“Spend any time with photographers talking about the work of other photographers and the words “he’s got a really unique style” will slide out of someone’s mouth faster than hands off a greased pig.”
We value style, forms of expression so unique to shooters that you can identify their work immediately. Show me a Jill Greenberg photograph, or an Annie Leibovitz cover and their name comes to mind without a conscious thought, much less looking for the photo credit.
So valued is the notion of style that it won’t be long before someone writes a Dummies book about it and cashes in on our hunger for it. But like anything we value, we value it for its scarcity or its difficulty in attaining it. If it’s so easily achieved that it could be found between the yellow covers of a Dummies book, it’s nowhere as valuable as we thought.
Do you have a style? Maybe. Maybe not yet. Maybe you have a couple of them. But it could be entirely the wrong question. Style is a by-product. It is the end and not the means, and there are no short-cuts. Truly authentic style is not something you can conjure or fabricate. It’s a result of shooting thousands of images that express your unique thoughts, feelings, opinions with increasing faithfulness. It’s something that comes as you refine the means by which you express your vision.
“Do you have a style? Maybe. Maybe not yet. Maybe you have a couple of them. But it could be entirely the wrong question. Style is a by-product.”
There’s nothing wrong with seeking to do things in a unique form, but seek to be different for the sake of being different and you won’t have images that express your vision, you’ll have photographs that are merely different. You can get that in a million ways that have nothing to do with good photography. You can be different without ever saying anything. You yourself are unique – you have ways of seeing your world that are unlike those of anyone else – so find ways of more faithfully expressing that and your style will emerge.
Perhaps it’s helpful to think of this through the lens of a different medium, like films. A good film that bears the style signature of a great director is not uniquely identifiable because someone like Coppola poured his efforts into being different. He pours his efforts into creating a film that, as closely as possible, tells the story in accord with his unique vision. Creating films that are faithful to your vision is the goal, finding over time that your body of work reflects a style unique to you is a by-product.
Of course, there’s room to be intentional about refining the expression of your vision. The more you study and understand the visual language tools available to the photographic storyteller, the more consciously you can chose one set of tools over another. The danger lies in thinking that one set of tools, chosen for stylistic reasons, will always be the best choice of tools for every image. If McLuhan was right about the medium being the message, then we need to be conscious that our choice of tools always has implications on the message itself. Choosing tools based only on stylistic criteria can result in highly-stylized images that say precisely nothing.
I wrote this little rant several years ago. Now, with those years under my belt, I believe this more than ever. But I also believe that there’s value in being intentionally consistent, at least within a body of work. I think one image can be powerful, but a series of images that work together because they follow a theme, and visually complement each other, that have a flow, and together tell a bigger story, or create a more textured poem than one image alone can do – that’s magic. And that’s the thing – eventually – someone will call style. You’ll probably get there faster if you don’t chase it, and you’ll be more creative – and probably happier – if you’re not bound to it.
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Style is a crucial topic in art and it is always emphasized in many areas, not just as a way of identifying the artist but to show an artist own interpretation and expression. As said by many artists, style is hard to come by and at times it takes a lifetime before one really gets to come up with a style because style depicts the artist inner values and perception. Although style does help people identify a work by the artist without really getting to be told, we can in many instances have artist who almost have similar styles but differ in one or two areas.
Indeed style can be expressed in photography too and every photographer has their own unique way of how they want to capture images. That unique way that always comes to you to want to take photos in that manner, that we can see develops to become style in the long run,unconsciously. because it comes out naturally.
It’s interesting that you mention film directors. Some have a distinct style, others try to work across styles. But, for most directors, their style evolves in collaboration, with actors, editors, cinematographers, etc. Music is similar. Someone like David Bowie has a distinctive vocal style, but his music varies so much from album to album, because of the musicians, producers he worked with, even the studios & cities where he worked.
Photographers sometimes get the chance to collaborate (with editors, designers, makeup artists, advertisers) & that can be a powerfully defining experience, realising our creative ideas in the mix of other ideas.
the online workshop that Sally Drew was running.
“You yourself are unique.” I am going to take this snippet away with me today and cherish it. I forget that I am unique and that I am special (as we all are). Style shouldn’t be forced. It is an inevitable by product of patience. Thanks for the great article David.
Oh yes, I remember that was one of my first pursuits when I started blogging. I think it was Carl Weese, who carefully set me straight.
Since then I haven’t found a personal style, but I also haven’t tried anymore. Instead I learned to understand photography as a way to seeing, maybe seeing ‘what else’ something could be, as Minor White had proposed once. A long journey for certain, made easier and more difficult by the fact that I don’t have to do this for a living, but at the same time have only limited (time) ressources to follow my calling. My hope is that some style will follow when I truly see and translate the seen into pictures. Until then I will ‘travel’ through every day with my camera and try to be as sensitive for the visual adventure as possible (not that this always works, there are dry spells…)
David, this is a great article. I’ve been chasing “style” for awhile now, including reading your books. But this article is the best summary/explanation yet.
Interesting read, photographing since more thank 40 years I always asked myself the “style” question. There are photographers whose photo you soon recognize, they have a proper style. But this also means they always make a “similar” photo. Is it good or not? I don’t know.
I tend to experience different way to photograph, pr let say that depending on the work I’m doing I adapt a style which works better from a communication point of view.
Good morning David. I really value your blog posts, so often your thoughts reverberate within and I delight in the recognition.
I recently co-facilitated an online workshop on Photography and Storytelling; over a 3 month period we led participants to the awareness of their photographic voice and style through visual journaling exercises and storytelling based on their own photographs. The awakening that unfolded moved us all, and as Jim expressed above – many came to fully value and embrace the aspects of their photography that may not have been appreciated by others in the past.
Being part of a community of trust and inspiration really helped everyone to see themes, patterns, colours, light and all that culminated in Artist Statements about their photographic style. We also acknowledged how that style evolves over time.
Thank you for sharing your vision and style as generously as you do, I value your contribution to my insights.
Are you running this workshop again?
Boy this is the real battle. Creation for style? Or style from creation. I think it’s the root of why we make photographs in the first place. Thanks for the continued push to stay focused on what fuels us creatively!
It’s really not fair that you are such a great photographer as well as being a gifted writer!
Now lest your head become too large, one little grammatical nit: it’s “complement”, not “compliment”, in this context. Unless your photos really do go around telling each other now nice they look. 😉
They do, Karen! Very complimentary! 🙂 Somehow it didn’t look right when I typed it, but I ignored that little voice. Oops. Fixed now, thank you!
Thanks for being so gracious about my comment. I felt like a bit of an a$$ after leaving it — should have stopped after my first sentence!
Love the new layout. Nice balance and proportions in the columns and header……looks like a graphic designer has been at work here.
I just had to increase the font size on my 27″ screen to read comfortably and found the main body of words impossible to read on my 13″ Mac Pro (to the side of my large screen). Not sure if anyone else has the same issue, or all your followers have very large screens and perfect eyesight.
(I have poor eyesight but do wear prescription glasses 24/7).
Great… and I like the new website too…
For the last few years I have floundered in my creativity. I was becoming bored with photography; something I have been doing for over 30 years. In the last month I have done some soul searching. I have read hours upon hours of material concerning style and vision. I wanted to find a spark. I wanted to break out of my funk, find out who I am as a photographer.
After having read a multitude of your articles concerning style, vision, and creativity I decided to go through my portfolio. What I discovered was the photos which had been critiqued or commented upon in the past as having been poor composition or having broken established rules are the ones I still, ten years later, prefer.
I discovered the answer to my style question was waiting right there amongst the hundreds of photos on my hard drive. I have a vision, I have just suppressed it in order to create work that is more acceptable to others.
I have discovered I am a minimalist. I am excited about the prospect of shooting for myself, and I am charging full steam ahead.
Way to go, Jim. That’s the only road – hard as it is to find sometimes – worth the taking. Enjoy the journey!
You kind of “hit the nail on the head”. Style that comes from years of working at your craft is usually a good thing. However, in the art world, especially with galleries and shows, there is a subversive unwritten tendency where they want your work to be the same, the same, the same. You are told that then they know what to expect, great for them, prison for the creative.
There are two wonderful and enlightening Picasso quotes on the subject of style, that I appreciate.
1) When you come to think of it, I am probably a painter without style. ‘Style’ is often something that ties the artist down and makes him look at things in one particular way, the same technique, the same formulas, year after year, sometimes for a whole lifetime. You recognize him immediately, for he is always in the same suit, or a suit of the same cut. There are, of course, great painters who have a certain style. However, I always thrash about rather wildly. I am a bit of a tramp. You can see me at this moment, but I have already changed, I am already somewhere else. I can never be tied down, and that is why I have no style,” ~Pablo Picasso
2) “God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style, He just goes on trying other things.”
Brava! Totally agree…it’t taken me a few years…but I’m getting it and your last paragraph nails it! Thank you! And love the new fresh look!