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Friday, April 12, 2013

Whence Inspiration?

Ansel Adams and his acolytes, who are legion, are big proponents of a thing called pre-visualization. This is a process by which you imagine, in detail, the final print of an image before you shoot it. The Zone System is, essentially, an extremely finicky and laborious mechanism for translating a sufficiently detailed pre-visualization into a final print. This is all well and good, but there seems to be very little out there on how to get that pre-visualization in the first place.

How on earth shall I visualize a photograph I wish to make?

Previous exercises given here can help you practice the mechanics, if you will, of visualization. What are the features of a photograph one can visualize? Contrast, saturation, placement of objects within the frame, and on and on. This still does not address the problem of what to visualize. What shall we stick into our blank mental frame?

Let's take a little tour of some photographers, and imagine how they might have gone about making their pictures, how their inspiration might have arisen.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Claims to have worked largely by instinct, seeing the image and pressing the shutter all in an instant. Certainly he seems to have been largely uninterested in post-processing and printing. He worked largely with a single printer, who no doubt brought a vision to the printing work. Cartier-Bresson's visualization was surely informed by this knowledge of how the final print would look. In any case. for his street photography, he seems to have simply placed a frame around objects in his field of view by selecting a viewpoint, and a moment in time.

Ansel Adams: Of course very interested in post processing, in the sense of printing in a dramatic and stylized fashion. At any given time, he surely had a specific style of printing that informed his way of looking at the world. His method was perhaps to look at an object in nature, and to see how it might look now, or at a future time, in one of his prints. One imagines that his inspirations took the form of "nice tree, but if the sun was right there and there was a bit of snow on the ground, it would be perfect. I should come back in January, about 3pm." He wrote things that suggest that this is in fact just how he worked, at least some of the time.

Andreas Gursky: All about the post-processing now. One imagines that he sees a scene, and imagines what it would be like with this removed, and that placed into the frame, and the light so, and the clouds so, and so forth. He applies an intense layer of imagined photoshop on top of the sorts of things that Ansel Adams applied in terms of light, season, time, and so forth. His inspiration, perhaps, consists in looking at the Rhine, and coming to realize how it might be made to look in an enormous print, with enormous amounts of photoshop.

By chewing on this and other imagined examples, we can see that the pieces that go into an inspired image are: the objects in the field of view - what you are looking at; post-processing ideas; stylistic ideas - which combine placement of seen objects with post-processing and other photographic ideas; and probably many other inputs. This stuff is pushed around in the mind and then, either instantly, more slowly, or never, a pre-visualization appears. An idea for a picture is upon us.

These inspirations might be small, a simple treatment for a subject: I should light the flower from behind. They might be larger: I want an elephant, 400 bricks, a lights here, here, here, tint it all red, and then -- then -- I really have something. The inspiration might be developed through hours of tinkering, or it might hit you in an instant that now, this instant the street scene has fallen into perfection.

Let's take a moment to see how inspiration works. Roughly speaking, this is the process:

  • You begin to think about a problem of some sort. Mental resources are marshalled.
  • You test solutions, imagining possibilities and trying them out, to no particular avail. Perhaps you devise solutions, but they are unsatisfactory.
  • You relax and let your mind wander a bit.
  • This in turn causes a wider net of mental associations to be unconsciously cast. More ideas and resources are marshalled, but you are not aware of them.
  • The mind generates a solution, pulling together a really good set of associations which neatly solves the problem.
  • You, in your conscious mind, recognize this solution as such. (this, it turns out, is a really interesting step)
  • You shout Eureka! and leap out of your bath.

How can you help this along? You need some resources to marshall, in the first place. You need more resources that are further out there, to be scooped up and examined by the unconscious parts of the process. Then you need a problem, and proper management of your mental states. First concentrate, then relax. Finally, you need some luck.

In order to develop an inspired photograph, therefore, you need a bunch of visual ideas. Pictures you have seen, styles you have thought about, digital effects you know about. You need a wide array of stuff: paintings, styles of art, novels you have read and songs you have heard, people you have loved. Your whole experience as a person can be involved. Make that experience rich, but make it richer in art, richer still in visual art, and richest of all in photographic art.

The problem for the photographer will generally be simple. How shall I photograph this flower? How can I make this mountain look dramatic and yet beautiful? What light would make this model look terrifying?

Now, manage your mental states. Think hard on your problem. Devise specific solutions:

I will use a hard-edged light on this model, to make her look scary. No, I will light her from below, with a hard-edged light!

Carry on until you get stuck, and find yourself mentally spinning uselessly. Carry on for a little while to give your brain momentum. Now take a break. Go for a walk, take a shower, take a nap. If your mind has been wound up enough, it will carry on with a mass of unconscious inertia, gnawing on your problem. If you are lucky, at some moment a bit later on, you will suddenly see how your should photograph the model, or the flower. The solution will appear, more or less fully formed, ideally.

Now you must translate this solution into a photograph. This is a technical problem.

How shall I produce that lighting effect? How can I make the shadows deeper and more sharply edged? How can I create a densely grainy effect?

Technical problems, being technical problems, are solved by the gigabyte load, on web pages all across the internet.

May I suggest google?

1 comment:

  1. A bunch of visual ideas= I call it my visual library.

    Bresson said in an interview: our sourroundings are made up of lines, balance, composition. Everything is the rule of the Golden Spiral". It was in a CD accompanying a book sold at the Louvre.