I’ve read a couple of interesting pieces this week that concerned themselves with considerations of style and audience. Guy Tal wrote a fine piece on The Pitfalls of Style and David DuChemin’s piece on who to please with one’s photography. Both of these landed on a draft for this post which had been sitting and stewing for some time.
I’d first add a caveat: I don’t write blog posts to persuade other people nor do I write them to express any form of expertise or knowledge. I write them simply because they help me think and when readers respond, that sometimes changes the way I think. I do also like to look back and realise that something I wrote some years ago may no longer represent how I feel now.
I, like many others, am often asked questions about style and how the questioner may find or develop their own style. Almost without exception they are utterly dissatisfied with my initial response which is ‘don’t look for your style, let it find you’.
The second part of the response, which I usually spare them, is that the production of photographs which are distinct and things of beauty, may never come. Some of this is wrapped up in the difference between Art and Craft. Almost anyone can learn to make technically proficient pictures (and this has become increasingly easy as technology has improved) but going beyond that is not attainable by all. For some that be a genuine engagement with or a deep understanding of the subject. For others a sympathy with the human condition or an ability to create an image of beauty where none is obvious. A few manage to find an abstraction that conveys meaning beyond the immediate. Most of us could just about learn to play the violin, a very small number achieve virtuoso status but a minute proportion compose violin music of high quality and individuality.
If we wish to talk about style however, there is a need to try to differentiate between a genuine style which, if authentic, will reflect something of the artist and a template or technique which can be understood, learned and applied to multiple subjects. This latter equates often to what I’d term a ‘preset’ approach. There are times when photographers are so locked into such an approach that each image resembles the previous and the subsequent, merely with a different location.
When pressed for practical steps I usually suggest that the photographer creates a collection of the images that he or she most likes; their own or from others (Pinterest is great for this). As this collection grows, I ask them to analyse it and to look for common elements and patterns. Being able to better define what you like and why you like it will help most people produce images that please them more.
Guy Tal opens his article with a fundamentally important quote from Ernst Haas.
Style has no formula, but it has a secret key. It is the extension of your personality, the summation of this indefinable net of your feeling, knowledge, and experience.
In my opinion, this is the crux of the entire question regarding style. A CCTV camera makes ‘a’ photograph. Only when the image is imbued with something that is particular to you does it become ‘your’ photograph. This represents the complete relationship between the place, the composition, the timing, the reason for visiting, the light, the weather, how you were feeling and how you responded ‘at that moment’ to all those things. My view of style is that it is not a set of presets or looks nor will it necessarily be a consistent look or subject matter from day to day or year to year. Your style is the product of every image you’ve ever seen, every holiday, every life experience, every time you’ve been in love, every time your heart has been broken. It is every joy and every sadness in your life.
I think many landscape photographers split into one of two camps: Active and Responsive. I’d characterise Active photographers as those who carefully visualise an image and plan carefully for exactly the right conditions, weather, sun alignment etc to produce the image they have in their heads.
Responsive photographers tend to be more fluid and take more of a ‘ rock up and see what happens‘ approach.
Such a complete polarisation may well not exist and most of us are probably somewhere on a continuum between the two ends of the spectrum. Wherever we lie, our response to the landscape is determined by all that is mentioned above. All or life experiences coupled with the resulting values we hold about our environment and our place in it.
If you thrive on the Social Media feedback from others and produce images in order to garner those likes, not only will you not find your style you will move away from any sense of it. The photographs you produce will become an amalgam of all the styles of the people who provide the positive feedback. Acceptance and approval are very deep human drivers and both become addictive. I believe that, if searching for something that is ‘of us’, it is essential that we make photographs for ourselves and accept that some, many or all may crash and burn once shared via Social Media.
Such a view is easier if we can be at peace with not being fashionable and not being part of a group. It is vital that we understand and separate the desire for improvement and development from a human desire to be liked.