Book review verdict: Highly recommended - Add it to your bookshelf!
In The Mindful Photographer, David Ulrich presents a series of essays that, in his words, build on each other, yet they also stand alone as useful texts. Ulrich shares a great deal of his personal experience within the essays, and it is this personal touch that provides a touch of lightness to what could easily have become a rather dry in-depth read. The essays are quite short, making it easy to dip in and out of the book without the worry of losing one’s place.
While there is much to praise in this book, I present here issues that caused me to question Ulrich’s work. Just why I have chosen to do this is revealed towards the end of the review.
The 1st essay suggests that the photographer should seek resonance, and know when releasing the shutter that this is the scene she really wants; it resonates with the photographer personally. By the 3rd essay, readers are advised to “Avoid the merely pictorial”. Ulrich advises that we should move beyond pictorialism to take photographs with “…content that speaks directly to the hearts and minds of viewers”.
In doing so, Ulrich overrides the concept of the mindful photographer to a certain extent, and attempts to guide the reader to produce the type of images that he thinks they should be taking or making. Ulrich has referenced a definition of mindfulness in the book which states that mindfulness is “focusing one’s awareness on the present moment”. There is a disconnect here between a photographer practicing to become a mindful photographer, one who is in the moment, and one being directed to produce images that mean something to others. Focusing on the present moment, in the context of mindfulness, does not necessarily mean focusing on the direction provided by others.
Throughout the book, Ulrich refers several times to art and photography, suggesting that the author does not perceive photographers as artists or photography as art.
If we consider fine art photography as an example, Julia Anna Gospodarou defines it as “… the expression of the imagination and will of the artist, who needs to create an object that will resemble his personal inner world, his vision and abstract representation of the material world, an object that has a meaning to him and that he releases into the world so others can understand him and learn his truth. This object is the fine art photograph”1.
This definition is, to me, much more in keeping with the concept of the mindful photographer than Ulrich’s directed opinion, and binds art and photography closely together, while Ulrich separates them.
We should also remain mindful of the fact that some of the great names of photography, such as Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, and Edward Steichen, all produced pictorialist output at some point during their careers. Pictorialism should not, therefore, be cast out of the mindful photographer’s repertoire.
By the 4th essay, Ulrich suggests that we “put the emphasis on our vision first”, letting the idea of a good image flow from that. This suggests that the previous essay is a little out of place in this book. I do, however, applaud the author for providing as much food for thought as possible within the pages of a single book.
Later in the book, Ulrich recalls a 1973 photograph by Stephen Shore, which he says shows the “…intense beauty of banality.” Almost 50 years later Ulrich includes Shore’s photograph in this book, while suggesting in essay #3 that photographs should be calls to action rather than mere pictorialism. How can Shore’s banal image have become such a treasure of Ulrich’s memory that he extols its virtues here, while urging us to do better?
The content of this book should be interpreted by readers based on their own life experiences.
To pass on the detailed effects of the book, or of each essay, on this reviewer would risk influencing the next reader’s own interpretation of the content.
I believe this would run counter to what Ulrich sets out to achieve with the book, mindfulness in photography.
Why then, given the above, do I rate this book highly enough to recommend adding it to your bookshelf?
The answer is quite simple: to form my opinions, I had to read and evaluate Ulrich’s essays, then reflect seriously upon my own photographic practice. Every time I questioned the author’s viewpoint, I was forced to re-evaluate my own. Disagreement is healthy, it forces reflection. Ulrich effectively invites the reader to disagree, confident that this process leads to a more mindful approach to photography.
The essays do indeed build on each other, working up to those that are powerful, thought-provoking, and moving, and which encourage the reader to dig deep internally and react to the rich stimulus Ulrich provides.
Reflection is a cornerstone of any practice. By causing me to reflect more deeply than I might have done, Ulrich has prompted me to become more mindful in and of my own photographic practice. That is a clear win for both the author and the reader.
1GOSPODAROU, J. A. & TJINTJELAAR, J. 2014. From basics to fine art. Black and white photography – Architecture and beyond. Details here