Mindfulness and a photographers blank state of mind

Die Leere des Fotografen

Minor White has been living a long time before photography got digitized and is thought of, like his friend Ansel Adams, as one of the most influential black and white photographers from the middle of the last century. This quote comes from him:

The state of mind of a photographer while creating is a blank…

For those who would equate “blank” with a kind of static emptiness, I must explain that this is a special kind of blank. It is a very active state of mind really, a very receptive state of mind, ready at an instant to grasp an image, yet with no image pre-formed in it at any time. We should note that the lack of a pre-formed pattern or preconceived idea of how anything ought to look is essential to this blank condition. Such a state of mind is not unlike a sheet of film itself – seemingly inert, yet so sensitive that a fraction of a second’s exposure conceives a life in it. (Not just life, but “a” life).

Minor White and mindfulness

When i read that quote for the first time i thought “he’s talking about mindfulness…”. My further research revealed that Minor White was interested in Zen-philosophy which, like mindfulness, has buddhistic roots.

The three essential principals of mindfulness are:

and you can find those three principals in Minor Whites quote.

Intention – active state of mind

Practicing mindfulness is often connected to “switching of the auto-pilot”. This means that one should live his life intentionally in a conscious was instead of letting himself be floated around from the own moods. Minor White also describes his state of mind as active, blank – not static empty.

Act Now! Here! – ready at an instant

You can only be “ready at an instant to grasp an image” when the own thoughts are Now! Here! and are not digressing in a dream. The only moment to take a photo is now and the only place is here.

Do not judge (hastily) – not pre-formed

In my opinion, the attempt not to judge hastily is the most difficult mindfulness-principle but also the most important one! Minor White also emphasizes this part of the “blank mind”. He says to “grasp an image” and to “conceive a life in it” is only possible without “pre-formed pattern or preconceived idea”, without a fast judgement.
Really? No judgment?

How do you choose which photo is suited to be shown and which photo should better be deleted from the memory card – without judging?

Never to judge anymore is obviously not the way to. THe important thing is not to “pre-form a pattern” for the subject or the photo. You have to separate the judgement process from the process of phtographing. Resist the habit of thinking “the first thing i have to know is the value aof the photo – is it good or bad?”. Rating the photo into an internal or an external (contest etc.) system has to come after the shot, not during preparation.

Photograph as a state of mind

Interestingly you can find many quotes with the topic “Photograph as a state of mind”, e.g. from Michael Dubiner:
Being a photographer is as much a state of mind.

This way photography can develop from a simple activity over a hobby to a approach to life with influence an the state of mind.



Photographing mindfully attracts increasing attention

There are more and more pages or articles about photography on the internet which have a clear connection to mindfulness. It is not always an explicit connection but here on this page is mindfulness mentioned and  linked, digital photography school gives 4 tipps referencing mindfulness:

  • Be there
  • Chase the moments (jage die Momente, sei in der Szene)
  • Know what you feel (sei dir deiner Gefühle bewusst)
  • Use your other senses (nutze deine anderen Sinne)

I like this post especially because it addresses the perception of the own emotions “If the scene you are watching makes you angry, then be angry and capture angriness”. Many pictures i find on the internet could use more emotions!

There is also a new german blog writing about contemplative photography – i think this is an interesting concept!

It seems that i am not the only one making this connection. Please leave a comment below if you know of similar pages.



Rosinen Schwarz Weiss

To have a first-hand experience of mindfulness i suggest the raisin-practice.

For the practice you need:

  • 10 undisturbed minutes
  • three raisins (or something similar like pieces of an apple or gummi bears)
  • a seat
  • all 5 senses together

So retreat with your raisins and sit down relaxed. Leave room for all arising sensations, thoughts and emotions. Should your awareness wander away from the raisin – get it back kindly. Eat each raisin individually.

Touch and feel

You hold the raisin in your hand, close your eyes, touch and feel the raisin. Sense the raisin between your fingers and try to explain how it feels. Some words to come to mind could be: raw abrasive, dry, smooth, sticky, thin, firm, elastic.

Watch all perceptions that come to mind with curiousity.


Take the raisin to your ear and discover the sounds that it makes. Do you hear anything? Or maybe only when you move it? How would you describe those sounds? As crinkles, clicks or …? Are the sounds loud, dull, clear or …? Also listen with the other ear!


Sniff at the raisin and be aware of the notions going through your head. Do both nostrils have the same sensations or different? Does the intensity of the smell change? Possible adjectives: hot, sharp, sweet, greasy, rancid, musty, sour.


Open the eyes and discover the raisin visually from different angles and distances. How would you describe the raisin at the telephone in terms of colour, texture, shades, sheen? Take as much time as you need, imagine you had never seen a raisin before.


Lead the raisin to your lips and feel it with them, try to move it with your lips. Do your taste buds come to life? Take the raisin into your mouth slowly but for the moment don’t bite it! Examine the surface with your tongue, move it through your mouth e.g. along the palate. Stay open and curious for all sensations. Does the texture of the raisin change? Place it consciously on the molars – want to bite? Not yet! Plan to bite explicitly, chew it in slow-motion and record the rising senations (need to swallow?) and flavours. Chew until you feel the last noticeable bit, prepare to swallow and watch the process of swallowing. Do you feel the motion starting at throat the down to the stomach? Is the entire raisin gone or are there some remains in your mouth?


Try to take as much time for the second raisin but without thinking about the procedure in detail.

Eat the third raisin in the same way as you would normally eat a raisin. Compare the sensations, thoughts and emotions with the former runs.


Stay seated calmly for a short time and watch the thoughts that arise.


The three basic principles of mindfulness are illustrated very well by the raisin practice.

Act intentionally

You intend to take some time to enjoy the raisin – not more and not less!

Connect to the Now! Here!

The raisin takes your entire attention, you are not distracted by the past nor focused on the future.

Try not to judge (hastily)

This is the hardest one for me. It is a substantial difference if the raisin tastes “good” or just “sour”. More about that in my article.


Do not judge

Justitia - nicht Vorverurteilen“Do not judge” is one of the basic principles in acting mindfully and for me personally it is the one that is the hardest to implement. The example of the raisin-practice clarifies what i mean:

  • the raisin tastes good => is a judgement
  • the raisin tastes sweet => is a description

So what is the problem with judgement?

The judgement itself is not the problem, somehow you have to decide what you like to eat, what tastes good. Judgement becomes problematic, when it over before the sensation has reached your conscience and before the sensation has been evaluated. As long as you know in advance, before the sensation gets conscious, that the raisin tastes good (or bad), the real taste is irrelevant, the raisin becomes insignificant and the auto-pilot has assumed control again.

Do not pre-judge

From that angle “you shall not judge” is misleading, the actual meaning is “look out not to (pre-)judge hastily”. Being Now! Here” and acting intentionally is very helpful in this regard because in this way a buffer is created between sensation and judgement. The above image of Justitia depicts that meaning in a striking way.

What else is helpful??

In my experience the following attitudes make it easier to create that buffer between sensation and judgement:

  • staying curious
  • honest interest

Many things do not need to be judged – wether you find it great or usual that your neighbour drives a red ferrari, it won’t change your life significantly…



Breathing Space

Breathing Space is a short mindfulness-practice, easy to learn and simple to apply in daily life. It takes around three minutes and, after practicing it at home a couple of times, you can do it in every situation to find back to mindfulness.

Sanduhr - Breathing SpaceThe exercise has three sections, symbolized by an hourglass very nicely:

  • gather awareness (broad)
  • hold attention in your center (tight)
  • expand attention (broad)
Bring the basic principles of mindfulness to your mind before you start the practice. Exercise deliberately  Now! Here! and try not to judge (hastily).

Part 1

  1. sit (or stand) upright
  2. close your eyes (if it’s more comfortable: except for a small gap)
  3. recognise your emotions, thoughts and the sensations of your body

Try not to judge but simply realise the sensations thoughts and emotions – even if they are unpleasant. This deactivates the “autopilot” and leads your attention to your entire body.

Part 2

  1. now “tighten” your attention to your breath
  2. feel how your breath is moving your stomach – your center
  3. try to hold your attention at your center for one minute

lead your thoughts explicitly to your breath if your thoughts should straggle: “I breathe in … I breathe out …”.

Part 3

  1. now slowly expand your attention to the entire body
  2. let your breath take a backseat and watch your sensations, emotions and thoughts
  3. open your eyes widely

You could be very relaxed after the exercise maybe even sleepy. That’s good but can be inappropriate for some situations (driving a car!). In this case it is helpful to stretch yourself – like getting out of bed. This way you keep your attention and you are “back to 100%”.