I wonder what became of The Zone System. Remember that? Developed by none other than Ansel Adams, It was a powerful way to pre-visualize a black & white print before making the exposure. It required accurately measuring the light in a given scene and adjusting the development of the negative to control for the desired values in the highlights and shadows. It was pretty neat. I lived and died by it. But then, I had a lot of time on my hands.
Obviously, it did not celebrate serendipity. It was a tightly controlled process, anticipating an ideal future image, and that was ok. It worked. I spent many years with Tri-X and Edwal FG7, making black & white prints I remain proud of. But boy, sometimes that seems like it was a lifetime ago, and in fact it was.
I don't have any black & white film anymore, nor my really cool darkroom. I have software and the barely refined sensibilities of a zen photographer. The Zone System, as a photographic device, so refined, so elegant, seems now like an out-of-phase anachronism, at least to the way I approach photography today. But are there not lessons we can still take from it? I think there are.
The process broke down light into nine distinct, measurable units of gray, proceeding from pure black to pure white, with graduating shades in between, each predictably metered. You controlled where you wanted a particular shade (and of course its corresponding degree of detail) to fall in the print by controlling how you developed the negative. Selecting paper grade and other considerations were mastered as well, and this is but a light glossing over of the system, but you get the idea. If you were paying attention, what you learned was not so much about light meters and chemistry, but indeed how to look and really see. And what you saw was what light is, and what it does.
Chance, as Adams and others have said, favors the prepared mind. Without understanding and appreciating what light is, and what it does, there is no serendipity, no moment to capture alive and breathing. The magic of light, all of it -- tones, values, textures, mysteries and whispers -- resides deep in my soul. The Zone System taught me this.
It's my Zen System.