I live near Carmel, California. The photographic history of this place is freighted with an approach to image-making called previsualization. Ansel Adams wrote about visualization, which he defined as “the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure”. Many say that Minor White invented the word previsualization, although he credited Adams and Edward Weston for the concept.
Previsulization is an ethos so much a part of the local photographic community that it seems heretical of me to question it. However, that’s what I’m going to do in this and subsequent posts. I’ll limit the scope of my arguments. I don’t say that previsualization is a bad thing for some photographers, or even most photographers. However, it’s something I resist taking very far in my own work. I have my reasons, and some of them may apply to you.
So, even if you’re one of the true believers, please humor me and read on with an open mind.
First, let me establish that, although I may be an outlier, I’m not alone. In 2001, when I interviewed Michael Kenna for the CPA newsletter Focus (you can read the whole interview here) he said:
One of the joys of night photography is that you can’t completely control it. I like to do eight hour exposures — just leave the shutter open, and see what happens. Fog moves in, clouds come and go, condensation might appear on the lens, the unexpected and unpredictable happens. I love that. One of the reasons I first did night photography was that I got a bit bored with previsualization. In the daytime, if you’re a reasonably competent photographer, there’s no reason you can’t get exactly what you see. I started making very long exposures and working at night in part to get some unpredictability back.
Here’s another thought. Henri Cartier-Bresson talked about looking for, and finding “the decisive moment”. I imagined that his contact sheets were populated by individual images carefully chosen in time. Imagine my surprise when I got to see many of his contact sheets at an exhibition at the ICP museum in New York City several years ago. In one respect, his contact sheets looked a lot like mine: finding a likely spot, exploring a few ways of dealing with it, running into some dead ends, finding something that works, and either making two or three quick exposures and moving on or making several exposures with essentially the same framing while waiting for people to arrange themselves. (I’m not claiming that my contact sheets look like Cartier-Bresson’s in any larger sense, although I wish they did). The contact sheets tell the story of a photographer working out the possibilities while making images, rather than sitting back and contemplating until the image is complete in his head before tripping the shutter.
In 1980, Lustrum Press published a book called Contact: Theory, which, for forty-odd photographers, presents a well-known photograph, the contact sheet from which the negative was picked, and an explanation by the photographer of the thinking involved in the selection. It’s out of print, but it’s worth looking for. By looking at the contact sheets, you’ll see how the photographers get to their images. You’ll see some approaches similar to Cartier-Bresson’s. You’ll see many other techniques. You’ll see things that didn’t work. You’ll see some photographic narration. You won’t see any perfect images unrelated to the others on the sheet.