Making the Familiar Unfamiliar

Puddle Blues

Puddle Blues

Often, the way to get unstuck isn’t to change whatever it is you’re looking at—but instead to change how you’re looking at it. ~ You Don’t Need New Ideas, You Need a New Perspective by Oliver Burkeman via 99U

The 99U article played on Marcel Proust’s famous quote about seeing the familiar with new eyes. And, introduced a term that was new to me, “vuja dé,” coined by comedian George Carlin. It means “a strange sense of unfamiliarity in the familiar, thereby revealing opportunities or solutions you hadn’t previously noticed.”

How do we see the unfamiliar in the familiar?

The article suggests a couple of ways – putting physical distance between you and the problem – take a break and do something different – or write about it to see what emerges from the unconscious mind. Betty Edwards, in her classic book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, suggests upside down drawing which helps eliminate the labels we tend to put on everything.

I like to take walks for a change of perspective. So far this winter, however, I haven’t been feeling very creative or inspired, even on my walks. I haven’t taken many photographs either.

Last weekend, my husband and I went to Ottawa to visit family. The week before, they’d had snow and below freezing temperatures. On this day, the temperature was above freezing and the snow and ice were beginning to thaw, leaving a slushy mess. I went out for a walk in a neighbourhood that was unfamiliar to me and the change of scenery was just what I needed.

I first noticed the puddles on the road and the ice in the field and the way the blue of the sky was reflected in it all. Being on unfamiliar roads helped me to see this familiar sight in a brand new way.

To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour. ~ William Blake

This sparked my imagination and, like William Blake’s grain of sand, I began to see the whole world reflected in those puddles. I saw the “Puddle Blues.” Next, I noticed the texture and rhythm and flow in the ice. It could have been the surface of the moon or snow-capped mountains.
I saw a world of layers and reflections at the side of the road, like I was witnessing below the surface of the earth.
I came back to where I was staying renewed, refreshed, and inspired.

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Serve Life and Quality Follows


Quality is the relationship between humans and their experience. ~ Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

The book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is my favourite book of all time. It is a treatise on the subject of “quality.” The quality of our lives depends on the quality of our relationships – with ourselves, others, and the natural world.

As photographers we can get caught up in the technical quality of the photograph and miss the experience completely, or rush through it too quickly. We forget to savour the relationship that’s being established in the moment.

Three of my favourite photographers speak to this – Ansel Adams years ago and Guy Tal and David duChemin more recently.

Living for me is creative action; I am unsatisfied with simply existing. I can’t help it – it is part of my makeup. I want to know every moment how I can refine and intensity my relations with the world, and every moment make some definite contribution – some crystallization of a perception – some actual golden experience. ~ Ansel Adams, Letters & Images

Guy Tal loves wilderness for its own sake, not as a place to make great photographs. For that reason, he doesn’t consider himself to be a wilderness photographer. Photography is a means of expressing his experience, wherever he is. It just so happens that he is often in wilderness.

Rare are those who for whom being in wilderness is an experience to be pursued, and to find meaning in, for its own sake – photographs or no photographs. ~ Guy Tal, The Art & The Wild

David duChemin realized that he was often looking for photographs, rather than discovering and experiencing the magic that’s always there to be found. When he’s not looking, his best photographs come from his experience of the magic.

The best photographs are an intoxicating mix of “Oh my God look at that!” (even when “that” is just a spark of an idea) and all the reactions and experiences to “that” that go on in our imagination before finally coming out into the world in a tangle of creative decisions we make with lenses, exposure, focus, and the geometry of the frame. ~ David duChemin, Find the Magic

The quality of the experience depends on the way we approach and serve life.

This post was originally inspired by a prompt from Chris Brogan in Quest 2016. – “How will you better clarify whom you serve and what you do for them in 2016?”

Normally, I would go to “who do I serve in my business,” but what kept coming up for me was that I must first “serve life” before I can serve anyone or anything else. I must “serve life” to have quality of life.

What does this mean?

P1130695* to engage with life
* to experience the magic
* to be open to what the universe holds for us
* to pay attention
* to see deeply
* to respect, even celebrate impermanence
* to love with my whole heart
* to forgive myself and others
* to lift up, not tear down
* to extend a helping hand
* to nurture
* to give generously, yet take care of myself
* to leave a place better than it was
* to always be growing
* to be humble and bold
* to never give up, yet let go when necessary

I see the many paradoxes here, which is why it’s so important to know oneself and to see and experience the reality in any given situation. This is living a contemplative life. This is also a way of approaching photography – with humility, respect, and openness.

Learning to see is a forgotten art, full of hope and promise, that assists in gaining necessary self-knowledge of who we are and a deeper, richer, truer engagement with the world. ~ David Ulrich, Diamonds and Rust: Art and the Inner Life

This year, as a way of enhancing quality of life and relationships, I will focus on serving life, and then photograph and write from that place. When we serve life, quality follows.

How do you serve life?


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Hold Life Lightly


Each December, I choose a word or theme for the coming year. It’s usually something I spend some time figuring out – through a worksheet or guide, like Susannah Conway’s Unravelling the Year Ahead.

For 2015, my word was devotion. Devotion has to do with where we place our attention. And, in 2015 I was devoted to my family, my daily photo walks, creating mandalas, writing, and my workshop community.

It is a beautiful and serious kind of word.

A couple of weeks ago, while driving home from Indianapolis, I was listening to a Good Life Project podcast with Buddhist practitioner Lodro Rinzler, and a theme emerged out of the blue.

Near the beginning of the interview, Fields says that the Buddhist’s he’s met who are truly connected to source are “so light; they’re goofy, silly, funny; they hold life so lightly.”

Rinzler affirmed this thought by referring to his teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, and how at his place there’s constant celebration going on. It’s not a serious place. There’s a sense of simple joy in life, in a very basic way. The advanced practitioners he’s met have that sense of lightness to their being.

And, I thought, that’s it. Lightness would be my theme for 2016. But, what does that mean for me? How can I bring a sense of celebration to life, no matter what’s going on? And, especially in a time when there’s so much violence and sadness in the world?

How can I hold life lightly?

* Seriousness has its place, but lightness is not serious. This doesn’t mean making light of serious things; rather it’s seeing that there is both lightness and darkness in any situation. They go together. Look for the light and celebrate it.

* Recognize that this too shall pass. No matter how devastating our stories, or how great everything is, it will change soon enough. Don’t grasp too tightly to joy or sorrow.

* Remember that my opinions, ideas, thoughts, and emotions are passing things, and never the whole story. Be open and curious about what I’m missing.

* Allow life to unfold; for new possibilities to emerge. Be ready to let go when the time comes. And, don’t forget to play.
For next year, I will re-double my efforts to finish that book, to read, write, and travel, and to meet and share and celebrate life with others along the way. I’ll be open to whatever life brings and respond in kind. I’ll be open to new possibilities in my business and life. I’ll celebrate each day that I’m given.

How do you hold life lightly?


This post was inspired by prompts from Quest 2016, an amazing community where, during the month of December, we receive and respond to 12 prompts from 12 visionaries. It’s led by my writing mentor, Jeffrey Davis. We’ve just finished the first three prompts but you are still welcome to join in, if you’d like.

And, here are some other related posts from Quest2016 – from Suzi Banks Baum, Sally Drew, and Janet St. John.


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Nine Favorite Books from 2015

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. One of the benefits of being a dual citizen of Canada and the United States is that I get to celebrate this holiday twice, in October and November. I’m currently with U.S. friends and family and feeling thankful for them and for you who are reading this post.

This is also a time of year where we start seeing favorite books lists. I’m an avid reader and so thankful for the books in my life. I enjoy looking back to see what books I’ve read during the year and which ones had the most impact.
Here are my top nine books for the year, some on photography and some not, although it all blends together.

1. The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer

Dyer describes the friendships between some of history’s greatest photographers and how they influenced each other and developed their own styles. If you’re interested in the history of photography and photographers, you’ll enjoy this book.

Here’s a post I wrote on quotes that stood out to me from this book.

2. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers (including photographers) by Leonard Koren

Wabi-sabi refers to an elusive and elegant beauty. Wabi suggests a beauty of elegant imperfection. Sabi means loneliness or rather aloneness. It also refers to sparseness and austerity. Together, wabi-sabi suggests the beauty of ‘the withered, weathered, tarnished, scarred, intimate, coarse, earthly, evanescent, tentative, ephemeral.’ ~ Crispin Sartwell, Six Names of Beauty

Wabi-sabi is a style that I love to explore in my own photography. This book is a classic and beautiful book on the topic. Read my posts on this book – Wabi-Sabi for Photographers Part 1 and Part 2.

3. The Widening Stream by David Ulrich

Seeing is truly a form of magic, a perceptual pleasure, a source of real learning and questioning, and a doorway to invisible worlds. As adults, we have much to relearn. ~ David Ulrich

David Ulrich is a photographer and I always enjoy his writing. This book is about creativity, written by a photographer, Unique and enlightening.

4. The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer

Of course, I’m a fan of stillness, in mind and body. Pico Iyer is a smart man with lots of travel and experience under his belt, yet has such a gentle presence. In this short book, he explores the topic of stillness – how he came to it and how others incorporate it in their lives, from the Tibetan monk, Mathieu Ricard to singer Leonard Cohen.

Watch Iyer’s TED talk on “home” here.

5. and 6. On the Move, a biography by Dr. Oliver Sacks and Townie by Andre Dubus III.

These two are from the autobiography/memoir category and I couldn’t choose between the two of them.

Oliver Sacks is the famed neurologist who wrote this story of his life while dying from cancer. He is one of my heroes, someone who lived life on his own terms, continually evolving and working to the very end.

Townie is the story of Andre Dubus’ life growing up in working class Pennsylvania. It is one of the most well written pieces I’ve ever read and his story stayed with me long after the last pages were turned.

7. Blue Mind, The Surprising Science that Shows How Being Near, In, On or Under Water can make you Happier, Healthier, More Connected and Better at What you Do by Wallace J Nichols

I first heard Wallace J Nichols speak at his alma mater, De Pauw University in Indiana, about his research about and love for sea turtles. I kept up with him and his work over the years and saw him advance to being a vocal advocate for the earth and our oceans. He hands out blue marbles at speaking events to remind people that they live on a planet made up mostly of water.

As someone who relies on the healing aspects of water in all forms, I was intrigued to read this new book on how water affects our minds. Blue Mind is the name he gave to “the human-water connection, a meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment.”

It’s a fascinating read.

8. A Hidden Wholeness, The Journey towards an Undivided Life by Parker Palmer

Palmer is one of my favourite writers in general, author of many more books that had a huge impact on me, mainly The Courage to Teach (a favourite book in 2011) and Let Your Life Speak.

In this book, he speaks to the human yearning to live undivided lives — lives that are in alignment with our core values. This is not so easy to do in a world that often rewards us for not being who we really are. He describes how to create “circles of trust” or “communities of truth” in our communities, where everyone feels safe to speak and be themselves. We used these principles in the online community for the Visual Journaling workshop.

I wrote more about this book at this post.

9. Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin

On a similar topic, but in a totally different vein, Bill Plotkin speaks of wholeness in terms of the archetypal stages in a human life.

Nature and the Human Soul introduces a visionary ecopsychology of human development that reveals how fully and creatively we can mature when soul and wild nature guide us. Depth psychologist and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin presents a model for a human life span rooted in the cycles and qualities of the natural world, a blueprint for individual development that ultimately yields a strategy for cultural transformation.

Absolutely mind-blowing.

What book had the most impact on you this year?


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Looking Down


Where we place our attention determines what we see.

In normal, everyday life we’re often looking straight ahead, intent on what’s ahead and where we’re going next.

Occasionally, we look up – to tree tops, birds flying, cloud formations, blue skies and stormy skies. We might look down occasionally to examine a beautiful leaf or an insect.

When I was at a Miksang contemplative photography workshop in Boulder, Colorado we had an assignment to photograph concrete, that literally changed my view. Since then, I spend a lot of time looking down at the ground beneath my feet.

It’s one way to pause and see what’s right here, right now. I find accidental art – the random way things come together on the ground – as well as an ever-changing canvas of the seasons.

Here are a few things I’ve seen lately.

Try looking down today and see what you find.


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The Fun and Freedom of Abstract Photography

Brushes in car wash

Brushes in car wash

I’m a huge fan of abstract photography. It wasn’t always this way. At one time, I didn’t understand the appeal. But, then I went to an exhibit of the abstract expressionist painters from New York and something was piqued in me.

These images were not meant to be understood, but felt.

In this post, I’ll explain the term “abstract” and why this type of photography is fun and playful and can help us become better photographers. I’ll show examples of my own work, and point to resources for you to learn more.

What is abstract photography?

John Suler, in his book on Photographic Psychology (free online), says that a photograph is abstract when you ask yourself, “What is it?”

Ron Bigelow has written a three part series on abstract photography. In part one, he defines an abstract image as:

  • Not representing the subject in a literal way.
  • Communicating primarily through form, color, and curves rather than image detail.

An image with people and other subjects creates a conceptual (thought-based) experience. We immediately label or name what we see in the scene.

If the image evokes an emotional response, it may be because the scene has a particular meaning for us or we are reacting to the visual elements – color, lines, textures, patterns – at a subconscious level.

We create the meaning – either what it means to us or what we think the creator of the piece had in mind.

With abstract photography, these conceptual labels are not apparent and the viewing experience becomes very different, more visceral or perceptual. Not knowing “what it is” allows us to explore how the image makes us feel, without trying to figure it out.

Chair seat in laundromat

Chair seat in laundromat

Why Create Abstract Photography?

1. Gives us practice in recognizing the elements of visual design and in composing.

2. We can explore the emotional aspects of color, lines, shapes, and patterns.

3. Helps us to expand our perspectives and see in new ways.

4. Can help us get out of a photographic rut.

5. It’s fun and freeing.

Seeing in Abstract

Abstract images can be found just about anywhere. I see them on the ground, in textures and patterns, graffiti, rust and buildings, in the sky and in water.

Often, when we move in close, showing only part of a subject, we create an abstraction.

However, it’s not absolutely necessary to move in close. In the three images below, I used long shutter speeds and camera movement to create blur. This disguises the conceptual subject matter and emphasizes color and movement.

Thanks to Freeman Patterson and Andre Gallant for my introduction to these ideas.

abstract photography blur

The series of images below are a few of my favorites and show the wide variety of subject matter available for discovering abstract images.

Reflections in Glass

Reflections in Glass

color and shape

Color Blocks on a Wall / Envelopes on a Table

rust street sign

Back of Street Sign

spiral staircase ago

Spiral Staircase at Art Gallery of Ontario

Reflection in Car Window

Reflection in Car Window


Why not give abstract photography a try?


Another session of Going Abstract begins October 19th. It’s a fun, laid back introduction to abstract photography.

Learn more and register here.

More Resources
Brenda Gottsband is a master at abstractions from buildings. Take a look.

Abstract Photos Created by Repeating Everyday Household Items

My Flickr Set of Abstractions

Abstract Expression and Graffiti

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