On Photographic Style

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On Photographic Style

Written in 2009

Many photographers, especially when they're first starting out, are advised to find their own personal photographic style. And even after you've been shooting for many years, it's one of the things you wonder about. Do you have a personal photographic style? If you do - can you define it?

After decades of shooting I began to wonder whether I had a personal style? If I do - I couldn't see it. What I saw as I flipped through the images in my portfolio, is that they almost all have a feeling of being shot in the 40's or 50's and that certain subjects (children, old people, subways, even benches) were always popping up. I began to think that a big part of photographic style was simply what you took pictures of. What interested you.

Even among the greatest photographers, if you didn't know that a shot was done by say Ansel Adams, could you tell? You would have a clue, if the subject was Yosemite Park, but Ansel had many students - some went on to do very similar work. Others diverged from his style. Again, if you didn't know the particular photograph, would you know if it was shot by Cartier-Bresson or say, Doisneau. Many of their images are similar. From a single photograph, it would be difficult to absolutely pinpoint the photographer.

It's true, there are some photographers that can be guessed at because you know they are interested in geometric shapes, or a certain type of lighting. Some even go through the expensive process of creating something akin to a movie set - to take one picture. But being able to tell the photographer by how exactly the shot was taken is very rare.

On the other hand, if you knew the work of Doisneau and Bresson very well - and were given a portfolio of shots that you hadn't seen before by both photographers - you would have a better chance.

I believe that a photographers style is much more difficult to identify than a painters. A Van Gogh, for example, can be easily recognized (assuming it isn't done by someone who is emulating Van Gogh) if you have knowledge of his life and art. Even if you haven't seen the painting before, it won't be confused with a Picasso, or a Rembrandt. With painting, sculpture, music - if you know the artist - you can identify their work by their style.

It is much more difficult to establish a personal style in photography, because it is at it's heart, a mirror of the physical world. Of course, it's not just a pure reflection because the photographer decides when to snap the picture, how to shoot it, where to stand, what shutter-speed to use, and other technical matters. But the single greatest clue to a photographer's so-called style, is what is put in the frame: the subjects the photographer is fascinated by.

If you spent your career photographing carnival people, or "little people" you could easily be mistaken for Arbus. Of course, you would just be emulating her style if this is your choice of subjects. And so, I will repeat: unlike painting - where personal style is evident in the way the subject is treated - the single greatest contributor to your photographic style is still your choice of subject.

If I began to do still life shots of peppers, I could (if I were technically able) to be mistaken for Edward Weston. And if I could live in Yosemite for a few years, I could turn out some Ansel Adams shots.

Luckily, most photographers that have been at it for a long time find that their interests don't change very much. And so, without even having to be aware of it, your personal style (mostly) is a collection of what you pointed the camera at and why. This "why" is the real key to photographic style. The "why" is where your own personality comes into play.

What you decide to put in the frame is a reflection of your own interests; your own ideas about what is important.

So - Is it possible for an absolutely boring person and produce a portfolio of fascinating photographs? Is it possible to know nothing about what makes people tick and be a great street photographer? No. Since a big part of street shooting is anticipation, it helps to have some clue about what people are likely to do in a particular situation. Your ideas about what is interesting need to be fed. Whether it by reading literature, or listening to music - your imagination needs fuel. And it needs more fuel than what you can get by simply studying other photographers.

It's the reason that when you begin to study great photographers you often find that they have a musical background (Adams for example once thought he would be a concert pianist). The relationship between proficient musicians and great photographers is hard to ignore. And then add on top of that - how you spend your time on this earth. Everything you experience ends up in your collection of frames.

What got me to pondering this style thing, is that I often see workshops that promise to help the student find their own style. Given my ideas about what makes a true photographic style, I can't see how this can be picked up in a one-week workshop.

Is this an obvious observation about photographers? I'm not sure since I see so many trying to "find their own style," as I also did a long time ago - only to find - like at the end of the Wizard of Oz, that I was carrying it with me all along but didn't know it.