“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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