“This practice, in my opinion, is really mindfulness meditation with visual perceptions as the object of attention rather than watching one’s breath.”
— Charles Blackhall
As I was walking down Oak Bay Avenue, I passed a shop window with some pictures. Something caught my eye. A painting? A photograph? I stopped to look. Upon consideration, I found them to be photographs of simple common subjects by Charles Blackhall. They intrigued me, and I arranged to speak with him.
Blackhall is an engaging fellow in his 60s, well-groomed with a shock of white hair. “Something caught your eye and you stopped,” he repeated, with obvious satisfaction. “That’s the first step in actually seeing. Usually, we gloss over things. It’s like something was tapping us on the shoulder but we didn’t stop. ‘I’ve got things to do!’ ”
With a background as a professional photographer, Blackhall had a studio and all the gear. But he is also a meditator, a Buddhist (“whatever that is,” he chuckled) and, in recent years, he has dedicated himself to understanding and teaching a form of photography that has everything to do with perception and nothing to do with technology. His pocket camera is quite enough, and he doesn’t even use the zoom lens. What he sees is the key. With his camera in his pocket, he notices things as possible subjects, and notices himself noticing them.
Blackhall described a scene in an art museum. The adults approach the artwork in a conceptual way — the label, the style, the value, the artist’s story. The child accompanying them is simply looking. “It’s totally intuitive,” he notes. “By the time you make up the story, the perception’s long gone.” You’ve got to get out of the way, to engage the phenomenal world from a vantage point that is not self-conscious.
How can you regain those fresh eyes? Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan who was instrumental in teaching Buddhism in the West, was also a keen photographer, and his images were notable for their inclusion of space. He noticed that we seem afraid of emptiness, and rush to fill it with our aggressive appetite for things and experiences. Distraction is a huge obstacle to seeing clearly. He recommended that when you feel yourself struggling — relax. Slow down. After a time, clarity will come to you.
Blackhall’s photography is based on the co-operation of the eye, mind and heart. “Don’t take the picture until you discern what it was that stopped you,” he says. Is it colour? Texture? Pattern? He begins “unpacking” the way he relates to the world visually, becoming aware of his patterns. “Notice the mechanism, and then relax. Let it be part, but not the control.” Become aware of the experience that caught your attention, and try to communicate it.
His subjects are usually within three metres of himself. “They are often very ordinary things, in my home, things that are very familiar to me,” Blackhall explains. Chopsticks in the sink, a wisteria branch and its shadow on the wall: “They were always there — I just didn’t pay attention to them.” This simple beauty was briefly evident, but we just moved on, devalued in the onrush of distraction. You can learn to notice that flash of perception, to stop, to “catch up to yourself,” to begin to engage with the phenomenal world.
Why photography? Is there a need to contain and preserve the image in an age when everyone is a photographer and the world is more image than reality? Of course not. But it’s one of an infinite number of “skilful means.” The mere presence of the camera in your pocket reminds you of that visual wonder is always before your eyes, and the practice of noticing it — what is in the frame and what isn’t — is an attunement to the world. This is wakefulness, the essence of meditation. In meditation one notes it and lets it pass. If you can understand that flash of perception and record it, the result is a wonderful photograph.
Blackhall’s photographs can be seen at Asgard Design, 2004 Oak Bay Ave. His Contemplative Photography workshop will be held Sept. 15 and 22. For information, go to victoria.shambhala.org.
© Copyright 2013