Mundane Photography

Carl Tashian
Jan 26 · 5 min read

I want to talk about a practice of seeing called mundane photography. Mundane photography is meditative work with a camera.

There are billions of cameras on the planet. Having a camera is no longer a luxury for most people. True luxury is the ability to see.

Have you ever noticed how expensive things — a sumptuous hand-knotted Persian rug, a velvet Jacquard haute couture opera coat — don’t seem to be all that different from inexpensive things? They aren’t necessarily more comfortable. But, there is a difference: Expensive things tend to be more richly textured and ornately detailed. The most expensive music — classical music — is also the music that we consider to be the most richly detailed.

Expensive things are designed for people who have the privilege of seeing. If you are traumatized, if you are in a war or seeking asylum, homeless or living in an oppressive home, if you are struggling with PTSD or depression or anxiety, you may struggle to notice beautiful details of the world around you. Dissociation puts the world at a distance. Depression creates a hall of mirrors. Hypervigilance gives rise to tunnel vision.

If you wander through a slum anywhere in the world, you will see all kinds of rich detail. Cracking paint, roofs of tarpaulin and bungee cords, rusting fences, laundry drying in the street, people everywhere, plants everywhere, trash everywhere.

It’s not a planned richness, it’s a chaotic richness. More elaborate than classical music. And, to my eye, sometimes it looks like the entire neighborhood is traumatized, and the trauma spills out of the homes and into the streets. Blight is trauma on full display. A public health crisis complicated by urban planning and economic crises.

But the privilege of seeing does not require money to attain. Meditation is a reliable and free way to learn to see things as they are. Mundane photography is meditative.

Most people use the camera for the purpose of producing pics. And while most pics taken are mundane, this is not what I mean by mundane photography.

Mundane photography has little to do with the image produced, and everything to do with the mindset and the experience of the photographer before and during the moment of capture.

Photography is an opportunity to zoom in, and to choose a square inch of reality to focus on.

All artistic media offer this opportunity. It’s easy to make a beautiful and realistic drawing with a pencil and paper. All you have to do is draw what you see exactly. Barring any physical disabilities, what makes this hard for most people is the mindset. It requires patience in the face of what is, for most of us, an unfamiliar activity. Drawing requires slowing down to an uncomfortable degree and courageously facing the blank page.

But patience and courage are under your control completely. You don’t need to go to drawing school to get them. Today, right now, if you gave yourself the gift of 3 or 4 hours to quietly draw a very simple object on a table in front of you, you would surprise yourself with the results.

But since you’re not going to do that, we have photography. Photography is special because it’s fast, forgiving, and ubiquitous. And while mundane photography does demand patience, it’s a kind of patience that’s more accessible to the impatient mind.

Patience is required to fight the speed of the medium. Very small movements of the camera yield very different photographs. One inch to the left or right will change a composition completely. You have to be patient with composition and patient with light. The more patience you can muster, the more you can honor the enormous variability of the medium.

You will need to rewire your relationship to the camera. The familiar intention for using a camera is not to see, it is to show. To quickly show off and share your excitement.

Seeing is different. If you sit and meditate for a while, you will see the world differently and the world will see you differently. If you regularly spend most of your time in the world of ideas, meditation will help you return to the world of senses that you knew as a child. Colors will become richer. Textures will become more nuanced. Light itself will become incredibly beautiful.

This is seeing. Remembering what you took for granted. Reacquainting yourself with the beauty of anywhere. A tree’s shadow cast against a pink building. A thousand tiny bubbles in a glass of sparkling water.

The motivation is for you to see more deeply. When you make photographs from this meditative mindset, your presence seeps out onto the image.

My practice for mundane photography involves a 45 minute sitting meditation session at home, followed by a 45 minute very slow walk through my neighborhood. Sometimes, I hold the camera up and walk slowly through the world from the perspective of the camera, using the viewfinder as my eyesight.

I allow the camera to show me what it wants me to see. That is, I allow the subconscious to drive the process as much as possible. I notice framings I might not have seen.

In the common mindset for photography, the subject is planned, chosen, framed and styled long before the moment the shutter is released. With mundane photography, the goal is to eliminate conscious intention about what will be captured, and photograph from a place of allowance. Not using thoughts and ideas to self-consciously control the image, but using feelings and intuition to subconsciously fall toward the image, one step at a time. There is no pressure to ever share anything, because the experience itself is the entire purpose. This helps release the grip of the self-conscious.

But if one day you decide to share your images with people, remember that you giving them a gift. The opportunity to see.

Carl Tashian

Written by

I help people move into engineering leadership. → Past: Built Zipcar’s technology, co-founded OurGoods & Yerdle.

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