Ansel Adams is noted for, among many other things, promoting a working concept some called pre-visualization. His friend Minor White used that term and made much of the concept, but in truth, Ansel preferred the term visualization to describe his approach to conceiving an image. Pre-visualization, he thought, was some kind of double talk. The photographer, he suggested, should imagine, (visualize in his mind) what the finished print would look like before he took the photo. In the Zone system of exposure that he worked out with Fred Archer, this visualization included anticipating the values in the print by combining exposure and development controls. Many photographers have gotten very good at that by following Adams clear instructions, and for many it is a mark of prowess and technical power over the medium to do so.
A second related form of visualization is the idea of always printing the whole negative, as a demonstration of the quality of visualizing in the very taking of the photo. We see that quality revealed in the work of Henri Cartier Bresson, whose work was, especially after WWII principally done with the Leica 35mm camera. With Cartier Bresson’s work, we see the power of good composition along with the keen eye of picking the right moment for the exposure. A whole negative print (with no cropping) demonstrates the photographer’s visual and technical skill.
In black and white landscape photography done with large format cameras, Adams approach to visualization can be very effective and a quite rational approach to the subject. Using color correction filters and plugging them into the exposure equations can help the photographer produce a finely tuned image, which is always a departure from reality, but which can evoke the drama or the mood that the photographer “visualized.” This is exactly what makes the photographer an artist rather than a camera operator.
In the disappearing art of photo journalism the skills of Cartier Bresson serve the photographer well, i.e., compositional finesse and the eye for the right moment. The photojournalist though is not able to employ the calculated approach of the large format landscape photographer. Visualization for these photographers is formed in part by knowledge born of experience in the field and anticipation of how events will unfold.
The concept of straight photography, a staple of more than 100 years of photographic theory and debate, slithers like a snake through this field of visualization. In the turning away from the late 19th century camera club obsession with “pictorial photography”, modernist types eschewed gum printing, erasures, soft focus lenses and so on for the reclaiming of the virtues of the camera and lens, to let the virtues and the limitations reveal themselves as integral to the photographic aesthetic. Edward Weston abandoned platinum papers and their endlessly soft gradation for the hard clean look of gelatin silver glossy papers. Adams even wrote a manifesto and helped form a West Coast contingent of photographers devoted to straight photography. It was, in fact, that straight photography as visualized by its apostles and disciples that characterized most of 20th century art photography.
At a couple different periods of my life I have worked in a printmaking studio, doing both intaglio, done on zinc and copper plates, and lithography, done on slabs of limestone, and all printed in a press with inks. These processes are very time consuming and there are layers and layers of complications to master if one wants to be an accomplished printer. I have not mastered any of them but have gained a deep appreciation of master printers. One of the things I learned over these periods was the value of working and reworking a plate, which in intaglio processes involves scraping away, burnishing, digging in, re-etching, or in other ways, finessing towards the final plate that will be editioned. An editioned print is the artist’s final say, final vision. Such an approach puts limits on a notion of visualization that would suggest a finished print in mind before the first line is drawn. What happens, to the contrary, is that when the printer pulls proofs as he or she goes through the long process, a final image will begin to emerge as the material, the metal and ink and tools take part in a sort of conversation with the printer. This is indeed a very different concept of visualization!
How does that concept apply to photography?
I know that there are a lot of Photoshop filters out there and that if you are content to sit in front of a computer monitor you might work and rework all kinds of transformations to a raw picture file. I am not, however, concerned with nor remotely interested in sitting at a computer and being “creative”, though those kinds of pictures will probably continue to win awards in photo club shows. I am totally committed to darkroom photography, and to paraphrase a movie line “I love the smell of fixer in the morning.”
In the darkroom there are, I suppose, fewer “filters” to work with. In silver gelatin printing there are the bleaches and toners, there are various developer formulas, there are alterations to the printing process, like lith printing and there are, unfortunately, fewer and fewer printing papers to choose from. There are also the alternative printing processes for which a lot of material and kits are today available. We have done cyanotype, platinum/palladium, kallitype, gum bichromate, liquid emulsion on papers, mirrors and ceramics, and even albumen printing.
Lately, I have been playing with combinations of toners, especially bleach and redevelop sepia and selenium. Depending on how deeply one bleaches the silver print, and as well how strong the sepia toning bath is, more or less of the developed silver will remain to be acted on by a later selenium bath. This can be very experimental and fun, and the end result can go from deep disappointment to deep satisfaction, along with an element of surprise.
One can nurture a spirit of adventure if he or she starts with the basic premise: The print is the thing! This runs contrary to the working principle: Visualize, then expose, then print in order to achieve your initial visualization. It also contradicts Edward Weston’s mature working method: the negative is the thing. Once he exposed the piece of film, he had it. His contact print was the fruition of his negative.
On the other hand, my basic premise has more affinity with Adams’ own dictum, the negative is the score, the print is the performance.. All the concepts I have referred to, straight photography, printing the whole negative, visualizing before exposure are valuable up to the point where they become restrictive. The distinction I make could simply be put that visualization is a living, ongoing process and not simply something that happens only before we press the shutter release
In no way am I suggesting a sloppy approach to image making. I use a trusty Pentax spotmeter and place my primary shadow zone. I control the time and temperature of development and do all the necessary steps to get a good printable negative. Once I have that negative then, hopefully a new conversation begins, creative printmaking, and I am on another road of adventure in the darkroom.