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Thread: Thomas Merton's Contemplative Photography: There you have it(what do you have?)

  1. #1

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    Thomas Merton's Contemplative Photography: There you have it(what do you have?)

    I'm certainly not an expert, but I do enjoy looking at photographs---most photographs anyway. Even calendar illustrations,
    At the other end of the spectrum (so I've been told) is contemplative photography. The sort of stuff that recollects the ancient
    momento mori----the inevitable death and decay.
    This genre, if it can be called a genre, has left me cold more often than not and if not, I've probably missed the point:
    A rusty '26 Buick in the desert isn't a spectre of death but a treasure awaiting someone's loving attention.
    Peeling paint on the side of derelict building is a delightful curiosity of texture.
    That's the way I see it anyway.

    Notable photographers are sometimes known only for their contemplative---depressing--- images alone which I suppose is how marketing a brand works.

    An exception may be Sally Mann, who captures juvenile mirth and rotting corpses with equal aplomb.
    What she writes in What Remains I find very interesting while the images themselves fill me with guilt akin to violating a most ancient and universal of taboos. It reminds me of an early definition of "still life" applied to the hunter's bag, but even those images I find noble as there is dignity in the presentation.

    I have not seen a copy of Ralph Eugene Meatyard's Father Louie: Photographs of Thomas Merton nor Dena Prasad Patnaik's Geography of Holiness but while searching for something else, some of Thomas Merton's photographs popped up on my 'puter.
    Perhaps those books might help me to appreciate Merton's contemplative photography more.

    Thomas Merton was a monk so was (or was supposed to be) living in poverty so social justice advocate John Howard Griffin loaned Merton a 35mm Canon FX to shoot contemplative images.

    I spent some time this morning looking as a few of them, trying to get into the groove of momento mori.

    But it didn't happen.

    The gist of Merton's photographs, as I understand, is that everyday things in plain sight reflect the nature of momento mori and indeed there were everyday things---a watering can, chairs casting shadows, trees in dormancy, but the subtleness evades me.

    The idea of contemplative photography intrigues me---perhaps (quite likely) I have no idea of the breadth of the genre but I find more to contemplate in the landscape than in the more acclaimed images reputed to the genre.

    For me, for right now, nothing I've seen of Merton's work is memorable. Perhaps that was Merton's goal? But then, why?
    I steal time at 1/125th of a second, so I don't consider my photography to be Fine Art as much as it is petty larceny.
    I'm not OCD. I'm CDO which is alphabetically correct.

  2. #2

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    Re: Thomas Merton's Contemplative Photography: There you have it(what do you have?)

    I'm afraid I'm of no help in clarifying Merton's intentions for you or rendering any sense to the exhibit of images which I can only dream of seeing. Perhaps all I can do, is offer up my own reading of Merton, who influenced me since I was 18.

    I was flying on a plane to Hong Kong, reading his Asian Journal where he declared fragmentarily, that the world we see is illusion. Nothing new there: after all, isn't this precept between the crude materialists and those who follow the Platonic tradition of perfect form, as ancient as man's writing on the wall of the cave?

    Yet his view was different - subtle and different. Merton argues for a syncretist' position between his own faith and that of the zen (meditative) stance towards the phenomenal world. His visual contemplation of Mount Kanchenjunga sees him reason that the best photography, is mindfully aware of illusion and does not seek to deny this illusion of the phenomenal world, but to engage in it. This is his 'bridge' between phenomenon and noumenon (in western thought terminology), or his working of his mind within the vow of silence within his Trappist Order, to negotiate knowing what's behind the phenomenal world. He did not seek to go 'behind' the illusion, nor to 'get around it' by form versus content formalist arguments. He sought to negotiate between an increasing self-awareness of his 'thought' as contemplation (meditating on a subject) and photography as 'action'.

    On a superficial level, this Trappist view, strips away the bling of the then contemporary photography of Merton's era towards a minimal representation of the essential subject, eschewing reductionism which is nowadays, all too common in thought and imaging. Secondly, Merton's first efforts on his writings on "Integrity", dismantles the oddly outdated conception which sees "momento mori", as valorisation of the dead and the decaying. The Trappist Order, to which Merton belongs, is of the French originating Cistercian Order. In its vow of silence, he finds contemplative prayer; contemplative action and action through photography - a congealing of thought and principle into his life: that 'bridge' to cross the divide of Cartesian dualism. He borrowed a Canon FX SLR; or it was loaned to him: whatever the modern mind "supposes" about living poverty, fails to understand the absence of contradiction here, for "blessed in the poor in spirit", is a beatitude which the Trappists seek to follow - completely nonsensical to the scepticism of the limited mind of the modern secular world.

    In a way, none of this is valid in defending Merton's view of contemplative photography: his ideas of contemplation are indeed lost to most of us, not all of us - who can understand Cartier Bresson's borrowing of the religious concept of the "the decisive moment" from his spiritual tutors. Merton was not a trained photographer: he was working towards finding something existential - for himself. The challenge of his contemplative photography - is relational: how will I find a way to relate 'everyday things in plain sight ... a watering can ...chairs...trees' - if I take these for granted as existing-in-themselves but not for me?

    Kind regards,

    RJ

    Quote Originally Posted by John Kasaian View Post
    I'm certainly not an expert, but I do enjoy looking at photographs---most photographs anyway. Even calendar illustrations,
    At the other end of the spectrum (so I've been told) is contemplative photography. The sort of stuff that recollects the ancient
    momento mori----the inevitable death and decay.
    This genre, if it can be called a genre, has left me cold more often than not and if not, I've probably missed the point:
    A rusty '26 Buick in the desert isn't a spectre of death but a treasure awaiting someone's loving attention.
    Peeling paint on the side of derelict building is a delightful curiosity of texture.
    That's the way I see it anyway.

    Notable photographers are sometimes known only for their contemplative---depressing--- images alone which I suppose is how marketing a brand works.

    An exception may be Sally Mann, who captures juvenile mirth and rotting corpses with equal aplomb.
    What she writes in What Remains I find very interesting while the images themselves fill me with guilt akin to violating a most ancient and universal of taboos. It reminds me of an early definition of "still life" applied to the hunter's bag, but even those images I find noble as there is dignity in the presentation.

    I have not seen a copy of Ralph Eugene Meatyard's Father Louie: Photographs of Thomas Merton nor Dena Prasad Patnaik's Geography of Holiness but while searching for something else, some of Thomas Merton's photographs popped up on my 'puter.
    Perhaps those books might help me to appreciate Merton's contemplative photography more.

    Thomas Merton was a monk so was (or was supposed to be) living in poverty so social justice advocate John Howard Griffin loaned Merton a 35mm Canon FX to shoot contemplative images.

    I spent some time this morning looking as a few of them, trying to get into the groove of momento mori.

    But it didn't happen.

    The gist of Merton's photographs, as I understand, is that everyday things in plain sight reflect the nature of momento mori and indeed there were everyday things---a watering can, chairs casting shadows, trees in dormancy, but the subtleness evades me.

    The idea of contemplative photography intrigues me---perhaps (quite likely) I have no idea of the breadth of the genre but I find more to contemplate in the landscape than in the more acclaimed images reputed to the genre.

    For me, for right now, nothing I've seen of Merton's work is memorable. Perhaps that was Merton's goal? But then, why?

  3. #3

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    Re: Thomas Merton's Contemplative Photography: There you have it(what do you have?)

    Just FYI there is going to be an exhibition of Merton's photos at the
    Union Theological Seminary, 3041 Broadway, New York City, from March 19 to April 13.
    I steal time at 1/125th of a second, so I don't consider my photography to be Fine Art as much as it is petty larceny.
    I'm not OCD. I'm CDO which is alphabetically correct.

  4. #4
    Jac@stafford.net's Avatar
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    Re: Thomas Merton's Contemplative Photography: There you have it(what do you have?)

    A philosopher or theologian's work, entire paradigm, is in written and spoken language. Without knowing the person's writing it would be impossible to know the person's intent by just their photography. On the other-hand knowing the literature might help viewers to superimpose their interpretation of language upon the photographs.

    Consider the obverse: Minor White's work can be related to a higher power without unnecessary verbosity.
    .

  5. #5

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    Re: Thomas Merton's Contemplative Photography: There you have it(what do you have?)

    Quote Originally Posted by Jac@stafford.net View Post
    A philosopher or theologian's work, entire paradigm, is in written and spoken language. Without knowing the person's writing it would be impossible to know the person's intent by just their photography. On the other-hand knowing the literature might help viewers to superimpose their interpretation of language upon the photographs.

    Consider the obverse: Minor White's work can be related to a higher power without unnecessary verbosity.
    .
    I didn't want to trespass into theology, Jack.
    Seven Storey Mountain was a best seller in it's day so I think most here over age 60 would have an inkling of Merton's views,
    but personally I didn't "get" his writing. At one point I was given the opportunity to write a review for one of (probably his last) books.
    I didn't "get" that either.
    But his photography I think I understand and most of it I think I understand what he's saying.
    It's just not memorable, which I think should be a quality of an interesting photograph.

    It's a good thing I'm not an Art critic!
    I steal time at 1/125th of a second, so I don't consider my photography to be Fine Art as much as it is petty larceny.
    I'm not OCD. I'm CDO which is alphabetically correct.

  6. #6
    Drew Wiley
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    Re: Thomas Merton's Contemplative Photography: There you have it(what do you have?)

    It wouldn't surprise me a bit if Minor White had been abducted by aliens at some point in his life.

  7. #7
    Jac@stafford.net's Avatar
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    Re: Thomas Merton's Contemplative Photography: There you have it(what do you have?)

    Quote Originally Posted by John Kasaian View Post
    I didn't want to trespass into theology, Jack.
    Seven Storey Mountain was a best seller in it's day so I think most here over age 60 would have an inkling of Merton's views
    As you implied, if his writing did not connect, then it may as well have not existed. Back to his photography, the same disconnect.

  8. #8

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    Re: Thomas Merton's Contemplative Photography: There you have it(what do you have?)

    Quote Originally Posted by John Kasaian View Post
    Seven Storey Mountain was a best seller in it's day so I think most here over age 60 would have an inkling of Merton's views,
    but personally I didn't "get" his writing. At one point I was given the opportunity to write a review for one of (probably his last) books.
    Seven Storey Mountain is probably the worst place to start with Merton.

    I'd recommend No Man is an Island as a better place. Also his book, Contemplative Prayer might be more relevant to his photography...which I haven't seen...

  9. #9
    Foamer
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    Re: Thomas Merton's Contemplative Photography: There you have it(what do you have?)

    Quote Originally Posted by Jac@stafford.net View Post
    As you implied, if his writing did not connect, then it may as well have not existed. Back to his photography, the same disconnect.

    Or, maybe it's time has not yet come. When Bizet first performed his opera "Carmen," the critics and the audience hated it! Today, virtually everyone is familiar with at least a few of its arias and it's in the standard repertorie.

    Anna Netrebko sizzles:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJ_HHRJf0xg

    El Toreador:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoV2YOjFowY


    Kent in SD
    In contento ed allegria
    Notte ed di vogliam passar!

  10. #10
    Jac@stafford.net's Avatar
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    Re: Thomas Merton's Contemplative Photography: There you have it(what do you have?)

    Quote Originally Posted by Two23 View Post
    Or, maybe it's time has not yet come. When Bizet first performed his opera "Carmen," the critics and the audience hated it! Today, virtually everyone is familiar with at least a few of its arias and it's in the standard repertorie.
    I am not aware of Bizet's photography.

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