Tuesday, December 15, 2015


This is really a response to a recent piece on LuLa unfortunately behind a paywall now. In it the author describes her process for pre-visualization.

I will set that aside for the nonce. I have long maintained that any successful picture starts with a concept and ends with execution, in that order. The concept might be a lengthy essay written a decade before the exposure. The concept might be a purely visual idea conceived an instant before the exposure. Usually it's somewhere in between, a somewhat fluid idea which can be roughly but not completely described in words. It's how the photographer sees the subject. It's an opinion, an imagining, a feeling.

The photographer has three problems, roughly. The first is to formulate an idea, a concept, an opinion. The second is to invent a way to execute that, to turn that idea into a picture in-the-mind. The third one which is how to turn that mind-picture into a real picture.

The first one I consider pretty easy, it's a very human thing to do. We all have ideas and opinions. We have fantasies and imagination. While there may be some would-be artists who have trouble with this part, I have no particular guidance for them and I think they are rare and, hmm, "not neurotypical" is I think the preferred term at the moment. Most of us have ideas and opinions about things, people, events that we see.

The third one is a technical problem. Ansel Adams wrote a bunch of books about it, and arguably most books about How To Photography cover aspects of it. How to actually make a picture with desired properties is the main thrust of photographic pedagogy, if any thrust at all exists. How to work out what the desired properties actually are is left un-discussed.

The second one is what I consider to be the hard problem, and it is often called previsualization. Adams, who was very big on it, talked about it constantly, is silent on how one actually does it. The LuLa piece goes through a process which, to be honest, makes no sense to me. The author starts with a clear concept, and then noodles around until the picture appears, and then she goes back and draws lines all over her pictures in an effort to explain how she got there.

I don't think that's possible. I think the process is essentially unknowable. You can't break it down into steps, into a procedure, a road that the conscious mind can follow. All you can really do is oil the machinery of the unconscious, which is where the action is going to happen. I've written a couple of things, here and here, on how to oil the machinery.

What it comes down to is that this, the hardest part of Art Making, is performed by subconscious machinery, a dark engine deep down in your mind. It doesn't work linearly, it doesn't follow logical processes. It consumes fodder and generates ideas, inspiration. So feed it well. All that crap about composition, whether you're reading about balance, variety, and unity in my book, or leading lines, rules of thirds, and golden spirals, it's just grist for the mill of the subconscious. Every picture you've ever seen is grist. It all goes into the machine.

The more material your subconscious has to gnaw on, the more likely you are to be able to turn your concept into a pre-visualized picture. If you can do that, only your technique will stop from achieving victory.

This, ultimately, is why questions of "personal style" and "how shall I make pictures that look like mine" are irrelevant.

The part of you that devises the picture is the same part of you that loves, that hates, that lusts, that dreams. It's the vast engine down in the murky depths of the brain that does, like it or not, almost all of your thinking for you. It knows nothing of deductive logic, or of processes and procedures. It doesn't know what the correct lighting ratio for a portrait of a woman is, and it doesn't know that the horizon line should never be in the middle.

But what it is, is you. Incomprehensible, unreasonable, unpredictable, beautiful, amazing you.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I have been taking pictures for 62 years, and I have just now begun to appreciate what you wrote in this article. It has taken me that long to work through all of the confusion and general BS associated with doing amateur photography. I am glad I don't do it for a living. I would have starved long ago. But I feel like some Zen student who has finally figured out an elementary koan, and I'm ready to go on to the next one.