“Sometimes,” observed the great jazz musician Miles Davis, “you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”
Sometimes? I think he was graciously understating it. For most of us, learning to shoot like ourselves is not only a long journey but a necessarily winding one.
When we first begin to make photographs and take our first steps towards learning to shoot like ourselves, most of us do a lot of emulation. As best as I can tell, all artists in all disciplines do this as a necessary part of their growth. We see what others have done to good effect; something in their work resonates with us (it must or we’d never notice it, much less try to imitate it), and we try it on for size.
Over the years, it’s possible you’ve tried on a lot of techniques, looking for a fit, searching for your style. Some have fit nicely and you’ve adopted them into what is becoming more and more your voice. Others, well, not so much. The white vignette and over-the-top HDR phase usually doesn’t last long, and for this, we can thank Ernst Haas and all his saints.
Style, or what I prefer to call voice, is not easy to come to.
In part, I think that’s because we’re looking for it when it’s not as much a thing that is found as something we create—something we choose. It begins with emulation. If it can be tidily carved into stages, that is stage one, and it probably shouldn’t be rushed. In fact, most beginners would do well to spend some quality time here and go deeper with emulation (without being self-conscious or ashamed of copying) before moving on too quickly.
When it comes to both learning your craft and finding your voice within it, the more influences you have, the better.
And the more you play with those influences and the more combinations you can experiment with, the better you’ll be able to make choices about what is and is not “you.”
Imagine you walk into a store to buy a new outfit. From top to bottom, you’d need a shirt, jeans, a belt, socks, and shoes. You’ll try a lot of things on. Some will fit, some won’t. Some combinations will be fantastic; others won’t work together at all. Some would look great on someone else, but not on you. And some, well, some combinations fit great but they do more than just fit—they also just feel right. They feel like you.
Fit is not everything. When you emulate the work of others and try on every new technique you come across, you’re looking for fit, but also more than fit. You’re looking for resonance. You’re looking for you in the combinations. As a photographer, style is not found in one choice but in many. It’s created by a mash-up of many influences and techniques.
But while having a unique style is a valuable goal, I think we can do better. In acknowledging the long road to “playing like yourself,” Miles Davis isn’t encouraging us to find our style; he’s encouraging us to find ourselves. Or rather, he’s making a case for finding our voice.
What’s the difference? Style is expression. It’s all external. It’s what we see. Voice goes further. Voice is not only how we express something, but what we express. Voice includes what we say.
Style can be somewhat accidental; sometimes we just settle on a set of techniques and preferences and we camp out there. Sometimes we’re just lazy and never move on from what is comfortable, even easy. No matter what we photograph, we employ the same techniques with the camera and the same treatments in post-production. If it’s distinct enough, someone might say they like your “style.” But it is possible to have style and never say anything specific with your photographs. It’s possible to have a style and for all the pieces to fit, but for that style to lack harmony with who you really are.
Voice is a better metaphor. Voice includes what we say. Style is only one part of voice.
So why does this matter? Why split hairs about this? Well, I suspect if you sat down with Miles Davis, he’d tell you playing for a long time does not automatically result in playing like yourself. I suspect he’d tell you there was a lot of conscious decision-making involved and that discovering how Miles Davis made music was about much more than how he played the trumpet.
Miles Davis didn’t find himself only in the playing; he found himself in all the decisions he made about what he played (and what he didn’t play), who he played with, why he played in the first place, and—yes—also how he played. See what I mean?
Look to the photographers who have had distinct voices. They’re all recognizable without seeing so much as a photo credit. But it’s more than that: they’re all saying something. They all have a unique point of view and a unique way of expressing it. It’s hard to mistake a Sally Mann photograph for someone else’s. Steve McCurry photographs specific subjects in a very specific way that is identifiably “Steve McCurry.” Sam Abell. Vivian Maier. Saul Leiter. Diane Arbus. Diane Arbus is a great example of a photographer with a distinct voice that comes through in what she photographs and how.
When you speak about a photographer with a distinct voice (assuming you have some familiarity with their work), you find yourself saying, “Oh, that’s the photographer who…” and you can complete the sentence with what they photograph and how. That’s much more than style. It’s deeper. Style is the surface expression of a deeper substance. It’s a choice, or series of choices, that can only meaningfully come after first making decisions about what you want to say.
At some point, your next step as a photographer is to move past emulation and the trying on of every technique and trend in the hopes of finding what fits and discovering and making intentional choices about what is truly you. That’s in how you express yourself photographically, but it’s also in what you express. We can only point our cameras at so many things and explore so many ideas if we hope for any depth in our work—anything more than passing familiarity with our subjects or any of the insights that only come with time. The more depth, familiarity, and insight you hope for, the fewer subjects you will photograph.
Over the coming weeks, I’m going to begin a conversation about voice. I want to make a case for greater depth in your work. For more intentional decisions about not only what your photographs look like (the style) but what they’re about (the substance), and for the value in finding not only what fits but what is truly you.
Sometimes you have to shoot a long time to be able to shoot like yourself, but there are choices you can make as you do so that give you a better chance than merely hoping to stumble across yourself along the way.
The first—and necessary—stage of our photographic lives is often spent making images that are more and more like what others have done. We spend the rest of that journey (with the occasional detour back to emulations to learn and explore) doing the opposite as we try to make work that is more and more like us and less and less like any one of the influences we initially learned from.
Are you open to an exercise?
Look at the best of the work you’ve made in the last two or three years. Don’t look much more than four or five years because you want to get a sense of the photographer you are now, not the one you once were. We all grow and change, and the point of this is to get a better sense of who you are now.
Now look at that work and ask yourself where the commonalities are in the very best of that work (by which I mean the work you are proudest of; the work you most resonate with as your own). What does that work have in common in terms of themes, ideas, or subjects? What’s it about? And what choices do you most often make in terms of the look of the images? What clues can you find about yourself and your preferences in that work? Maybe you prefer certain optics, or perhaps it’s certain points of view, or maybe you lean heavily toward specific kinds of compositions or colour palettes. What do you think I would find there if I looked over your shoulder?
If you choose to spend the time on that exercise, I’d love to hear from you. What did you discover about your tastes and preferences? What threads have you uncovered about who you are as a photographer? I know some of you will say you discovered you’re all over the map, but try to go deeper.
None of us are equally interested in all things; none of us are without preferences for certain colours or the tools of our craft that make images that look and feel a certain way. The first step might be being more sensitive to those and owning them unapologetically.
Your voice will be found in what makes you different from others, not in what makes you the same.
For the Love of the Photograph,