The Pitfalls of Previsualization

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.

—Minor White

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)

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4 thoughts on “The Pitfalls of Previsualization

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  1. Hi Guy, this is all very thought provoking. This sentence stuck out to me:

    “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.”

    That just doesn’t seem true to me. Why can’t I come up with an expressive concept at home and then keep an eye out for it in the field?

    As an example, I can imagine a particular flower with particular lighting composed a particular way could express grace and beauty. Couldn’t I go out looking for that subject in those conditions and make an expressive photograph?

    1. Yes, you are absolutely correct, Brent! I appreciate this insight. I realize now I expressed it as a general case when in fact I meant it from a specific perspective which I advocate and practice in my own work and teaching.

      If you don’t mind, I’ll explain my own rationale here and consider rewriting that section later. My approach to expressive photography is based on 3 premises:

      1) There are many ways and many reasons to produce expressive photographs. Therefore, individual artists should consider and choose their own mode of work according to their own motivations and personality, with the goal of maximizing personal benefit. To me, the most rewarding goal (certainly not the only one) in art is not the end product but the way that that the art-making process elevates my own experience when I am engaged in it.

      2) In order to get the most of my creative experience, I must be acutely mindful: I need to dedicate my entire attention to being aware of and to savoring my immediate experience in all its nuances. Therefore, if I leave the house with a preconceived outcome in mind (which, granted, may still result in expressive work), I may be sabotaging my ability to be inspired entirely by qualities of my immediate experience and limit my ability to create images at the height of inspiration. In this sense, my goal is not to be expressive in the abstract, but to be expressive of peak experiences.

      3) I consider it one of the benefits of being out in the world that sometimes I get to discover and learn new things. Being focused on a specific outcome may cause inattentional blindness and prevent me from noticing or considering unexpected possibilities.

      I agree that my phrasing in the article is a bit misleading and fails to capture these aspects.

      It’s also worth mentioning that photography, for all its limitations as a creative/artistic medium, has one advantage over other media: its immediacy allows me to respond to new inspiration in real time, while I am still at the height of an inspiring experience. When I am at home I prefer to recall the memory of a meaningful experience and to shape (process) my work according to that memory, rather than the other way around.

      1. Thanks for the follow-up! That makes sense and is definitely consistent with your other writing on the subject.

        For my own sensibilities, I believe a balance can be struck. I can have some ideas in mind (maybe gained from past experiences) and work on them if the opportunities arises without being so hellbent on them that my overall experience suffers.

        However, I acknowledge that you’ve got a couple decades of photography experience on me, and I could see how the balance might shift over time toward only being concerned with peak experiences, like you described.


  2. Your treatise on the stages of visualization is interesting and spot on. Now if photographers would do away with their inaccurate concept of “post-processing”!

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