Photography as a Form of Mindfulness

(Today’s posting is by guest photographer Richard Todd. See below for a brief bio. Also, I would like it to be a reminder that we would love to hear from members who express their spiritual naturalism through the arts. If you have art work you would consider publishing, please contact us.)

When my friend Thomas Schenk asked about posting some of my photographs on SNS, I thought of the saying, frequently attributed to Yogi Berra, that “You can see a lot by just observing.” Like other Berra-isms, it’s inane with a Zen-like touch of profundity. In this case, it arguably aligns with spiritual naturalism, by hinting at how mindfulness can help us see more clearly and deeply what is right in front of us. I say that tentatively, as I am no expert on spiritual naturalism and have only recently encountered the SNS website.

Similarly, I am not an expert photographer, not remotely in the same league as the artists I looked at in the SN Academy. But I get around, on foot and bike, and I look around. These days, of course, I usually have at least a cell phone camera with me to frame what I find interesting.

For me, that exercise of framing—deciding what’s in, what’s out, and where to focus—is a useful form of mindfulness. It forces me to slow down and look more carefully, to examine the individual components of a scene and how their various colors, shapes, and positions contribute and interrelate, and to think about what interests me and why. Even when I am without a camera, I may still go through this framing exercise as a way of seeing more deeply. 

I offer the photos here to celebrate what can be seen by just appreciatively observing one’s own neighborhood and to encourage mindful observation of the surroundings of everyday life. Some of these photos were taken on nature walks in nearby parks, but most were shot in brief pauses when something caught my eye while out running errands or exercising in my Twin Cities (Minnesota) neighborhood.

On the one hand, the Twin Cities area is a generally pleasant and livable place, blessed with the Mississippi River, many lakes and parks, and lots of walking and biking trails. And so far it has mostly escaped deadly heat waves and acutely dangerous air pollution, so I can get around outside in all of its very diverse seasons. On the other hand, it has, the Mississippi excepted, a somewhat plain Midwestern geography and climate, with no huge mountains, sea shores, canyons, or wilderness areas that might attract dedicated nature photographers. Accordingly, much of what I find interesting lies in everyday patterns of form and color that I see looking down the way or just off the edge of a sidewalk or urban trail.

I am grateful to SNS for this opportunity to share these photos. I hope you find some of them interesting. They are organized seasonally, beginning with winter. 


Wet snow on black boughs,
Gray sky in kitchen windows.
I peel an orange.

Color, at least natural color, can be hard to find in a Minnesota winter. But forms may be highlighted, especially by wet snow.


The Mississippi in downtown St. Paul often has a mix of ice and open water, creating interesting patterns along the edge of the ice, seen here from the Wabasha Street Bridge. 


Winter color is scarce and muted but can be poignant when found—as in this photo on a snow-free December 2021 day.


Winter can also bring fog to the Mississippi, erasing details to give a different, somewhat mysterious, sense of space, form, relationships, and even time.


Streets lined with flowers.
Car’s wake sets apple petals
Swirling in my path. 

Simpler forms and muted colors linger in early spring but are brightened by a stronger sun. Warmth brings more life to the river, including eagles bathing in the shallows (just visible in the center here).


Across the city are small mostly unattended patches of ground along roads and sidewalks. A little world of flowers and colorful weeds sprouts up sporadically there, as here between a retaining wall and a quiet street along the bluff.


Humans and the forms they construct are an important part of nature in the city. In some lucky places, gray skies and rain can show a harmony between human and natural forms. 


Maybe this image, at an old condominium building a block from home, speaks for itself.


Warm day, setting sun.
Shadow of a squirrel climbs
Shadow of a tree.

On a trail along a busy road paralleling the river one day, I noticed a bright patch of thistles. I biked back a few days later to try photographing them. Luckily, I had company.


Biking from my brother’s home to my father’s care facility, I came over a hill to a dramatic Midwestern summer sky. Had enough time to stop briefly and capture a moment.


Not sure why I like this photo. Its elements are ordinary, and the color palette is pretty restrained for summer. But something in the shapes, shades, and patterns pleases me. I took it in a brief pause while on a brisk walk along a trail near the Mississippi just above downtown.


I said that framing a photo helps me see more thoughtfully. But sometimes the photo itself helps me see things too. The plant here sprang up, on its own, in a prairie garden area in my yard. I went out to see what this intruder was and decide if we should keep it. I took this photo for my plant ID app, was told it might be a heart-shaped four o’clock, and decided to let it be. Only later, in reviewing the photo, did I notice the beetle. I have not identified it, but it makes me even happier to have taken the photo.


Dark Mississippi
Twists and channels through the trees.
Yellow leaves dive in.

Fall reveals the forms that supported summer’s blossoming. I am not plant-smart enough to identify this species, and neither is my app. It lives in the Trout Brook Sanctuary a couple miles from home, where I sometimes walk.


Fall also brings the year’s richest array of deep colors, sometimes concentrated in simple forms.


If you live in the upper Midwest, it’s hard to resist the odd beauty of milkweed, whether in its autumnal fullness, as here, or its stark winter emptiness.


I’ll close with another mix of natural and human urban forms—a grapevine on a fence a block from home.


Learn about Membership in the Spiritual Naturalist Society

The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

SNS strives to include diverse voices within the spectrum of naturalistic spirituality. Authors will vary in their opinions, terms, and outlook. The views of no single author therefore necessarily reflect those of all Spiritual Naturalists or of SNS.

Bio: Richard Todd retired from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in 2019 and now serves as an Adjunct Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota, teaching about economic issues in Indigenous communities. He has lived within walking distance of the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities for most of his 70+ years, residing now, with his wife Patricia, near downtown St. Paul. He enjoys getting outside to walk, bicycle, skate, cross-county ski, etc. and, although not religious or a conscious practitioner of spirituality, tries to be aware, helpful, and kind.

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