Photography, like any art, improves with experimentation. Great photographs don’t usually come about as the result of extended navel-gazing sessions, but as the result of trying something, having it kind of work, making it better, exploring blind alleys, honing away unnecessary elements, and finally arriving at something worthwhile.
The result of an experiment is, by definition, unknown. Therefore the result can’t be previsualized. Therefore previsualization and experimentation are incompatible. Too much emphasis on previsualization discourages experimentation.
For me, there’s an element of play in making photographs. I can’t make the case as logically as I did in the preceding paragraph, but I find that emphasis on previsualization diminishes playfulness. Trying to tie down all the options and leave nothing to chance sets up a frame of mind for me that makes it hard to be light, be open, and go with where the subject leads me.
In the now anachronistic world of visual astronomy, if you wanted to see a dim nebula well, you wouldn’t look straight at it; you’d see it a lot better if you kept it in your peripheral visual field. Similarly, if you want to learn how various photographic actions affect the results, you’re going to have to experiment. If you let go of slavish previsualization and experiment more, you’ll learn more and get better at previsualization.
Some of you may be saying: “There’s no conflict here; the Zone System is based upon controlled experimentation – that’s how you decide on your film speeds and your development times.” You’re right about that. However, Zone System adherents are either testing or making images. I am arguing for more fluidity – getting to a place where there’s no clear dividing line between experimenting (playing, if you will) and doing serious work.
When I see the work of photographers who talk a lot about previsualization, I see, for most, a fairly narrow range of subject matter, and a similarly limited range of approach. The images usually have high technical quality. That all makes sense. If you’re intent on previsualizing the result, you’re not going to search out situations that are so different from what you’re previously encountered that you don’t know what the final image will look like. If you’ve developed techniques for dealing with photographic problems you’re going to use those techniques because you know how they work: if you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Gallery owners will love you, because they value predictability, but there will be roads not taken.
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