Thursday, April 4, 2013

Style, huh, yeah, What Is It Good For?

The word style seems to be used in a couple of overlapping ways. Some people seem to think that the fact that they shoot film is their style, or that they shoot black&white, or that they like pictures of landscapes. That's all fine and good, I suppose, but what they're really talking about is their style as a photographer.

This use of style is as a descriptor of the photographer, not of the photographs. The photographer's style, of course, does affect the look of the photographs but not necessarily in a strong enough way to tie the photographs together stylistically.

Photographs enjoy a style when they share sufficient visual elements with one another to look as if they belong together, as I have noted in the past.

As an aside, I haven't got a style. I lack the focus and dedication necessary to create a body of work that is visually connected in this fashion.

Anyways, why do you want a style? What's a style good for? As noted, it connects a collection of pictures into a bigger thing. It's a way to connect a bunch of pictures into an oeuvre. It's not the only way, though. You could use tape, or glue, to connect stylistically divergent images into a collage, and that would also be an object for consideration, neither more nor less than a stylistically connected body of work. Stick a bunch of pictures in a book. Give them all the same title.

Connecting a bunch of pictures together creates a bigger thing. This bigger thing is potentially quite a bit more interesting than the individual pictures, especially today when many pictures have already been taken. By creating a body of work out of more or less redundant photographs, you might create a genuinely new object, with a new set of ideas and visual interests.

Let's classify photographic style into two kinds:

  • The kind created through curatorship, in which a larger collection of pictures is sorted through to identify a small subset that embody a style.
  • The kind created consciously by the photographer, through a series of conscious choices.

The key difference here is that the first kind of style cannot be produced on demand. The photographer may or may not ever produce even a single other image in that style, it's a crapshoot and largely useless beyond the curated collection. On the other hand, the latter kind of style is useful both to the artist and the commercial photographer. This is a style in which new pictures can be made on demand. It's a marketable product.

How'd Cindy Sherman get so successful? Well, she seems to have been launched with a project entitled Untitled Film Stills which were the embodiment of a pretty intense style. These are cinematic photographs, shot in black and white, all the same size and shape, and all featuring Cindy Sherman. There's a very very strong visual connection. Whether you like the work or not, and I don't, there's no denying that she made a thing that's much bigger than a single photograph. She demonstrated the ability to produce a body of work within a specific style, a collection of connected photographs. She demonstrated the ability to formulate a more or less novel idea, and to do the necessary and frankly tedious work to bring it to fruition. I don't know how many of these things she shot, but the final result was 69 photographs. The idea of shooting this project makes my head hurt. The first few are fun, the last few are surely just grueling labor.

Curators and other tastemakers could tell, as a result of this, that this was a marketable commodity. This artist can produce work that can be sold. Whether it's good or not hardly matters. Certainly the fact that I don't like it doesn't matter a fig.

Wedding photographers, at least expensive and successful ones, tend to have a look, a style. A bride will select them because they want photographs that look like that, only with the bride in them and not that other woman. There are other reasons, to be sure. Personality, price, availability and so on. The style, though, is the product differentiator. The ability to produce that style on demand is, ultimately, the product that the bride purchases.

I might make a book by curating my pile of photographs into a set of 50 images all stylistically connected. I might even sell some copies of the book, who knows? My inability to produce work on demand in that style, though, means that I will never be a successful artist, and certainly never a successful professional.

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