How a broken camera introduced me to mindfulness.

DSC00087I didn’t know it at the time, but a camera that was broken in 1963 would become my first lesson in mindfulness and would shape my approach to photography for the rest of my life.

When I was younger, I enjoyed taking pictures of landscapes, beaches, and sunsets. Technique was important – depth of field, aperture, shutter speed, film speed, and of course, the 18% gray card. Composition was equally important. I would patiently wait for just the right lighting or for a passing cloud to cast a shadow in just the right place. I viewed my surroundings through the viewfinder of the camera.

The broken camera

Some of the photographs were breathtaking and awe-inspiring, or at least that was my youthful opinion. But all of that abruptly changed when I read a passage in Colin Fletcher’s 1968 book, The man who walked through time. [1] The book chronicled Fletcher’s solo walk through the length of the Grand Canyon in 1963. This is what he wrote on page 120.

In order to photograph a scene that for interest and balance demanded a figure in the foreground, I had mounted my camera on its lightweight collapsible tripod for a delayed- action self-portrait shot. But as I moved into position a gust of wind sent camera and tripod crashing over. And afterward the shutter refused to function.

I had brought only this one camera down into the Canyon, and at first I simmered with frustration. But within an hour I discovered a new fact of life. I recognized, quite clearly, that photography is not really compatible with contemplation. Its details are too insistent.

They are always buzzing around your mind and clouding the fine focus of appreciation. You rarely detect this interference at the time, and cannot do much about it even if you do. But that morning of the Serpentine reconnaissance, after the camera had broken, I found myself freed from an impediment I had not known existed. I had escaped the tyranny of film. Now, when I came to something interesting, I no longer stopped, briefly, to photograph and forget; I stood and stared, fixing truer images on the emulsion of memory.

And the reconnaissance, set free, became a carnival—a bonus carnival, like one of the unexpected half-holidays we used to get at school for events quite beyond our control, such as the birth of yet another child to the headmaster’s gratifyingly fecund wife. The carnival spirit carried me up the steep side-slopes of Serpentine Canyon and along the Tonto Trail. When I got back to camp it was still there. And it lasted to the end of my stay in William Bass’s little bay. To the very end.

Photography interferes with mindfulness

Fletcher’s observation that “photography is not really compatible with contemplation” resonated with me. In my early years, I had been so obsessed with capturing the perfect, breathtaking sunset on film that I forgot to enjoy the actual sunset before it turned to gray. I didn’t know it at the time but Fletcher’s passage was my first introduction to practical mindfulness. Thank you for that Colin, RIP.[2]

For a brief period of time, I resisted taking any photos and instead just practiced enjoying the moment. As it turned out, I couldn’t sustain an absolute separation from my camera. I realized that, at least for me, taking photos was not about competing with Ansel Adams [3] or Peter Lik [4] for the best landscape (spoiler alert – they win!). Rather, I realized that taking pictures was a means of capturing an impression or a memory, not recording a landscape – no matter how dramatic it may be.

The lowly snapshot

I essentially abandoned photography in favor of taking snapshots. The lowly snapshot is spontaneous, and, if I’m doing it right, always has a person in the frame. Some of my early learning won’t die. Composition really does matter – even for snapshots taken with a cell phone.

I’ve looked back over decades of photos I’ve taken and I inevitably quickly pass over any shots featuring just a sunset or a beach. After a few years, all of those look more or less the same. Not so for the pictures with people. They capture so much more of the moment – my thoughts at the time, my feelings, the conversations taking place, the passing of time – all of the things that make us human.

Now, this is not to say that I don’t snap an occasional picture of a sunset, but when I do it plays a mere supporting role to the true main characters – people.












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