If I should name the thing that makes visual arts really unique then I would choose the importance of previsualization occurring in the artist’s mind. More than the mastering of a specific technique or an exceptional taste for composition, this is such a peculiar skill, which one must develop personally in order to temporarily transcend from the self and visualize something that is actually invisible, but likely to happen, and thus plan the next move to capture and recreate it in a piece of art. As amazing as this can sound, there is no magic involved nor some sort of practice smelling of New Age, but instead something lying super deeply in our genes.
Our very ancestors, prehistoric hunter-gatherers, in fact, have regularly practiced this for millennia. They were keen on observing their wildlife prey or competitors, which they would later depict on cave walls. They carried into the caves a strong mental image of the animals within themselves. In doing this transformation some sort of trance was involved. More than an ecstatic stage, this could have been something like a deep concentration leading to an intellectual communication with the outer world – shamanism? We think that they prepared themselves for hunting by previsualizing and thus predict the (yet invisible!) animal moves, and so effectively plan the following chase. For them, carrying out a succesful hunt was a matter of survival and thus knowledge of the outer world and of the species living in it was everything. This tradition dates as back as 32,000 years ago, at least: the age of the graffiti found in the famous cave “Chauvet” of France.
Needless to say, all this easily applies to wildlife photography. The late photographer Galen Rowell in one of his essays poignantly wrote about the importance of “seeing from the heart” as basis to take a memorable image. An image that he explains is born deep in ourselves but which somehow eventually “happens” in front of our camera. Our job, then, is to conceive this mind picture; exploit our knowledge of the subject or the area in order to be at the right place at the right time and put in practice our very best technique to translate this image into a timeless photograph of it. Something to preserve the moment and share it with others. Doesn’t it sound familiar?
Nobody invents anything new, we all know that, but it fascinates me to think that with our beloved passion we are simply keeping on doing what people started practicing thousands and thousands of years ago. After all, wasn’t a renowned cave art expert, Jean Clottes, to define art as “the projection of a strong mental image on the world”?
Yet, despite this ancient and amazing adaptation of our advanced primate brain, each of us shows a different way to undertake this process. And is this very individual approach to the realization of a previsualized image is what we call “style”. In a nutshell, the influence of personal vision on some physical and technical moves/choices.
But then, how is this “vision” born? As a wildlife enthusiast, I subconsciously started nurturing my imagination already a child. Beautiful book illustrations and cartoons on TV shaped my first perception of the natural world. Later, with magazines and nature documentaries, but also with movies and fictionary literature, my mind bestiary grew and with this the empirical scenery in which I now move and operate as a photographer. My greatest passion is to look for rare and skittish species and photograph them in their habitat. As also many of you surely know, it is so difficult to portray something that demands so much work just to be seen… To achieve this, everything must first start in the mind. The process begins with me fantasizing of something – an image from the past that lied somewhere in my grey matter pops out and triggers an idea. I then strive to make that idea (my vision) meet reality by phisically and intellectually operate. Surely, this happens only sometimes, but everything is about that powerful drive that comes from inside. Photography becomes then a mere excuse: the fullfillment is all in the process. To better explain this, let me borrow again some words from a French, my friend and photographer, Laurent Nedelec: “My favourite process starts with a dream of a picture. I then undertake my quest with the subject and, when it all comes together, it ends with a memorable picture. It enriches myself.” Amen.
Although this could probably seem belonging to some purely individual experiences, it surely does not apply only to wildlife photography. This process deals also with all the other unpredictable variables (light, weather, timing, etc.) that we desperately try to control as outdoor photographers. We shall keep ourselves aware that there is not only luck nor technique behind a great image or a good photographer. Remarkable pictures start in fact already from the darkest corners of our mind and thrive on the soil fertilized by real life experiences. This precious vision is naturally born with us and it can surelly molds our actions. But is our responsability to keep on feeding it everyday with the emotions nature provide us with.
*Many thanks to Bruno D’Amicis in name of Young Nature Photographers community for his contribution with this article.