Louis Pasteur was a French microbiologist and chemist who is known for postulating the germ theory of disease. In 1854 he gave a lecture at the inauguration of the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Lille in which he said “In the fields of observation chance favours only the prepared mind.” Widely quoted since then, it has become shortened to “chance favors the prepared mind.” I carry this quote in the back of my mind to remind me that in photography, there are two approaches to capturing imagery – previsioning or planning and serendipity or spontaneity. Previsioning is usually associated with professionals whereas serendipity is associated with amateurs. But is that really the case and are they mutually exclusive?
A photographer who uses previsioning has a preconceived photo or concept in their mind’s eye. Research is essential to gain a familiarity with their subject. Resources include guidebooks, the internet, and even apps. For landscape photographers, planning to realize their vision will include scouting the location, knowing how the movement of the sun, changing seasons, weather, and tides will affect the outcome, appropriate focal lengths to use, and so on. Wildlife photographers need to have intimate knowledge of the animal’s behavior, its habitat, plumage or camouflage, mating habits, etc. On the other hand, if serendipity is your guide you photograph with no particular subject in mind. Rather, you let opportunities present themselves or go with the flow. This means being flexible, open to nature and the universe, chance, and the unexpected. So those who know what they want to photograph beforehand will most likely succeed, right? Not necessarily. Both previsioning and serendipity require being prepared but in different ways. Let’s look at one photographer in particular who practiced both approaches.
Galen Rowell (1940-2002) was a California-based photographer who more than anyone else launched the field of adventure photography. Known for many first ascents in the Sierra Nevada’s and elsewhere in the world, his career took off when he combined climbing with photography. His intimate knowledge of light and landscapes along with his athletic ability allowed him to create photographs from perspectives and situations never before seen. Photos like “Ron Kauk Free-Soloing Beside Yosemite Falls” or a climber backlit in “Climber on a Pinnacle Near Mount Whitney” required planning and vision and remain fresh and innovative to this day. Yet he also wasn’t adverse to letting serendipity play a role in his photography:
- On my first visit to Tibet in 1981 I spotted a rainbow in a field, looked around, and visualized it coming out of the roofs of the Dalai Lama’s Potala Palace. With me were fifteen other members of a trekking group. We had just been called to dinner. When I shared my idea for a photo and asked if anyone wanted to join me and run [more than a mile] across the fields to line the rainbow up with the palace, no one else came. They didn’t see what I envisioned from past experience with outdoor optical phenomena. After running to where a different rainbow (refracted from a different set of water droplets) matched my imagined image, I made one of the great photos of my life.
Galen Rowell’s Inner Game of Outdoor Photography (Norton, 2001)
While Galen talks about visualizing the photo, this was a spontaneous, serendipitous moment on which he felt compelled to act. His prior experience in planning payed off and chance favored the prepared photographer.
This brings me to my own chance to benefit from serendipity. On my first morning in Haines for the Bald Eagle Festival I headed out early to photograph the townsite in the light of sunrise. The weather was mostly clear with enough high clouds to anticipate good alpenglow on the mountains looming large behind Haines. Low tide and a cold night created a thin layer of floating ice surrounding a small bay of boulders. This would be a good foreground and provide a reflection of the warm sky. But as the sun began to light the sky and mountaintops the color was not as dramatic as I liked. As I waited to see if more color developed, I noticed at my feet was a marine plant called Rockweed lined with frost. Immediately I knew this was the photo to take, not the grand landscape, but an intimate landscape. Chance favors the prepared photographer I thought. However, at the moment I had a wide angle lens on the camera, but this photo required a macro lens. Fortunately I had one, so off to the parked truck I ran to begin my adventure in serendipity.
What first caught my attention was how the frost lined the edges of the Rockweed. This helped to delineate the shape of the Rockweed and separate it better from the background grass. The light from the sky warmed the yellow grass and contrasted nicely with the dark brown Rockweed. Centering the subject in the frame emphasized the circular shape of the Rockweed. The radial lines of the Rockweed “arms” compete with the mostly diagonal, linear lines of the grass. This creates a visual tension of geometry. Finding order in the apparent chaos of Nature is often a goal for landscape photographers. The simplicity of the radial design and the water crystals (frost) – which epitomize order and regularity – works to achieve that goal. Furthermore, unless you are familiar with Rockweed this becomes an abstract. One person who viewed the photo thought the Rockweed looked like Caribou antlers.
Needless to say I abandoned the original, preplanned landscape to work the fortuitous opportunities presented to me. I walked around to find other similar examples. Someone watching me would have thought I lost my car keys so intent as I was searching the ground. I knew that these fleeting, ephemeral conditions would be erased with the next incoming tide. It was a brief moment in time. Like an etch-a-sketch this subject would be recast many times over. Indeed, the next day it was temporarily covered with six inches of fresh snow. With hours ahead of me to photograph eagles my day was really just beginning. Yet, even if it had ended then I felt satisfied that I had “seized the day.” As it turned out this was without a doubt the best image of the day. Chance favored the prepared photographer. Serendipity is about the immediacy of the moment. The “now” of serendipity does not wait for the unprepared.