Ten Years of Wandering

Ten years ago, I went to the Trappist Abbey in Lafayette, Oregon for a Day of Mindfulness - a one-day Zen meditation retreat. The monks welcome groups from many different contemplative persuasions to their stunning 1,300-acre sanctuary. Interestingly, they even have a zendo-like meditation space, because their founder was deeply inspired by Eastern philosophy. I've been on retreat there many times, often for four-day silent retreats. I was there the other day and realized I'd been quietly walking the same trails and looking out the meditation hall window at the same lovely trees for a full decade - and it really struck me.

I spent a good portion of my life moving every couple years, bouncing around Asia, changing homes so much I'd often wake up in the night unable to remember which country I was in. Because I grew up in such far flung places, I'd never even revisited a childhood home until recently, when I was back in Korea for a photo festival. To think I've been wandering the same Oregon trails for ten years of my life is kind of amazing. That kind of continuity is not something I'm accustomed to. 

Every time I'm at the Abbey on retreat, I spend about half of each day hiking and photographing. I make quiet little images inspired by my love of the place. Photography really can be a mindfulness practice, a tool to help us appreciate the present moment in a more charged, focused way. So, I tromp around in the puddles, snag my sleeves on blackberry vines, stand and breathe and rejoice when I'm lucky enough to see a buck or hear an owl hoot - and I make photographs that feel like little moments of solace and grace. Once I ran up to the top of the Abbey's mountain and stood exalted, panting, and muddy while the trees swayed above me, and it felt like heaven. Every now and then in my wanderings, I happen upon a humble, DIY shrine tucked away in the woods, the pet project of one of the resident monks. A few colored stones from a fish tank, a woven belt, a baseball hat as a tribute to a monk who loved the game, a crystal hanging from a branch - there's even an old, weathered ironing board in a very out of the way spot with a little shrine set up on it. 

Praying Figure, Woodland Shrine 

Praying Figure, Woodland Shrine 

One reason the Abbey is so dear to me is that I've seen it change dramatically over time. When I first visited, it was thickly forested with lovely but overgrown "crop" trees from previous landowners who had used it as a tree farm (the monks still practice some forestry on the land, to support their living expenses). A couple years later, they mounted a large-scale restoration project to return some of the land to its original state - a grassland and oak savanna. The first years of the restoration were shocking. They cut the trees and burned the rubble in massive piles that smoked ominously for days and made the ground run black with ash in the rain. It looked post-apocalyptic for a good two or three years. We'd do walking meditation along charred, muddy paths and I'd look out my window at night and see the brush piles glowing red on the hillside. 

Slowly, though, the land came back into itself, as it always does. The savanna began to thrive. The ancient oaks that were choking in the thick of the plantation growth have air and light around them again, and they look magnificent against the open sky. It's amazing what ten years can do.

I've changed a lot in the last decade, too. I was just 29 when I got lost there for the first time, and I'll be 40 later this year. It took me a decade to learn every trail. I love how photography can help us connect more deeply with the places we love. Of course, we can use photography to trace changes in a landscape, but it seems to me it's also a practice that helps us explore the evolution in our lives. I've wandered and photographed at the Abbey when I've been stressed about my work life, giddy on the cusp of a new adventure, heartbroken and isolated, and happily in love. Who knows what the next ten years will bring. Whatever else may happen, I imagine those same quiet trails will be there, patient and welcoming as they always are.

I can faintly hear the hum of the city from inside my home here in Portland. It's comforting to imagine the land out at the Abbey, now quietly settling in for the night. Perhaps there's a light wind in the grass, maybe a few deer are stepping softly along my beloved, familiar paths, maybe the chapel bells are ringing out over the landscape. I often think about the beauty and power of impermanence, and the Abbey is certainly a reminder of change. But, it's also a lovely expression of constancy - at least in the span of my one, small life. As William Stafford wrote, "There’s a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change.....Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. You don’t ever let go of the thread."

Sakura, Spring at the Abbey

Sakura, Spring at the Abbey

Building (Happening Upon) a Portfolio the Organic Way

I thought I'd share a new portfolio today - and chat a bit about how I created it. I surprised myself with this body of work. I made the images over the course of the last two and a half years, without a real plan, and without the awareness that I was even building a portfolio. I just made images of scenes that moved me, scenes that felt charged in some way. A couple weeks ago I realized the photographs belonged together, and I also realized they told an important part of my story.

The last two and a half years were a transitional time for me. I began the series when I was in the thick of a divorce - and finished it surrounded by deep love and happiness. The images are inspired by the meditation instruction to return to the breath, and they're a celebration of the beauty of impermanence. The title comes from the Anapanasati Sutta, also called the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing. It's a very simple, lovely Buddhist sutra about calming the body, coming back to the breath, feeling joy in the body, and realizing the impermanent nature of things. So, the series is called The Full Awareness of Breathing.

I always feel that our images have a lot to teach us, and I definitely have more to learn from this body of work. I'm sure I'll be able to speak about it more fluently at some point in the future, but I thought I'd share the new images with you now. 

You can see the whole series here. You can also listen to a little recording I made when I began the series a couple years ago. I had no idea then that I would develop a whole portfolio from that first little seed of an idea. I just knew I desperately needed to stop, breathe, and relax. The photographs became part of that healing process, and part of my subsequent transformation and growth. It just goes to show that if you photograph a subject you find compelling for long enough, you can wind up with a meaningful group of images. It's an enjoyable, organic working method. There truly doesn't need to be a plan of attack for everything - art thrives in an environment of openness, curiosity, and experimentation. Making this portfolio has been a cathartic, grounding process, and it feels good to share it. Maybe it can even bring you a tiny bit of peace and relaxation. I hope so!

Sending warmth, joy, and creative inspiration your way!
Laura

Sharing the Love: Student Images from Meditations on Gratitude

Just wanted to share a little love today, so I created a slideshow of beautiful student images from past Meditations on Gratitude courses. If you need a little pick-me-up, this might be just the thing. This is just a sampling of the many wonderful images students have made (wish I could share them all!). 

I love, love teaching this e-course. Every day, the online classroom is bursting with vibrant student images and stories. Sometimes I get happy tears in my eyes looking at all the heartfelt images students post in the course. It's a lovely counterpoint to all the violence and fear reported in the news. We could all stand to see more joyful photographs, don't you think? It feels healing to be part of a community dedicated to sharing images of things that bring joy into life. It really doesn't get much better than that. It gives me hope. 

The next session of Meditations on Gratitude begins soon. We're going to focus on making images of the things we love, the things we're grateful for, the things that bring us joy. It's a powerful way to infuse the creative practice with more personality and meaning. By the end of the course, you'll be able to surround yourself with images of all the things you're grateful for in life. It's a rich, happy, life-affirming adventure - and I honestly can't wait for it to start up again!

If you need a little creative kick-start (or an extra dose of happiness), I'd love you to join me.   

Thanks to all the lovely artists in the slideshow for sharing their work! 

 

A Picture of Gratitude

 
 

I thought I'd share a story about the making of a photograph. It's one of my favorite recent images. To me, it expresses a sense of gratitude and beauty, despite life's messiness. 

I made this image of my 97-year-old grandfather on a recent trip to New York. It was kind of a tough trip. There was a moment when he expressed disdain at a dinner I'd cooked and threw it out the window "for the birds." We weren't in the most beautiful setting, either - but I still happened upon a little moment of beauty and grace that made me happy. I made an audio recording about how I created the image and what it means to me. I adore the idea that we can find (or create!) beauty even in less-than-ideal circumstances, and I hope the story of this image helps you to look at your environment with fresh eyes. Enjoy!

p.s. My Meditations on Gratitude course begins soon. Registration is open now.

Photos & Bean Cakes: Adventures in Japan

I'm in Japan right now for the Mt. Rokko International Photography Festival - a lovely portfolio reviews event in the mountains outside of Kobe. It's truly a destination-location event. The scenery is stunning. I'll be giving portfolio reviews for the next couple days, along with a lecture about portfolio building and a mini workshop for young photographers.

I lived in Japan when I was a kid, but this is the first time I've been back since I was about eleven years old. I'm really looking forward to seeing fresh, contemporary Japanese photography and speaking to photographers about how to promote their work internationally. I'm also using this opportunity to eat as much omochi and ningyoyaki as possible. Because nothing beats pounded rice and bean paste when it comes to comfort food. Oh my, it's good.

Here's a little video about the event, so you can see what I'm up to:

Lishui International Photography Festival

 
 

I just got back from a whirlwind trip to China for the Lishui International Photography Festival. I'd been invited to curate a documentary portraiture exhibition for the festival, so I popped over to Lishui to assist with the installation and attend the opening. What an event! It's a city-wide photography extravaganza: exhibitions, lectures, seminars, and photo ops abound. They even had dancing dragons and special-effects smoke at the opening ceremony (we might need to up our game at Photolucida). 

I decided to focus my image selections on Critical Mass finalists and Top 50 artists from the last few years. Photolucida's CM archives are bursting with incredible talent, so I had rich resources to draw from. The resulting exhibition, entitled "Violence, Resilience, and the Human Spirit," included striking works by Leslie Alsheimer, Noah David Bau, Ben Brody, Claudio Cambon, Calvin Chen, Kirk Crippens, Scott Dalton, Natan Dvir, Alinka Echeverria, Gloria Baker Feinstein, Michelle Frankfurter, Patricia Galagan, Matthew Goddard-Jones, Carlos Gonzalez, Toni Greaves, Tamsin Green, Satu Haavisto, Deborah Hamon, Lucia Herrero, Stella Johnson, Corinna Kern, Meeri Koutaniemi, Ikuru Kuwajima, Alvaro Laiz, Jimmy Lam, Gloriann Liu, Rania Matar, David Pace, Ohm Phanphiroj, Walker Pickering, Jessica Eve Rattner, Reiner Riedler, Gilles Roudiere, Maureen Ruddy Burkhart, Michelle Sank, Alix Smith, Jeffrey Stockbridge, Ilona Szwarc, Iveta Vaivode, Xiaoxiao Xu, and Ji Yeo.

From the exhibition text:

"The photographers I have chosen for the exhibition have traveled the world to shed light on some of the most compelling issues of our day. My hope is that the exhibition offers a thought-provoking look at the face of our global experience. The images reference religious rituals, the lives of teenaged girls, war, family traditions, boy prostitutes on the streets of Thailand, the transgendered experience, homelessness, advertising and the American landscape, cultural festivals, female genital mutilation, children at play in the Amazon, plastic surgery and the search for beauty, environmental politics, and the fragile beauty of the human condition. Overall, the exhibition is a diverse, wide-ranging look at the hope, struggle, love, despair, beauty, violence, and compassion that characterize our modern world."

Installing the exhibition at Lishui. Love this funky/fabulous venue!

Installing the exhibition at Lishui.
Love this funky/fabulous venue!

Relaxation & Creativity at the Summer Retreat

It's lovely to slow down and get off the grid every now and then. I just got back from teaching my summer retreat at the Still Meadow Retreat Center in Damascus, OR. We had a fantastic group of creative photographers, gorgeous weather, delicious meals, and plenty of time to rest, explore the land with our cameras, and chat about the creative process.

Throughout the weekend, we focused on intentionally slowing the pace of our photography (instead of making quickie little "grab and go" shots). We talked about beauty in photography, using photography as a tool for personal inquiry, and bringing a deeper quality of attention to our image-making. Overall, the weekend felt like a much-needed breather, and I know I'll lead more photography retreats in the future. That sublime combination of quiet, natural beauty, and open creative time is hard to beat. 

Hope you can join me on a future retreat!