On the Misinterpretation of Visualization in Photography

A man sits at a table. He wears a suit and has one leg crossed. In his hand he holds a glass.

What did you see in your mind as you read the lines above? What color is the table and was it round or square or rectangular? What color was the man’s suit? Which leg was crossed over which and was the glass in his left or right hand?

In short, what did you visualize based on the information provided and why?

Stew on that for a while and we’ll come back to it at the end.

I blame Ansel Adams for ruining the minds of many photographers through his pressing of the idea of “visualization”* as a means of creating an expressive, final photograph. Not that it was a malevolent intention of the Man to do so, but rather it is the common misunderstanding which many of us place on the notion which can be so detrimental to our craft. It’s not that Ansel was wrong, much to the contrary. In fact, it took him around just nine short pages of ironwork prose in his book The Print to wholly sum up the concept of visualizing your photographs. I urge you to revisit ( or discover)the first chapter of that book after you’ve finished reading our short commentary here.

As Ansel postulated, visualization, as it relates to photography, is the practice of “seeing” your finished PRINT prior to the recording of an exposure. This implies that the photographer, in fact, calculates the exposure, composition and all other factors of capture on what the final result will be based on the information he or she has gathered from a particular scene. Then, through the glass of experience and technical proficiency in the darkroom, the final print manifests as a reflection of the photographer’s original visualization. This is where the trouble begins for many modern photographers, especially those who work exclusively in the digital medium.

Through its own merits, the concept of visualization is incredibly useful, going beyond its face value as a means of directing our creative thought and intentions. However, misinterpreting the idea of visualization as a necessary indicator of worth (or correctness) can lead to a sort of photographic castration; a limiting of our own potential to achieve a desired outcome. Perhaps we should instead reconsider visualization under another name, which I have come to label “dynamic visualization”.

Through practice and repetition, we can come to visualize the immediate direction we should take for our exposures and compositions. Much as Adams suggests, this will guide us to produce the most workable raw material for our ultimate goal, which is the further creative reduction and ultimate arrival of a finished image. The means of that arrival can take place in the darkroom or through digital processes, or both. However, instead of working exclusively, and therefore being confined by the dictates of our original visualization, we should attempt to re-enter the process much as we did at the time of exposure by observing the possibilities of the digital or non-digital raw materials; then dynamically proceeding on a more fluid course based on the inherent possibilities we find there. This is the bedrock of visualization as I believe Ansel Adams originally intended us to understand.

Visualization is not a cage but rather a means of interpretation based on our particular feelings at any given moment, be it before or after the time of image capture.

Back to our suited man….

Without conscious intervention, your mind constructed a visual representation of the information I presented to you. This mental image is a product of your infinite personal experiences which ultimately simmered into a final thought of how you saw the man and his surroundings. While you visualized the scene based on the initial information presented you no doubt have now had time to reflect further, possibly changing your own idea of what was originally pictured in your mind. You have dynamically altered your original view. The information has not changed but rather your interpretation is quite possibly different based on the passage of time.

This is dynamic visualization.

I’ll leave you with the final sentence of chapter one from Ansel Adams The Print which, in my opinion, drives the nail on the true intention of the idea of visualization in photography:

“Do not become trapped in rigid process; the essence of art is fluidity in relating to an ideal concept.”


*I urge you to read the full story behind Ansel Adams first experience of visualization in his own words in Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs(p.2-5). 

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