Art is a deeply powerful tool that can enhance a spiritual practice and, at the same time, a spiritual practice can bring another dimension to an artist’s work.
Robert Bridges practices what he calls “contemplative photography,” using his camera as a meditative tool and as a means of concentrating awareness and focusing his intent. “Contemplation is a practice of simply being attentive, receptive, inquisitive and ultimately, grateful,” says Bridges. “The object of contemplation can be anything. The subject does not matter but the practice of opening oneself does.”
Glancing through his portfolio, it is clear that gardens are his sanctuaries and flowers are his muses. His blog describes his work as “a life’s journey visually explored through the lens of macro photography and as experienced through Vipassana Buddhism, the Bible and Photoshop.” In combining Buddhist meditation with digital imagery, Bridges says he seems to have accidentally stumbled upon a way to create what is called “bent light koans.”
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a koan in Zen Buddhism is “a brief paradoxical statement or question used as a discipline in meditation. The effort to solve a koan is designed to exhaust the analytic intellect and the will, leaving the mind open for response on an intuitive level.” A well-known example is: “When both hands are clapped a sound is produced; listen to the sound of one hand clapping.”
In art, there is a visual version of the koan where, as in a literary koan, the intellect and will are pushed aside in favor of an intuitive, receptive mind. “A ‘bent light koan’ refers to a state of mind, or rather a state of no-mind, through which an image is received,” explains Bridges. The phrase was coined by Minor White, a contemporary of Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston and founding editor of “Aperture” who became a major influence in Bridges’ camera work. “I believe White was pointing to an equivalence of the photographic image and the written word and the mindfulness of both the poet and photographer in the moment of creating an image or a Haiku,” says Bridges. Minor White drew the connection between Zen concepts and photography when he observed “always by accident the lens bends light in such a way that the image can function as a koan” and “once we have seen how the accident works, some choose to repeat it on purpose.”
Creating bent light koans takes time, discipline and practice, as Bridges discovered. “The experience of creating bent light koans had not opened for me right away,” he admits. “It took years of practicing the teachings of Buddhist psychology while cultivating the qualities of the heart.” That initial “accident” described by White took place the day Bridge had what he calls “a mindful encounter with some columbines.”
“I was in a garden one day and the light was beautiful and I was drawn to it,” says Bridges. “But damn if it wasn’t illuminating a patch of columbines and I did not like columbines.” He nearly turned away, but instead he stopped and listened to the thoughts in his mind. “Columbines! Spiky. Angular. Oddly-shaped.” And in the space of a moment or two, the thought arose, “I hate columbines.” He silently asked himself why and waited. “I hate them because I do not know how to photograph them. They intimidate me,” was the response. He burst out laughing as he clearly saw the judging mind at work, throwing up conditions and expectations that, if believed, would make it impossible to photograph anything that day. Then he realized, “Obviously, if I have no clue how to photograph columbines, then anything and everything I do will be perfect.” And so it was.
Bridges started consciously practicing how to overlay different slices of these kinds of moments, using multiple exposed images – a camera technique he’d been playing with for years. “I worked hard to get the technique just right – and I learned that I couldn’t,” says Bridges. “The concentration it required didn’t require a new camera, lens or software solution – it required a different state of mind.”
According to Bridges, there were three factors that created a sturdy tripod for this work. “My personal and artistic transformation occurred as three seemingly unrelated events that brought me to this place of awareness and deepened my photographic vision,” says the artist. “The first was my moving from a crowded, noisy city to the isolation and serenity of flyover country. The second was trading in my film camera for a digital for the instant feedback and other creative capabilities that digital imagery provides. The third was being introduced to Vippassana Buddhism, cultivating practices of the heart and realizing that through photography I had learned to enjoy experiences which I now understand as moments of satori, looking into my own true nature.”
The results of practicing macro-concentration through the lens of the camera – of observation and precise focus over a period of time – made Bridges realize that to perceive stillness, the mind needs to be still. “I began to understand that the beauty one finds in their subject mirrors a beauty within,” says the artist. “We all have a natural, noble heart. So the love I have for trees and flowers is a reflection of my awakened heart and the image is a slice of that moment.”
Summed up simply, the process is: “Look at the flower, and the flower also looks at you.”
“It soon came to me that it felt important to share with others the insight that photography could open a person to experiences of Satori (true nature) and Samadhi (concentration),” says Bridges, “and it could also influence experiences of the visual world via mind states such as ‘beginner’s mind’ and bcoming absorbed in natural states of delight and joy. The artist began consciously and publicly approaching photography as a sacred art. “My lenses are Vipassana (macro lens) and Zen Buddhism (telephoto) and Christianity (wide angle). I photograph as a contemplative practice. Each time is a starting all over.”
All of this goes into the creation of what Robert Bridges recognizes as a bent light koan which, to the artist, is a reflection of an awakened heart, concentrated awareness, and an empty mind that sees itself mirrored in the form of the subject. According to Minor White, “no matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen.”
When all the right stuff comes together, bent light koans happen.
Artist Credits for the images included in this post:
Robert Bridges, Colorado
A Day I Saw Through Shame
Oh Damn Columbine
The 365 Days Project
In 2012, Serena Kovalosky committed to writing an article a day for 365 days as an exploration into the lives of artists and the value of creative thinking in our society.