Telling my story . . .

April 16, 2012

Last weekend I was co-leader of a workshop on “Photography as a Spiritual Practice”.  This is how Woolman Hill (a Quaker conference center in South Deerfield, Massachusetts) listed the workshop in their program:

Arthur Fink and Tony Stapleton are both Quaker photographers who carry their photographic work (or play) as a spiritual inquiry or expression.  They invite you to join in this weekend of photographing from within, which will include time for worshiping together, making pictures, sharing our work and process, and just enjoying Woolman Hill.  Our goal is to broaden our vision, open our spiritual awareness, and, in the process, learn how to take more expressive pictures.  This will not be about technical photography instruction, and all photographers are welcome regardless of technical knowledge or experience.

The most important news to report is that we had no trouble finding an energetic  group of participants who agreed with this theme — that photography is part of our spiritual lives.  It’s about discovery and expression, about worship and reverence, about self and other.  Images are metaphors for deeper understanding, even as they are clusters of silver particles or digital pixels that we labor with as we craft our art work.  But these are my words — not theirs.  What I’m reporting is not a manifesto from the group, but my own distillation of what I saw going on.

Sensing that this might workshop might not fill Woolman Hill, the director had scheduled another workshop to share the conference center with us.  We were paired with “The Wisdom to Know The Difference: A Weekend on Discernment”, led by Eileen Flanagan.  I’d strongly recommend her new book, “The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change and When to Let Go” — available at and at other bookstores.  It was wonderful to be constantly reminded that the process of photography is a kind of discernment, as we choose to put our frames around very select portions of the visual world that we experience.

I’m excited about running other similar workshops, as well as more programs on creativity and spirit in general (not tied to a particular artistic discipline, like photography or dance).  I’ve run these in the past, and was always touched by the gifts that each participant shared.

My main message to our  group this weekend — Look and see, before you photograph.  This may sound trivial, or obvious.  It’s not.  The process and technique of photography can easily absorb us, and distract us from sensing where we are, what we feel, and what we have to say and share.

Interested in this dialog?  Please respond here, or contact me.

I had just moved to Portland, Maine, intending to leave my consulting career and open a commercial photography studio.  In those days we didn’t have personal computers with desktop publishing software, and so I hired a designer to produce my business card, letterhead, etc.

Her suggestion: “Your work is so graphic, and so visually strong . . . take pictures of something like dancers, and use these on each printed piece”.  And so I did — set up my strobe lights and a nine foot wide roll of white background paper, invited dancers from a local modern company, and my own dance began!

Making good art can be painstakingly slow, but my first attempt at dance photography was easy, exhilarating, and spiritually fulfilling.  She struck a pose, and I snapped.  I moved a bit, adjusted, and clicked again.  She moved.  Click.  And on  we went.  I found myself drawn into a visual dialog.  Later I would discover that it was actually a dance — although I’ll hasten to say that I’m not in any way a dancer. Read the rest of this entry »

This is my 90 second photography lesson!  Look before you photograph.

In my dance photography class, I note that most people walk into the dance studio, or into the theatre for a rehearsal, pick up their camera, and start shooting right away.  I guess they are looking for the highest leap, or the kmost perfect arabeque, or some other triumph.  That doesn’t work.

Start by looking . . . carefully.  Find something visually exciting, something that tells your story, something that you want to share with us.  Find something too important to miss.

And remember . . . your job is not just to be in the presence of this wonderful dance, or this beautiful landscape, or whatever.  It’s to craft pictures that draw on your vision.  You are translating a three dimensional moving world into flat still images.  They will only be exciting if you are alive, creating passionately, seeing with all your strength.

If I were to ask you what you’re photographing, I hope you just say something like “that beautiful dancer”.  Let me know that you’re photographing a visual rhythm, or a magnificant sweep of energy, or something else very special that you just saw.

Remember . . . before you photograph, look!  Really look.

I wish I could copy the entire text here, but more properly I urge you to read the Adam Goipnik’s short “postscript”article about Penn at the New Yorker web site. Here’s the concluding paragraph:

photograph by Irving Penn

photograph by Irving Penn

Penn’s subject—as in “Woman with Long Black Neck” … —is not performance but inner poise, and the dignity of appearances became his central theme. His work is a memorial of a specially privileged era, where the duties of a fashion photographer and the ambitions of an artist could coexist in one serenely realized surface, an age that in retrospect seems to have been one of fine silver, coolly applied

Also on the web site is  a slide show of some of Penn’s best work.

This issue of the New Yorker also has a compelling article by Malcolm Gladwell about the dangers of football.  Gladwell doesn’t call for us to abolish the “sport”, but it’s hard to imagine any other conclusion from the data he presents.