As a photographer it is essential that you develop a personal style if your work is to have value beyond the arty and handicrafts price range. This is not to denigrate the work lovingly produced by many wonderful amateur photographers, but a hard commercial fact one learns very quickly if one aspires to sell work for significant sums of money. I have already written about developing a personal style and think this topic is one that all serious photographers should spent time on. There is, however, an inherent contradiction that I have personally encountered and that I find difficult to reconcile with my own views. It is the concept of a singular definitive and narrow style. While it applies less to fine art and contemporary photographers, it is a major consideration with reportage and documentary. In short, it is expected that (once noticed) your work will largely look the same for the duration of your career.
Let’s be honest; photography has grown and expanded dramatically in the last decade or so. It has largely been absorbed into the artistic mainstream in the UK and Europe (it has enjoyed this status for a long time in the US) and is one of the media used by many mixed media artists. By now you can probably see where I am going and it is to ask the following question: ‘why can a mixed media artist make sculptures from dead animals, work with oils, clay, metal and photography, yet a photographer is often expected to operate within the narrow parameters of one fixed style that must define their work for a lifetime?’ I just don’t get it and that is probably because it makes no logical sense at all, when art & photography seem to be fixated with the idea of new ground even at the expense of cheap novelty and fads.
Perhaps this expectation is a product of dogma, which states that a photographer’s work must essentially all look the same and which arose very early in the development of photography… a time when photography was regarded as a lesser undertaking and before the word ‘art’ regularly appeared alongside ‘photography’ in the same sentence? Perhaps it is this link to its ‘craft’ heritage? You can identify Wedgwood china because of X, Y and Z ergo the same must apply to that modern craft, photography? While one could apply this expectation to historical painters and sculptors, it does not appear to be applied to those working in mixed media today. You could not pick an assortment of Damien Hirst’s work (if you were unfamiliar with it) and say, ‘oh yes, this is clearly Hirst’s because of ABC’. You’d be lucky to narrow it down to a thousand individuals.
Isn’t that the central (ironic) paradox that exists within the art and photographic world? Photography must keep on changing, but you as a photographer must remain largely the same. Photography as a whole is able to make stochastic leaps into new territory, but you are expected to remain either static, or to evolve at the pace of a gun carriage during a royal funeral. I can’t say I understand this and its a good job it does not apply to pop music, or Madonna would have ceased to be a household name in the late 1980s.
Another bizarre contradiction is that the regurgitation of ‘what has been done before’ is only one barely visible step away from the mindless regurgitation of ‘what everyone else is doing now’. The former is considered absolutely intolerable (when comparing work between old and new photographers), yet the latter absolutely defines the reality underpinning most contemporary work during the here and now. Just go to Les Rencontres d’Arles to see it with you own eyes: naked man crouching next to woodpile in forest… blurred high contrast photo of dog in the night…. man with contorted face sitting on bed… There is a lot of great work at Arles but also an endless procession of work from photographers whose work is entirely interchangeable to such an extent that I am not sure if the actual artists would notice if you made a few substitutions between their portfolios. Its not as if their work just happens to look the same because they are documentary photographers tackling similar subjects; they are usually young photographers whose outlook is a product of what they are taught in colleges as ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Despite all looking identical, the gallerists are all over it and the critics love it. But I regard the work as a cynical, or at best an unimaginative, adherence to a pre-set formula that happens to be in vogue right now. I don’t see photographers, I only see teachers and pupils.
Now back to the point: Vary your style at your peril. Some will regard changes in approach a bold and central to what they see in your work, as long as all the threads point towards a centre of origin within you as an artist. This is because they see you in everything you do. Others will regard you as aimless and ‘undeveloped’ even if the change in visual style emanates from well-developed origins and may feel like the most developed and attuned work you have undertaken.
As always, the challenge with photography is to encourage the critics to see and endorse what you want them to see and endorse. If you succeed in this, you can do whatever you want.