This is an edited version of an article originally published in LensWork Magazine. I’ve had the great privilege of contributing to LensWork regularly for nearly a decade. I consider it the finest print magazine available today for creative photographers. I hope you consider subscribing.
The state of mind of the photographer while creating is a blank. I might add that this condition exists only at special times, namely when looking for pictures . . . We should note that the lack of a pre-formed pattern or preconceived idea of how anything ought to look is essential to this blank condition.
The term visualization in the sense of forming a mental image in the “mind’s eye” before making an exposure, is generally attributed to Ansel Adams. As the dramatized story goes, the idea came to Adams in 1927 when he realized he could predict the effect of a red filter when making his famous photograph, Monolith, the Face of Half-Dome. In truth, it is likely that Adams’s epiphany came from his friend and senior, Edward Weston, who used the term in some of his journal entries written in Mexico in 1923.
Adams does deserve credit for evolving and formalizing the idea of visualization, making it a central premise of his approach to photography. He opens the first chapter of his book, The Camera, by defining visualization as “the entire emotional-mental process of creating a photograph,” and as including “the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure.” Implied in Adams’s definition is the idea that a visualized photograph must be different from the subject as commonly seen (otherwise there would be no need to visualize an “anticipated image”).
Some use the terms visualization and previsualization interchangeably. I propose that we may be well served to distinguish visualization from previsualization—to consider the “pre” part as referring to things that may precede visualization: things we may do in preparation for visualization that may make our visualizations more effective, more productive, and more expressive.
If visualization is the forming of an anticipated image in the mind before making an exposure, then previsualization may refer to anything that comes before that. Taken literally, just about anything we do before visualizing—whether sipping our morning coffee or brushing our teeth—may be considered as previsualization. However, among the things that may precede visualization there are also certain attitudes, activities, and modes of thought that, if we apply them consciously and deliberately prior to setting out to make photographs, may have direct and desirable effects on our later efforts to visualize.
Collectively, the attitudes and practices that may be conducive to better visualization and that we may consider as useful forms of previsualization, amount to what’s known as mindfulness: taking conscious control of our attention and directing it at will toward aspects of our present experience: prompting ourselves deliberately to notice, to become aware, and to take inventory of qualities of our immediate surroundings and inner states—the building blocks available to us to make photographs from.
Conversely, mindfulness also involves reclaiming attention that may otherwise be hijacked by unproductive distractions: thoughts that are unrelated to our immediate experience and that may diminish our awareness of things that may yield worthy photographs, or even sabotage our enjoyment of and interest in making photographs.
It is folly to think about previsualization in the abstract as something unequivocally good or bad. Certainly, previsualization may be a good and useful practice when we consider it in terms of mindfulness—immersing ourselves in an experience so that we may enjoy it more and visualize photographs more effectively. But some forms of previsualization may in fact have the opposite effect.
The most insidious and undesirable form of previsualization is preconception—deciding and/or planning in advance what photographs we’ll make rather than remaining open, allowing creative ideas to ensue spontaneously from a meaningful experience—an epiphany, a chance discovery, a serendipitous stroke of inspiration, a powerful emotion. Since we cannot predict in advance how we may feel or what may inspire us at some future time, no preconceived photograph can be considered expressive. Worse yet, preconception may bias, limit, or extinguish entirely our ability to conceive creative ideas in real time, in response to experience.
When we previsualize—whether in real time or in advance—is just as important as whether we previsualize.
When we previsualize by way of making ourselves mindful—attentive to details of our environment and experiences as they happen—we “prime” our creative pump and prepare ourselves to visualize more effectively. In the simplest sense, noticing more details in our environment that we might otherwise miss gives us a richer array of elements to use in our visualization. But this is not all. Mindfulness also makes us more acutely aware of our inner states: feelings, moods, ideas. These states make the soil out of which concepts—the subjective things we may wish to express (not just portray objectively) in our photographs—may arise.
In further credit to Ansel Adams, one of the few times he used the term “previsualize” rather than just “visualize,” is in reference to concepts, distinguishing them from content and craft. In a 1943 article titled, A Personal Credo, Adams wrote, “A photograph is not an accident—it is a concept. It exists at, or before, the moment of exposure of the negative. From that moment on to the final print, the process is chiefly one of craft; the previsualized photograph is rendered in terms of the final print by a series of processes peculiar to the medium.”
In the same sense that previsualization may refer to useful things we may do in preparation for visualization, and visualization referring to images we anticipate before making an exposure; some photographers suggested “postvisualization” as a term referring to useful things we may do after exposure.
The first to mention the term “postvisualization” was Minor White, who suggested that, when preparing to print a photograph, “a resurgence of the creative state of mind is desirable.” In other words, White suggests that recalling the creative experience—what you hoped to express at the time you visualized the photograph—is useful in guiding later printing decisions.
Jerry Uelsmann offered a different way to think about postvisualization. Uelsmann considered postvisualization as, “the willingness on the part of the photographer to re-visualize the final image at any point in the entire photographic process.” In other words, rather than allowing the original visualization to become prescriptive and to dictate all further steps, Uelsmann (correctly) observed that it’s the nature of creative ideas that they may arise at any time. By remaining open to possibilities, a photographer may realize after exposure (perhaps when processing or printing) that the original visualization may not have been the most effective, and allow for further consideration, perhaps even a new visualization of the captured photograph.
This image is part of my new Celestia portfolio (still a work in progress)