To begin with, one needs to understand a particular technological process, and I began to love the technological aspects of photography almost immediately. Even today, years on, I love the tools and the processes of the trade. Cameras and lenses are beautiful to look at, they are beautiful to hold, and they are beautiful to use. For a long time, long before digital electronic devices were widely available, cameras and photographic lenses were the most carefully designed andprecisely crafted technological instruments that ordinary people could possess.

The manufacture and processing of photographic film is an extraordinarily sophisticated technology. I love the fact that film records imagery on an atomic level. Lenses are used to organize photons of light so that they provide a little quantum shove to slightly unstable silver-bromide molecules. These molecules are organized into little crystal fragments, which are spread evenly over the surface of the film. You stimulate the crystals by your particular view of the world as it is projected through the lens, and when the crystals are excited enough a latent image comes into being. A latent image is a temporary electronic state that renders the affected silver-bromide molecules susceptible to chemical development and the subsequent creation of a permanent image. Images recorded on archivally processed black-and-white film are, for all practical terms, permanent: Composed of pure metallic silver, these images can last thousands of years. Just a short time ago films were crude compared to what they are now, and this amazing technology continues to progress quickly. There are a lot of sales-oriented people flogging digital imaging but digital imaging is only recently approaching the quality of what film can do on a molecular level.

So to make good photographs I needed to learn how to manipulate cameras and lenses and to expose and process film and prints. This I did enthusiastically, though the realization quickly dawned that acquiring technical skill was just the beginning. The rest of it can be described quite simply: one needs to be steady and one needs to be ready. By this I mean both physically steady and ready, and emotionally steady and ready.

To begin with, I felt the need to get into good physical shape. Photography is a very physical activity and I really wanted to be there for the moment as it unfolded. So I made myself stronger and more physically comfortable, and I worked on developing the ability to remain extremely still. Being still and being quiet are important because to be ready you have to be very attentive and supple in your awareness. The unfolding ofevents, even the most mundane events, initiates a marvelously complex flood of information. One needs to be poised, calm and still, yet ready to respond instantly.

I became so attentive that I began to covet each moment of awareness, and particularly those precise slivers of time during which a photograph was to be made. I actually changed cameras on account of this increasing obsession with precision. The typical single-lens-reflex camera is a wonderfully flexible tool. It permits easy lens interchangability by way of an internal mirror that reflects the image from the taking lens up into a pentaprism, which in turn projects the image into the eye. When one changes lenses the viewfinder image also changes: you always see exactly what the camera sees. But there is a big cheat that goes on inside these cameras. Because the light has to come through the shutter and hit the film to make an image, that little mirror must flip up out of the way at the instant of exposure. So at the critical moment during which a photo is actually being made, the viewfinder is blanked out. This is photographic coitus interruptus and it is painful to those who care deeply about that specific, decisive moment. I started to experience this interruption as an unbearable obstruction. To avoid it I changed over to cameras that used optical viewfinders. An optical finder is displaced slightly from the taking lens, so the image is only approximate with respect to perspective, but absolutely direct in relation to time.

I was getting closer to the perfect state of readiness. Then I rigorously applied myself to the business of getting really steady. I developed such a fine state of stillness that I resented every distraction. Even the simple physical act of breathing became a big annoyance. I learned how to control the breath so as to make it very subtle and smooth and nearly undetectable.

As the calm deepened I began experiencing each heartbeat as a disruptive physical event which compromised my ability to hold still. With a little experimentation I discovered that certain very quiet patterns of breathing make the heartbeat slowly and smoothly, and I added these to my repertoire of photographic techniques. As I did all this the making of photographs became more and more joyful.

And then something happened, something that radically changed my understanding of what I was doing, what I had accomplished.

I have called this talk Photography and Mindfulness because at the exact peak of my abilities as a photographer I came to the realization that you don’t need to be a photographer to experience reality clearly. I can remember the precise moment that this realization occurred: I was living at that time in a typically nineteen-sixties communal household. The building has been torn down now, but my flash of realization came just at the moment I was making a portrait of two friends who were sitting on the steps of that house. I was concentrating deeply on what I was doing, concentrating deeply on them and experiencing what sort of people they were, their emotional state, the subtle interactions between them and between them and me. I realized right then that I had a very full appreciation of that moment and, curiously, that the camera itself was a mechanical separation that was preventing an even more complete understanding.

For me this experience was in some sense the end of art. From then on I cared only about two things: mindfulness – the ardent application of disciplined awareness – and compassion. It may not be immediately obvious, but compassion is a corollary, or a consequence of mindfulness. Cultivating mindfulness can be seen as a valueless act, a technical act. But when mindfulness is applied to the human condition, to our own lives and the lives of others, we come to a deeper understanding of the nature of human life, of joy and suffering. Photography took me exactly to that point.