Edward Weston believes that the true nature of photography requires a clearly detailed and accurate depiction of the natural world and more widely that the essence of life lies in simplicity rather than a variety of form. Weston’s key to seeing photographically is to pre-visualise the image. Indeed, he claims that once the pre-visualisation stage is complete that the outcome cannot be changed and thus it remains an authentic work of art.
Weston begins the essay with an exposition of the early days of photography where he considers that photographers were seeking to mimic painting and to use its basic traditions and rules to produce painterly results, rather than ploughing a new furrow in photography. Indeed, the photographic negative is seen as the starting point, as the natural scene is to an artist, from which a more perfect piece of art is created.
Weston argues there are two basic features of the photographic process that makes it incompatible with seeking a painterly outcome – the instantaneous nature of the recording process and the distinguishing ‘photographic’ qualities of the image. These include its fine detail, the subtle gradations from black to white, the extreme fineness of the particles making up the image and its lucidity and brilliance which all combine to make the image, in Weston’s view, incapable of refinement or improvement by human hand. For this reason, he argues that the photographer’s task is not so much about learning how to use their camera but rather to see photographically and in turn to be capable of translating what he see into a faithful interpretation. Weston says that:
“By varying the position of his camera, his camera angle, or the focal length of his lens, the photographer can achieve an infinite number of varied compositions with a single, stationary subject. By changing the light on the subject, or by using a colour filter, any or all of the values in the subject can be altered. By varying the length of exposure, the kind of emulsion, the method of developing, the photographer can vary the registering of relative values in the negative. And the relative values as registered in the negative can be further modified by allowing more or less light to affect certain parts of the image in printing.” (Weston in Trachtenberg 1980: 173).
Indeed, Weston goes on that it is often the variety and number of control facilities available to the photographer that become the restricting force, since so few photographers are fully in control of their instrument.
Weston refers to the camera’s innate honesty as its strength.
“. . . it provides the photographer with a means of looking deeply into the nature of things, and presenting his subjects in terms of their basic reality. It enables him to reveal the essence of what lies before his lens with such clear insight that the beholder may find the recreated image more real and comprehensible than the actual object.
It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the tremendous capacity photography has for revealing new things in new ways should be overlooked or ignored by the majority of its exponents – but such is the case.” (Weston in Trachtenberg 1980: 174-5).
The key to making good work, in Weston’s view, is a matter of personal growth rather than following compositional rules or pursuing technical competence. Like the image itself, it is about pursuing simplicity in equipment and technique, and avoiding formulae and rules.
“Only then can he [the photographer] be free to put his photographic sight to use in discovering and revealing the nature of the world he lives in.” (Weston in Trachtenberg 1980: 175).
Edward Weston in his essay concurs with many of my views about photography. Simplicity is key, and pursuing images that simply replicate the landscape and pictorial paintings of the past is not for me either. I too want to reveal the essence of nature, but I am not sure that this can only be done through pre-visualisation, and I am not entirely sure Weston does either. As the quotation above (174-5) suggests, a sense of being in the moment and gaining a clear insight, for me, is not something done prior to, but during the final stages before pressing the shutter.
I am a great planner in my photographic practice and I do pre-visualise the images I wish to produce – I think about the best viewpoints or the best conditions to reveal a certain aspect of the Isle of Skye. However, anyone who works on the Scottish Islands knows that pre-visualisation can often mean a frustrated and unsuccessful day and the process of taking an image extends beyond this point.
I need to connect with the object and penetrate behind the sensory reality. However much of the pre-visualisation I do, connecting with the object and hoping for a revelation of the object, is something that happens in a non-conscious state. Pre-visualisation is a very conscious act. While I can see that some of my early work in preparing to take an image might include conscious pre-visualisation, it seems to me that it only takes the photographer to their chosen subject. It does not prepare them for the engagement with the subject and the ultimate choice of when to press the shutter.
So, for me, there are three phases to the creation of an image: pre-visualisation as Weston discusses, engagement with the subject, and the defining moment when the object is revealed and the choice to press the shutter is made. More on this as I think it through!
TRACHTENBERG, Alan (ed). 1980. The Ontology of the Photographic Image. New Haven: Leete’s Island Books.