David Ulrich: How to be a Conscious Photographer

David Ulrich is a photographer, writer and teacher. He worked as an assistant to minor white, drank with Ansel Adams and crossed paths with many great photographers of the late 20th century. His life changed when he witnessed the Kent State shootings in 1970, which led him to change his path from photojournalism to fine art photography. His latest book, influenced by his Zen practice, is The conscious photographer.

One of the defining moments of your life was when you witnessed the Kent State shootings in 1970. How did that affect you?

I was a 20-year-old photojournalism student in 1970. There were campus-wide protests against the Vietnam War. At first, it was a rather festive event. People were bringing their children, there were peace signs, etc. On the evening of May 2, someone burned down the ROTC building and activists from all over the country started coming to Kent State. On May 3, the Governor called in the National Guard, things started to get a bit violent. They used rifle butts on unarmed students.

On May 4, the protest was quite large, and many National Guardsmen descended on campus. What we didn’t know at the time was that they had live ammunition in their guns. The students were getting a bit rowdy. The National Guard attempted to quell the protests by firing tear gas into the crowd, and the crowd picked up the tear gas and threw it away. At no time was the guard within half a football field of the students. And at some point, someone gave the order to shoot.

Tulips, Cape Cod, MA ©David Ulrich

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They fired indiscriminately into the crowd. Fortunately, many guards were unable to do so. They aimed above or below the students. But some were aimed at students. Four students were killed and a number were injured. It was a wake up call for me; I had never been in contact with death and violence before.

I quit photojournalism. I realized that to be a photojournalist, you had to engage first and foremost in the social order. I believed that the only element that could change things for the better was an expansion of the consciousness of the individual and, by extension, of society. And that art and creativity, I believed, had the ability to generate consciousness. So I dropped out of college and took a menial job delivering flowers. I then met and started working with photographer Minor White.

‌Minor White isn’t a name you hear much these days, but he was hugely prominent in photography at the time.

He was co-founder and editor-in-chief of Opening For more than 20 years. His mission, in the broadest possible sense, was to teach people how to see. He was a Zen practitioner and he brought a lot of Zen exercises to class. We meditate regularly. He viewed photography and art exactly as I said before, as a way to expand his consciousness. It was six very powerful years. It was life changing. This put me on the path of a seeker. And that has colored my attitude towards photography to this day.

In the introduction to The conscious photographer, you say: “To me, photography is many things: a way to interact more deeply with the world, a path of personal growth and transformation, a challenge to become more whole and attentive, a catalyst to stimulate creative expression, and a vehicle for insight and understanding. It’s a lot.

It’s a lot. But it’s all of those things. Any creative art, not just photography, if approached in depth, can bring you into greater contact with yourself. It helps in the goal of self-knowledge. But photography, above all, is a way to the world. I love the alternate nature of photography. On one side, I look inside; the standard definition of mindfulness is that I am aware of myself, I am aware of my body posture, my breathing, my heartbeat, my emotions, I see my thoughts flowing.

Shelburne Falls, MA.
Shelburne Falls, MA. ©David Ulrich

But many people stop there. Mindfulness is also about being aware of what is in front of you and your surroundings. It is therefore a double attention. Part of my focus is on me, half of my focus is on the world, and there’s a relationship there. And that’s the power of photography, the relationship between our internal dynamics and everything in the outside world.

You say that “photographers often spend a disproportionate amount of energy thinking about and even obsessing over tools and equipment.” At the same time, you stress the importance of knowing how your camera works.

I have nothing against the equipment. In fact, I love the equipment. And I think our thirst for material can really help us as photographers. But I don’t think we should stop there. I think this is a phase that we have to overcome. Because photography is above all a medium that communicates. The viewer really doesn’t care what kind of lens we use.

What type of equipment do you use?

For much of my career, I used a Deardorff 5×7 camera. Today, I’m more digital.

‌There is a very big difference in slow photography from working with a view camera. How much did you have to change your thinking when you switched from that camera to digital?

One thing I really wanted when working with a view camera was the ability to snap my eyes and take a picture that I could keep. And now we have that with cell phones. So to some extent I found it liberating to switch to a wearable camera. Let’s not forget that surveillance cameras are intended for young people. They are incredibly heavy. I was doing long hikes in the field, carrying 40 or 50 pounds of gear.

Burning the Sugar Cane, Maui, HI.
Burning the Sugar Cane, Maui, HI. ©David Ulrich

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‌If you look at Joel Meyerowitz, whose first job was freehand, when he went to Cape Cod with a view camera, everything slowed down, the way he looked, the way he photographed. We see it in his book Cape Light.

He did, completely. I appreciate both. I appreciate the reflective and wearable process, where you can bring a camera to your eye in an instant reaction to the scene. And I also enjoy the contemplative and patient process with a view camera. I feel like they both have their place.

I think that photography today is infected with a similarity. We all use the same camera. We all use a rectangular format, DSLR or mirrorless camera, or cell phone, very few people use a square canvas, like a Lens Reflex or Hasselblad twin. Very few people use panoramic cameras, and very few people use cameras that have a different aspect ratio, typically, than the rectangle SLR. I find the resemblance a bit disturbing.

‌We live in a world where everyone has relatively powerful cameras in their pockets. As a teacher, what sort of preconceptions do your students have about photography?

I’m sorry to use this sentence in this way, so I’ll apologize in advance. But the first challenge I have as a teacher is to break up what I call “popular photography aesthetics” and move them away from clichés to something more authentic. The biggest problem I have with newbie photographers today is that they’ve seen so many photos.

Oceano Dunes, CA #48.
Oceano Dunes, CA #48. ©David Ulrich

‌You emphasize the importance of looking at photo books to learn more about photography. One of the difficulties is that they are often expensive to acquire. So what is your advice to students?

The way I looked at other photographers’ work when I was growing up was looking at prints, going to galleries, and going to museums. Every city, more or less, has museums that show photography today.

When I was young, you could call the Museum of Modern Art [in New York City], and you might say, “Can I come in and see this collection?” When I was working with Minor White, I wanted to watch Edward Weston’s master set. So I called MoMA and made an appointment, and sat down with white gloves and boxes of 800 Weston prints that I could handle myself.

While I was in the room, John Szarkowski walked in. He was the director of photography and he was meeting Doon Arbus, the daughter of Diane Arbus. They were making decisions about what images would be in the Diane Arbus monograph. They went through all the tests. When could this happen today? That a young person can’t walk into a big museum and look at work like that, let alone have the director and Diane Arbus’ daughter come to a book-editing session right next to you.

When I was growing up, it was a small, intimate community. I got to know Minor White, of course; I knew Robert Frank. Ansel Adams, Judy Dater, Imogen Cunningham, the list goes on. Because everyone knew everyone. And they were like, ‘Oh, you work with Minor White. Pick me up when you’re in California. Ansel Adams invited me to cocktails at his house overlooking the Pacific. And he could drink me under the table.

‌It was a privileged time. Because you were circling one of the key photographers in the United States at the time, it opened up all kinds of doors for you.

Yes, he did. But even without Minor, when I was in undergraduate and graduate school, a lot of these photographers came to talk to our classes. It was an intimate community. And that’s where the privilege was, in that intimacy.

The "Conscious photographer" cover
The Conscious photographer is available now. ©David Ulrich

Another quote from your book that I like is “A photograph lives in the space between itself and a viewer where a response takes place.”

Absolutely. The intention of a photographer is important. But ultimately, the meaning of the image is what the viewer gets out of it. I would say that all art is not subjective. You can disassemble a photo, you can talk about the frame, the light, the moment, the color, etc. And you can talk about using these things, whether they’re effective or not.

‌Zen teaches that the real world is an illusion and that we create the world with our consciousness. A photograph, in some ways, freezes what our minds have created, and I find that to be an interesting paradox.

I struggled with this question. The other issue I have struggled with in Zen is the relationship between emptiness and form.

I think there are different levels of experience. We live in a double world, a world of phenomena, a world of heat and cold, of light and darkness. And this world exists on one level. We all have times when we can experience the oneness of life, we experience a deep silence, or a deep emptiness that could be said to be non-dual. So we have penetrated into a deeper layer. In this layer, one could say that the phenomena are an illusion. We live in both worlds. I think at the deeper layers of experience we recognize emptiness, silence, the ground of being. But we also live in the world of material reality. And we have to balance those things; we must have one foot in both worlds.

Stewart C. Hartline