Finding beauty in everything, through a camera lens

Karen Reivich of Penn’s Positive Psychology Center turned to photography to reconnect to herself during the pandemic. It helped her discover a new way of seeing the world.

Ferns with large drops of dew clinging to them, with green and yellow shapes blurry in the background.
Karen Reivich has walked the same path in a Cape May, New Jersey, nature preserve hundreds of times. One day, she spotted a spider web covered in dew. She spent the next 30 minutes photographing it, then the rest of the morning looking for and taking pictures of dew including these dewdrops clinging to wispy fern branches.

Karen Reivich is an expert in resilience, a skill that’s become ever more crucial as the pandemic drags on. But even as she helped other people discover ways to feel complete, Reivich herself felt a sort of disconnect. 

“There was a gap between what I do professionally and my own life,” she says. “What became transparent to me was that I wasn’t feeling whole.” Then, this past spring, Reivich, director of resilience and Positive Psychology training programs in Penn’s Positive Psychology Center, started taking pictures, at first with her cellphone camera and then with a DLSR she received as a gift from her husband. 

She began by photographing what was physically in front of her—a tree, a flower—what she called the “obvious things” she encountered. Then one day, a few blocks from her house, she came across a partially demolished house. 

“There was nobody there; half of the walls were already down. I went over to see what was happening. There was shattered glass and pieces of brick and jagged, broken floorboards and twisted metal. I was transfixed,” Reivich says. “The house was being torn down, but if you looked closely there was so much beauty. I befriended the construction workers and went every day for probably six weeks to see what changed overnight.” 

It was a turning point for what became “Summer Fifty-Five,” a portfolio of Reivich’s images she named in recognition of her own 55th summer. She goes out daily, regardless of the weather, something she’s now been doing for almost 10 months. 

Taking pictures has changed how Reivich sees the world. “When I started, I worried whether I’d see anything new, but I’ve come to understand and trust that, whenever I go for a walk with my camera, I’ll notice something I didn’t see before, even when I’m walking the same street day after day,” she says. “That stuns me still, and it’s meaningful. I think that’s true of everything, if you just allow yourself to be curious and open—about other people, the literal path you’re walking, yourself—there’s always something to spark curiosity and wonder.” 

To others seeking a way to reconnect to themselves and the world, she recommends they ask themselves which positive emotions feed their soul. That doesn’t only mean what makes a person happy, she says. Many other feelings, including curiosity, gratitude, and awe, fall into that bucket, too. 

Positive emotions connect us to something larger than ourselves, says Reivich. “When I stop to really look at dewdrops or even orange traffic cones, I remember and feel that I’m part of a world where there’s magic. I feel lucky to be on this planet at just the moment to observe those things. If we can answer for ourselves what positive emotions don’t just feel good but lodge within us and then stay open to experiencing those emotions, that can help sustain us.”

Reivich’s “Summer Fifty-Five” website includes dozens of images she’s taken during the pandemic. Fourteen are featured here.

The underside of two bridges, with blue, purple, and teal greens visible.
These images show different perspectives—one zoomed way in, the other farther away—of two bridges in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Manayunk. “If you look closely, you’ll see so much texture and color. That’s something I wouldn’t have noticed until I started to wonder about the underside of bridges,” Reivich says.
A blurry picture with many see-throughs rectangles. Behind them just colors of blue and orange and gray.
“That’s ice on a truck headlight,” Reivich says. Walking around her neighborhood the day after a snowstorm, she noticed a parked truck. “The ice caught my attention,” she says. “I’ve gotten very comfortable sitting down on streets, so I sat down and started taking pictures.” A moment later, she heard laughter and saw the truck’s driver on a telephone pole above both amused and confused. After a brief conversation, he joined her on the ground. “He climbs down the ladder, then sits down to look at the ice on his headlight with me. It was a fun moment of connection between us.”
Trees and sky reflected in a puddle on asphalt, with a pile of snow showing on the right-side of the image.
Reivich took this reflective photo in February near her home outside of Philadelphia. “The trust that there’s always something new to experience is probably the most meaningful part of this,” she says.
An abstract close-up image of shattered glass with different textures and colors, including grey, orange, and teal blue.
To Reivich, there’s an innate beauty in shattered glass. “I tend toward anxiety; I can be pessimistic,” she says. “But when I pause and reflect on what’s beautiful around me, it lodges in my soul and changes the way I perceive the world and myself.”
A close-up image of a bicycle leaning against a very colorful wall.
Walking along the Schuylkill River Trail, Reivich spotted this bike out of the corner of her eye. To get a closer look, she had to leave the path and walk through an area typically off-limits. “Normally I wouldn’t have done that, but I wanted to see what the bike looked like,” she says. “This whole project has emboldened me to be a little braver.”
Two close-up images of tree bark peeling.
Bark offers layers of mystery for Reivich to unravel, she says. In these two images, taken near a train station in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, she aims to capture the many colors as well as the bark’s nooks and crannies and moss. “I went through a moss phase. If I zoom in, any layer of moss has more layers to it.”
A close-up image of ice frozen on top of asphalt.
She took a whole series of thin sheets of ice on asphalt, like the image here. When she zoomed into the photo later, she realized the circles had an amoeba-like quality to them. “They looked like they were moving,” she says.
A large can in the middle of the image. The outside reads, "Norton Refracteries Magnorite Petriclase Electrical Grade, Norton Company." To the right of the can is part of a green door. To the left of the can is part of a window with a green sill and wiring across the front.
Reivich can spend an hour staring at something intriguing through her camera. One day in January, the object of affection became this can, which she found in Manayunk. She loves its juxtaposition to the wall, its placement between the green door and green sill, and how it sits in front of the textured white wall.
A layered image of a person holding a cell phone beneath blurring of buildings and windows and doors.
Though it’s hard to tell, this is a self-portrait. “I’m looking into a building, and I’m reflected in the window,” Reivich says. “The staircase is in the building. The blue up top is from behind me. All the little circles on the right-hand side are the door of the building.”
Graffiti atop a reflection of a building that shows several windows with shutters.
Sometimes Reivich walks for miles around the city looking for something that sparks her interest. Here, the reflection-within-a-reflection moved her. It’s a mirror image of a building across the street, caught in the graffiti-covered window of a shuttered building.
A building being torn down, seen through an open area that once held a door but is now just concrete.
Reivich says finding splendor in the demolition of a house near where she lived, seen here, helped her start paying attention to the world in a different way, focusing on subtlety and nuance rather than the obvious.

All images above by Karen Reivich. Reivich is the director of resilience and positive psychology training programs for the Positive Psychology Center in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.