Saturday, April 11, 2009

"Chance Favors the Prepared Mind"

Throughout my life I’ve been an active participant in various competitive sports: soccer, hockey, baseball, water polo, and lacrosse among others. In all of these sports, I was a goaltender (or catcher). In all of these sports, both conscious and unconscious decision-making took crucial roles in determining my performance. On the conscious side, my team would practice plays, scout the other teams, and consider various strategies in advance of the game. Once the game began, I maintained a conscious awareness of the locations of the various players on the field, and attempted to anticipate certain eventualities. However, when the shot came and it was time for me to execute, carefully tuned instincts and muscle memory took over the performance of my duties and conscious thought took a back seat.

Over the years, I learned that my ability to cultivate particular states of mind was absolutely vital to my performance in the instinctual phases of play. Athletes frequently develop rituals or superstitions that help them to evoke a certain mindset that has facilitated high performance in the past. In many ways, I believe that photojournalism requires a similar blend of conscious and unconscious decision-making. Awareness of the impact of our mindset on the instinctive portions of timing and composition may enable a photographer to improve overall performance.

By my estimation, there are three discrete phases in the creation of a photojournalistic image: strategic planning, tactical planning, and execution. Each of these phases of creation are progressively shorter, less controlled, and more dependent upon a combination of intuition and “muscle-memory.”

The strategic planning phase includes all of the basic things that a photographer does to prepare to take photographs: the shooter decides what type of photos he is going to take, purchases the gear that he feels will best enable him to achieve his photographic objectives (within budgetary limitations), and learns what he can about his subjects, the location, and the situation. Strategic planning, therefore, is a period that extends from years in advance of the actual shot, right up until the shooter sets foot on the objective location. Strategic planning controls what techniques and tools the photographer must utilize within a given situation, and provides the framework for understanding and anticipating the events as they unfold. The strategic phase is made up almost entirely of conscious decision-making.

Tactical planning begins once the photographer sets foot onto the actual objective. Tactical planning begins with an awareness of events as they unfold around him. Once the photographer identifies the subject matter of his shot, he will assess the lighting situation and compositional elements to ascertain the best shooting position given the circumstances. He will consider using flash or other lighting devices, and determine camera settings that control depth of field and motion-stopping. The tactical phase ends when the camera is actually lifted to the photographer’s eye. The tactical phase is significantly shorter than the strategic phase, and begins to mix in unconscious decision making with the conscious choices. The photographer may consciously consider the lighting and composition of the scene or consciously anticipate the actions of the subjects, but an element of instinct and intuition begins to come into play here: not all of these factors may be consciously considered.

The execution phase entails all of the actions taken once the photographer is looking through the viewfinder. Here, there is frequently far less conscious thought. An experienced photographer will make minor exposure adjustments and achieve focus primarily through “muscle memory,” and the finer points of composition will often be handled in a subconscious “it just feels right” fashion.

I’m highly skeptical of any photojournalist who claims to consciously control every aspect of composition. First off, there simply aren’t enough rules or guidelines for composition to mentally articulate a justification for the placement of every object in a frame. Second, there is seldom time to internally verbalize every aspect of the framing decision, even if the language exists. This is not to say that these decisions are random or haphazard! Rather, the more subtle compositional choices are made with a combination of the photographer’s innate sensibilities and the visual compositional catalog that he has developed through exposure to other artwork. At most, a photojournalist might consciously decide to place the subject on a third or at the end of a leading line, but the real grunt work of making the composition “just feel right” occurs beneath the surface.

This is why composition is so difficult to teach and learn. Many of the other choices we make as photographers are controlled in the strategic or tactical phases and rely heavily on conscious decision-making. However, even in photographic disciplines, such as landscape or static portraiture where there is plenty of time to consider every compositional option “above board,” as often as not, the complex analytical language is applied later to justify an instantaneous intuitive recognition of the most graceful arrangements of the object in frame.

Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” One might say the same for creative composition. As it is difficult or impossible to think our way to better reactions, the challenge becomes cultivating a sense of preparedness, which makes our minds attuned to greater possibilities and possesses us of a repertoire of building blocks to make the most of our opportunities. The most obvious course of action suggested by this theory is that a study of patterns will render us more likely to recognize organizations of content through our viewfinder. However, a more tantalizing possibility exists that careful circumspection might reveal a certain mental state in each of us, in which we possess the greatest capacity to see. Rigorous mental discipline and conditioning may grant us the tools to invoke this state more frequently and for longer periods.

Trying to document one’s state of mind at the moment inspiration strikes is like trying to capture lightning in a bottle--but that doesn’t stop me from trying to find just the right jar…

1 comment:

robert john said...

Excellent thread; one that helped me and am sure will others

Bob