Sunday, January 10, 2016

Pre-conception, Pre-visualization

The two words in the title may be poorly chosen, I am at peace with that.

If you approach a project, a body of work, with a firm idea of what it will be before you even begin, it's unlikely to go well. I use "begin" here in a quite broad sense, you "begin" long before you shoot. Perhaps decades, perhaps seconds, but the mental space between the beginning and the first exposure is large. It is in this interval where your conception of what you're trying to do forms. This is the space in which you grasp your subject, wrestle with it, internalize and react to it. It is in this space that the concept of the project is formed.

Doing this in a few seconds is possible but rare. A few hours or a few days is a useful idea of a minimum. But, you cannot begin until you are engaged with whatever it is you intend to shoot.

You cannot conceive of your Chicago portfolio before you go to Chicago, not if you want it to be about Chicago. And if it's not about Chicago, why on earth are you going to Chicago?

Pre-visualization is the process by which the concept is turned, in your mind, into a picture. It's the part after you conceive the project and, ideally, before you shoot, otherwise you're shooting blind.


This is probably best (often? usually? usefully) viewed as a nested bunch of loops. At any step you can always skip backwards one or more steps, and you're probably going to repeat it a lot.

It actually Will Not Work in any other order. Well, you can do something, but you're just shooting bullshit and then digging through it later to see if anything can be found in the mess you've made.


  1. Those damn concepts are HARD. I believe this is because they are normally founded on words. For me, a photographic project, on the other hand, begins with a visual and emotional attraction; for example, a place where I feel an urge to take pictures and can sense a certain potential. Now, it is quite easy to narrow down the conditions (weather, time of day, season ...) where this resonates with me the most. Going out when these conditions are met usually results in an aesthetically consistent set of pictures. In philosophical terms, a consistent set of things already represents a concept. But, this is an aesthetic concept and I usually struggle to find words for it. Interestingly, the Chinese and the Japanese have an established set of words for aesthetic concepts (e.g. wabi-sabi, yugen, shibui, iki in Japanese aesthetics).

  2. I think I'm with Thomas Rink here. I'm sure you don't intend it this way, but your suggested approach (from paragraph 5 onwards) sounds rather like a recipe for illustrating a thesis, even if it is a fresh thesis based on real experience.

    I had the good fortune to be asked to do a 10 day residency in Innsbruck, Austria, on the back of an exhibition there in summer 2014, and found that -- parachuted into a strange town at its least characteristic time of year (it's a skiing resort) -- I fell back on my visual "gut responses" even more than usual. In your terms, I suppose I was shooting bullshit, and after the 10 days I dug through it to see what I'd been doing. It turned out quite well, I think, but then my "visual gut" (?!) is a lot smarter than my brain, and I trust it more. This may be why I was asked to do the residency in the first place, of course.


    1. Allow me to pose what I think is the key question here, then:

      Was the work you did pretty much the same as your baseline, or was there something distinctly Innsbruck, or Innsbruck-as-seen-by-Mike about it?

    2. I suppose it was "Innsbruck-as-seen-from-Mike's-baseline" ... The exhibition was called "A Tourist From Mars", after all ;)


    3. Well, I'm not going to claim that my magic process is always *conscious*. I am, you may be surprised to learn, extremely introspective. Others, less so.

      I like to think that perhaps you were doing more or less what I suggest subconsciously. But perhaps not! There's no real way to know.

      It's possible you were shooting bullshit. It's possible that your baseline was, by happenstance, perfectly aligned with off-season Innsbruck. It's possible that you internalized some personal take on Innsbruck and it silently appeared without any fuss in your pictures.

      It's possible, some inconsiderate people like my wife might say "definite", that I am a dope.

    4. Your third paragraph sounds right to me (as in "all of the above").

      But always, always listen to your wife...


    5. I guess we're all different. Andrew, in my critique of your Vancouver set, I said that I was pretty impressed by your rather formal and thorough approach. Judging from what I read on Mike C(hisholms) blog, Mike's style of work seems to much more spontaneous; just the opposite (I expecially like his work about the abandoned university garden, what a treat). In the end, it is a personal matter.

      But, it is nice to have found a place where one can talk photography without boring gear talk. Thank you, guys! Where can I sign up for the talking workshop (I'll bring the beer ;^)

  3. But i don't drink beer....