Conceptual Awareness – Moment of Conception

At what point within the process of making the photograph, did the photographer understand what it was he or she was trying to capture? It is tempting to look at a photograph and think, as a viewer, that we understand what it was the photographer saw or was trying to show. The final image is only one clue to to its origins.

Minor White, a photographer and teacher at the California School of Fine Arts during the mid-twentieth century, want his students to spend time thinking critically about the decisions they were undertaking during the process of image making. He felt that for an artist to grow and develop their work consciously, they needed to spend time looking closely at each aspect of the work they were creating.

In order to support this effort he created a five point framework from which images could be dissected and evaluated. This post covers the fifth and final point of his framework; considering exactly when the idea of image was formulated, and at which point the creative process ceased. There are several interesting aspects of this which were diffiult to nail down, even in the time that White was teaching. As our technology has evolved the complications of this specific question have increased exponentially, though that might not change it in essentials. I would like to spend some time reviewing how White envisioned the question, and how we may no longer be able to judge it for our own evaluation given the changing world.

The first four points from his framework have been discussed in the posts linked below.

White’s framework is meant to be used by his students to help the envisions where they sit along the span of a conceptual spectrum. On one end he described photographers whose use of the camera seemed to come from a conceptual framework of “camera-as-brush”, describing how they intended to express themselves through the creation of a new work, which could be judged on its own and could itself be thought of as an art object. On the other end he describes those who use the camera as an “extension-of-vision”, or whose work aims to capture the truth of something outside of the picture frame, acting perhaps as a channel for expression of something external.

When discussing creative conception, he describes the spectrum quite simply like this: those who are working from a concept of camera as “extension-of-vision” execute the full creative energy of the image during the staging of the shot, the set up of the camera and the time looking through the viewfinder. For them, the creative process ceases as soon as the shutter is released. Each stage occuring after this point (processessing of the film into a final print) was undertaken so as to preserve as accurately as possible the photographer’s vision from that initial capture.

In contrast, those working from a conceptual standpoint of “camera-as-brush” may see the initial shutter release as one step along the creative process. Each subsequent stage might bring new creative opportunities and inspiration that could contribute to how the final image comes together; one process contributing to the next as the artist crafts the desired final outcome. Easy examples of this might be images with post-processing edits, double exposures or “handwork” adjustments to the captured image. Creativity, however, is always going to be known only to the artist, and therefore can never truly be teased out.

This isn’t where the step ceases. It isn’t enough to look at one’s own work in a void, thinking about what decisions went into each piece without relation to the work of other artists. White included this criteria because of the challenge it imposes and the opportunities it provides, not in spite of the futility. Like archeologists, we must use the clues we have available, and make the best guesses that we can. Even if we cannot be sure of our results, the pursuit itself is where we will learn what is most helpful.

Several photographers working in the early twentieth century were gracious enough to speak or write about their process so that we can use them for perspective.

Ansel Adams sits near the purest end of the “extension-of-vision” range of White’s conceptual spectrum. He is famous for developing what he called the “zone system” of taking pictures, which placed significant emphasis on previsualization of how the image would look before taking the picture. His was a process of having every aspect set up ahead of time. He knew how the lighting would appear, what the tonal range would be and how the final outcome would be framed, and only then did he actually release the shutter.

This sounds like science, and there is certainly some of that to go around, but it must not be overlooked that each photograph is still a vision.

The layered graphic images I have been creating certainly fall onto the other end of the spectrum. Each begins with a single image that takes on new life after creation with the camera. It is in the process of juxtaposing images that relate to each other, that I begin to develop what will become the final creation. The process of creation continues well beyond the camera, though I respect the essential properties of that step.

Though it seems easy to think about the poles of photography on a scale such as this, things have changed in regards to technology as well as visual culture, which make this scale quite a bit more complicated. Take what seems to be a simple litmus test for White: whether creativity stops at the click of the shutter or not.

In the beginning of the twentieth century there were certainly ways to create photographic images without using a camera, but they were not the norm. The conceptual benchmark of creativity that stops with the camera itself would have resonated as a mechanical and optical truism. Once the film has been exposed, everything else done to it as sort of “after” the act of taking a picture.

Nearly as soon as digital camera technology came into existence, this simple act of pressing the shutter release became more complex. The DSLR camera retains some of the optical elements of film photography by reflecting light through the lens, over the protected sensor and through viewfinder. The film itself is digital, but much of the optical effect of composing an image using pure light, remains. Mirrorless cameras are one step away, eliminating the optical through-put. What the photographer sees on either the digital screen, or through the viewfinder (also digital) is what the sensor is seeing. Immediately the photographer is one step removed, for they are already seeing a potential “finished” result of the camera before they click the button.

In one respect, this aides in the purism. No longer is there a chance that unintended consequences of the darkroom process can alter the outcome that was initially envisioned. For many photographers at the beginning of the art form, this was a huge part of their process and their outcome.

What come with it, however, are a suite of adjustments which are being applied to the image in real time before the image is captured. Many of these are simply there to aide in the usual optical balancing which goes into any photograph. Others provide effects that would never have been achieved with a mechanical film camera, and blur the line between the artistic intent, and the actual return.

For instance, my Fujifilm X-E1, the first generation mirrorless from that company, allows for several different types of film simulation, such as monochrome, sepia or a range of color adjusted films which the company creates for traditional camera. When these effects are live, the camera is showing me something other than what it sees. It records the full RAW spectrum of data, including color, but shows a monochrome version on the viewfinder. Another option is for bracketing, which is the successive capture of multiple photos, usually three, in which some factor is adjusted for each one to capture a range. For instance, if I wasn’t sure whether my image was properly exposed I could have it take three pictures at different exposures, giving me the option to pick the best one.

This isn’t even to discuss the fact that digital photography allows us thousands of instant feedback photos without worry that we will run out of film. Photographers no longer need to spend so much time framing each shot so selectively when they can get real time feedback and make adjustments on site with a few test pictures. If a photo is developed over the course of thirty test shots, or selected after coming back and combing through hundreds of similar ideas captured during a photo shoot, does that mean that creativity continues?

My camera was out-dated when I purchased it used, and I am not familiar with some of the current software updates which might be available on other models. Looking at camera phones, and the expanding suite of apps available to filter and pre-adjust photos being taken it is quite clear that the purist ideal of pre-visualization can no longer be traced to the click of a button.

Perhaps, in keeping with the spirit of White’s framework, it is best to step back from the details of the technology and try to look at the spirit of intention. Even those artists who work with camera phones filters and taking hundreds of test shots have a process during which they are expressing their creative goals. Some will be able to express that their goal is to take the “final” image through the camera as best as possible, rather than make any adjustments after the fact.

Harry Callahan, who was teaching and creating photographs through the middle of the twentieth century, provides a more complicated and nuanced perspective on this question from White’s framework. The two images shown below were taken by Callahan in and around Chicago during his time teaching there. Many of his images used double-exposure to layer pictures on top of one another. This process was clearly showing how his creativity and expression were continuing beyond the camera, and extending into the “camera-as-brush” realm, in trying to create an image from photographic material that could tell the story more effectively than a scene which he could capture through the lens.

Chicago, Harry Callahan, 1947, The MET

During the next year he seems to have found a building, and framed an image, which tells a similar story, but without any post-processing or external adjustments. The spirit exits in both, but the creative process has been executed differently, this time feeling much more like White’s description of camera as “extension-of-vision”.

Chicago, Harry Callahan, 1948, The MET

Thankfully we also have written resources from Callahan in which he discusses more about how he thought about the creation of the images.

He had a difficult time explaining why it was he took the photos that he did. Something outside of himself seemed to be calling to him, and he was trying to capture something which had piqued his interest visually out in the world, even if he wasn’t able to explain what it was, even after the image was taken.

This may sound like the purist end of the spectrum, but he was also vocal about how he did not practice pre-visualization. He seemed to take his pictures instinctually and perhaps leaving open some of the results to chance in the development process. Clearly, some images spoke to him later on in exploring how to further push their underlaying elements.

What are we to do about someone who seems a bit unclear of their own conceptual station?

As viewers looking in we will never be able place words in the mouth of another artist, but when instinct is at play within the process it may be easier to assess the situation from the outside. Perhaps the artist is simply too close to see the larger trends at work, but for others the underlaying concepts will be more clear. Creating work instinctually based on some kind of deep-buried internal compass is surely of a different inherent quality than shooting randomly hoping for an interesting picture. Callahan wasn’t able to express many aspects of his work, but he was clear about what he was trying to achieve. He was trying to show the world the unique things that resonated with him in a way that brought them to life, brought them to our attention fresh of any preconceived notions. He was trying to be true to himself, no matter what that looked like, and no matter what the process itself required.

I think that is a key for this framework, and what White was ultimately trying to provide to his students. Placing oneself upon the spectrum is only helpful in the perspective it provides. Artists can use the information to create a bit more consciously. As with any label, the temptation is there to put things in boxes, but that was not the intention. White himself created work across the spectrum of conceptual camera use throughout his career.

Like Callahan above, for most artists, we are resonating with something, trying to express something which exists intangibly outside of our grasp. Our attempt to capture it may take many forms, but it can be enlightening to think about how and why we do it the way that we do.

I encourage any creative to see if these questions provides feedback on how the creative process exists within themselves.

Where does your creative impulse end? Do you feel like capturing the image is the end, or are you constantly seeing new prospects and avenues all the way until the image is complete? Is this really something we can see in the work of another artist, or are we simply fooling ourselves?

Thank you for reading through these exercises and I hope that you find something useful to take away when thinking about your own work.