Another perspective on this is ‘finding the photographer in the photograph’….
Perhaps one of the most important milestones for any photographer is establishing a particular style; however, I think there can be more to it than just producing work that has an attributable fingerprint. There is a process we can choose to indulge, a journey if you will, that has repercussions far beyond ‘what your photographs look like’. I am now going to unleash a stream of consciousness upon you and see where it goes!
If photography is to be considered a form of communication in parallel with other creative pursuits, such as writing, then can finding your style be considered any different to a writer discovering his or her ‘voice’? When a writer does so, it is considered highly personal and a reflection of the author’s internal dialogue and/or processes. It can be genuinely unique, but only because we are distinctive as individuals. I am simply saying that a photographic style can be about a great deal more than your photographs just looking a particular way and that output and input are likely to be closely related. I rather think of ‘style’ as the above water component of a rather large iceberg; this represents the person behind the image and encompasses everything from life experience, motivation, personal approach, technique and the individual’s emotional landscape. ‘Style’ is perhaps just the visual manifestation of a complex recipe. As such, it is an incredibly potent force behind image creation that deserves more detailed consideration.
Without genuine personal investment in one’s work, ‘personal style’ can surely amount to no more than a conscious branding decision – a gimmick, if you like, but nothing deeper. This will surely have an impact on the depth of consideration others are likely to apply to your work. It stands to reason that you can’t expect people to tease out what has not been put in, consciously or otherwise.
If we consider ‘personal style’ the pinnacle of the aforementioned iceberg, then there may be limitations to the extent to which we can control it, because its roots are both deep and in some ways ‘fixed’. ‘Nurture’ and ‘encourage’ might be more fitting terms. However, one is left with a rather beautiful prospect and this is that one’s work can amount to a wonderfully rich and honest reflection of its creator. Your style can become the beginning of much more complex discussions that influence what you do, why and other people’s response to it and to you as a photographer. When we find work we absolutely love, I wonder how much we love the work and how much we are entranced by the person and mind that created it? I believe that both are important and that in some cases one or other can play the larger role.
I’ll now explain an experience I had, courtesy of a very insightful woman, quite a few years ago. We had known each other for no more than a week and had spent only a little time getting to know each other. The subject of photography came up and she wanted to see some of my photographs. I showed a number of black and white photographs to her – seemingly disjointed images with no binding project or theme – and commented something to the effect of ‘I love photography, but wonder if I will ever reach the point where my work is recognisable as my own… where I have a particular thread or style running through it.’ She asked, ‘Do you not think there is already’, to which I replied, ‘no’. She responded by telling me all the things she saw in the work, how she thought they related to me and I was left speechless. She did not know me at all well, but she was absolutely right. Not only was she able to see ‘me’ in my photographs – she exposed ‘Tom’ extraordinarily well – but she was able to comment on a feeling she got from the images which transcended subject matter and context. This was the ‘fingerprint’, which in this case was a product of not just the look of the images, but their feel.
While the above may seem fanciful, she turned out to be no less right than any critic, mentor, curator or journalist has been in the years since. She saw then, in embryonic form, what others more confidently recognised later on. I mention this because the ‘process of progress’ is not always easily achieved on your own. It may be just as important for you to receive the right input from others, as it was for me. Would I have joined up the dots on my own? I’d like to think so, but I suspect she saved me a lot of time (years). Subsequently discussing her observations allowed me to make enormous gains when it came to understanding myself as a photographer. I had feelings and I took photographs. Linking the output to the urges that drove me to take the images was not something that I understood well at all. It was something I just did because I felt compelled to do so. She started a ball rolling and one that had a profound effect on my photographic career.
In the next section (here) I will talk a little more about where this process may take you. If you want to make great strides with your photography and have not already embarked upon this journey, I think you will find this article helpful. I stumbled along on my own, making mistakes and trying to identify where I was barking up the wrong tree. It was difficult – painful even – and I’d like to make it more productive for you!