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Seeing Beyond the Pre-Visualized Image

For the past three years I have been working on a series of photographs called the Artifacts of an Uncertain Origin that combine elements of the still life with landscape photography. These images are made with a wooden pinhole camera and medium format film and the series is firmly rooted in the tradition of the pre-visualized image. Since I view the series as being just as much about the landscapes as it is about the artifacts, I am always seeking new and different landscapes that I have not worked with before. The element of pre-visualization of how the image should look is a strong current in this series and most of the time it is a beneficial one that helps to shape the final photograph, presents intriguing challenges to overcome and pushes me to fully explore the visual and metaphorical possibilities created by the arrangements of the artifacts in the landscape. But sometimes a preconceived idea of what the photograph should be can become a limiting factor that constrains the creative possibilities for the image. Knowing when to let go of the pre-visualized image is just as important as envisioning it in the first place.

The photograph of the Iris was made in Hawaii, on the island of Oahu. It’s an image that I am very pleased with but it is not at all the image that I wanted to make or was expecting to make. When I was preparing for my trip and pre-visualizing the photograph I wanted to make with the iris, I was envisioning a more obviously tropical “Hawaiian” setting since that is a type of landscape that was not yet represented in the series: Palm trees, idyllic beaches, steep, fluted mountains, the tentacle roots of a banyan tree, perhaps a waterfall surrounded by lush, tropical plants.

The Iris

Once I had arrived on Oahu and began seeking a landscape “stage” on which to create my image, I was reminded that preconceptions and expectations, which are a vital component of planned photographs, such as the ones in this series, are sometimes hard to realize. To put it another way: sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, a combination of a tight schedule that left me with only two and a half days of free time, as well as logistical hurdles and the technical limitations of a simple wooden camera with a fixed field of view, presented challenges in creating the image I wanted to make. And though I shot several rolls of film in a variety of locations that had been on my list of possibilities, things were definitely not clicking. None of my preconceived ideas for the image were coming together as perfectly I had envisioned them. This is one of the fundamental constants of the creative process, of course, as Ted Orland and David Bayles point out in their excellent book Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking: vision always races ahead of execution.

Fortunately, in the process of trying to create an image with the iris, I encountered another constant of the creative process: unexpected discoveries often lead you in a different direction that ends up being more intriguing and successful than what you had imagined. The key is to be open to these unforeseen detours and to be open to letting go of the pre-visualized image. 

While driving along the winding coastal road to another location, a quick glimpse up the ancient and rugged lava flows of Koko Head crater nudged open a new conceptual door that prompted me to park the car, climb up an outcropping of rock, and hike up the side of that extinct volcano. I never made it to the exact location I had viewed out the car window; the lava canyons and gullies were too steep to safely make it to the place I had seen. But I continued up the side of the cinder cone, open to the possibilities of this landscape, and just enjoying the hike and the spectacular views of the blue ocean and the amazing forms the lava had created as it flowed down the slopes centuries ago. At some point I noticed an intriguing geologic feature in the distance; a natural lava arch clinging to the side of the hill.

Though the slope became steeper the closer I got to the arch, it was not too difficult to reach it.  Once there, however, it became quite challenging to position myself, not to mention the iris and the pinhole camera, on the loose, rocky sides of the ridge below the arch. Several times I was busy arranging a shot when I began to slide down the slope. Grabbing a rocky outcrop to arrest the pull of gravity often resulted in the rock coming loose in my hand, creating a cascade of smaller particles that showered down the hill. Straddling the backbone of the ridge immediately under the arch provided a more secure position for both myself and the gear and this is the vantage point from where this image was made, looking up the slope towards the rim of the crater, with the lava flow bridge arching overhead. The final image was made on a second, early morning trip to this location a few hours before my flight back to the mainland, since the scene was harshly backlit on the day I first hiked up to the arch.

I went to Hawaii with a pre-visualized image in mind, a photograph taken in lush, tropical environs and the image I came away with was made on the dry, rocky slope of an extinct volcano. After a series of unrealized expectations and disappointments in attempting to make the photo I had imagined, my preconceptions for what the image should be were discarded in the excitement of a new landscape stage that I had not envisioned before.

The experience of making art is always a learning process, which is what makes it such a valuable and rewarding part of our lives. Sometimes you learn about your materials and technique, other times you learn about your subject or about history, and sometimes you learn about yourself. But no matter how long you have been doing it, there are times when you need to re-learn or at least re-experience, certain concepts and truths that you once knew well. As it relates to my own creative journey with this series, a series where pre-visualization is a driving force, this image of a theatrical iris, a device designed to focus the light that is shone on a stage, is a reminder for me about the importance of looking beyond the confines what you imagine something must be, to see what else it can be if only you focus your gaze in a different direction.

© 2009, Seán Duggan • all rights reserved

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