The CDC reports that meditation is the fastest-growing wellness trend in America, with the number of practitioners tripling between 2012 and 2017. There are products (cushions, incense). There are classes (Den Meditation and other centers are mushrooming across L.A.) and travel (Sorry, can’t go on your week-long retreat in Bali, Facebook friend). There is even tech (apps like Headspace and Breethe let you follow along). But so far, there’s been no special way of commemorating your own meditating. It’s not like you are going to TikTok your peaceful breathing, and while Instagram yoga is a thing, the idea of posting a meditation selfie just seems…counterproductive?
Before-and-After Meditation Portraits Will Show You a Whole New Side of Yourself
But Studio City–based meditation instructor and photographer Jeff Kober found himself wanting to capture the clear-eyed result of meditation and launched meditation portraits. Think of them as during-and-after diptychs—the first photo is taken, eyes closed, as you are meditating. Then a follow-up photo is taken the moment your eyes open after meditating for 5 to 20 minutes. What makes Kober’s photos especially distinctive, besides the blissed-out look on the sitters, is his photo process, using black-and-white tintype photography. This form of image capturing dates to the 1860s (think of those posed Civil War shots from history books) and deploys an antique wooden camera that exposes an image onto a chemical-dusted metal plate instead of film.
When I went to Kober’s studio, a sunny building set up behind his Studio City home, I was surprised by how much fun the process was. Unlike most sterile photo studios where you passively have a photo taken of you, this one was alternately relaxing and collaborative. Kober explained that since this antique form of photography has a super-short focal length (i.e., image area that can be in sharp focus), and since the photo plate needs a long time to be exposed, subjects have to sit very still for way longer than the usual iPhone shutter click. (For me, it was ten long seconds.)
I sat on a stool in front of a backdrop, Kober focused the camera on my eyes (the part of the photo we look at most, he said, so that area that needs to be as sharp as possible), then placed a wire neck support behind my head so that I wouldn’t be tempted to sway during meditation. After meditating for a few minutes—it could have been five, maybe ten, who can tell while meditating?—I heard the shutter snap, and Kober swept the exposed plate to the back of the studio to develop it. After Zen-ing out for maybe ten minutes more, I opened my eyes and Kober took my photo again.
Next, I got to see how the process works in the dark room. I lost track of the chemical baths and washes that the plates went through—Kober was now part chemistry professor, part mad scientist—but I was fascinated by the almondy smell of potassium cyanide, the poisonous (and here, highly diluted) gas that’s used to affix the image on the plates.
As for the result? It captured a side of me I’m not used to seeing, which is me not grinning or talking or basically putting my focus anywhere in the outside world. It’s me turned inward—and I look happy. I’d recommend it as a gift for a meditation enthusiast or for someone who wants to strengthen their practice. (User tip: Wear a little makeup, because tintype makes even a little red appear darker than the naked eye sees it.)
Kober charges $100 for the image, which is a total deal for a professional portrait that’s as fun in the doing as in the record of it. You can book a session through jeff-kober.com.