There’s a saying in the military that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. There’s a corollary in photography. No matter how much you plan and scheme and try to work things out ahead of time, the making of the image never goes quite the way you thought it would; this is especially true at the beginning of a project. Military planners consider the evanescence of battle plans to be a bad thing, and they try to minimize the damage to the plan by thinking out in advance how things can go wrong. I think the way that the world stubbornly refuses to bend to your preconceptions is one of the great things about photography, and a powerful source for creativity if you treat it as a guest.
The first level of the artist’s dance with reality happens even if everything is under your control. Say you’re in the studio, working on a still life composed of objects you have collected. All you have to do is arrange them, light them, pick the lens, select the camera angle, frame the shot, and trip the shutter. Simple, right? Let’s imagine that you have worked out the image in your mind, and even made a sketch. Reality attacks with the second object you put down; a quick peek at the ground glass reveals that it doesn’t hide something on the first object the way you’d imagined. When you turn on the modeling lights, things really start to go south. The shadows are hard where you thought they’d be soft, and they fall differently than you’d planned. Now you have two choices; you can struggle with the setup and bend over backwards to try to get the shot you’d first imagined, or you can take what the world gives you and work with it to get a great image, even if it’s not the image you set out to get. Struggling doesn’t frequently succeed for me, but apparently it works often enough to keep some people coming back to it. Taking that shadow that’s harder than I thought it would be as a new starting place, and figuring out how I can work with it, rather than immediately reaching for the nearest diffuser, works better for me. It really is a dance; sometimes you lead, and sometimes you let the world lead. The same approach works wonders when you’re in the darkroom or at the computer doing the post-exposure part of image-making.
It’s even more obvious that you’re not totally in control when you’re out in the world. There’s a progressive diminution of hegemony as you progress from unpopulated landscapes to working with models on location to street photography. What works for me is to treat them all the same. You try something, see what you get, and then figure out how to make that into a good image.
I recently had the world show me the way to an entirely new series. A few years ago, I was in Yuma, Arizona waiting for dawn. I started making images of some funky old gas stations. I thought there was some potential there, so a few months ago I went out to explore the concept. The very first night, peeking at the tiny images on the camera’s LCD display, I realized the new series wasn’t going to be just about gas stations. In fact, gas stations play a tiny role in the Hopper-esque essay on urban isolation that is emerging for me. It’s something I never would have gotten to by sitting in a room and planning.
There’s another benefit to allowing your plans to be malleable and consciously looking to reality for clues to how you should change them: it feels good. There is something calming and pleasant about the state of mind that allows you to be open to what the world has to give you.