Saturday, August 8, 2015

Developing a Personal Style

Here's another lightweight piece from LuLa, which is basically plugging some guy's workshops.

I'm gonna take a look at it, and then use it as a jumping off point for a little discussion.

So we start with the usual blather about three stages of whatever the hell, and some crap about how using the camera becomes natural, melding with the eye(?) or something. This is pretty much boilerplate.

When we get on to stage three, the photographic adult, we finally start to talk about this chimera, the "personal style" and how to get one:
  • Shoot what inspires you. This will keep you motivated, and it will "shine through" in the images Whatever that means.
  • Shoot a lot and analyze the results (how? what analysis?)
  • Embrace the failures, step outside your comfort zone, learn from your mistakes.
  • Get feedback and critique. From regular folks, from a club, or from someone who's offering a workshop.
  • ... but be careful and don't start shooting just to please people
  • Look at lots of photographs.
  • Cross-train. Learn methods from areas of photography outside your area of interest.

This is all very nice, and about half of it is actual actionable stuff that might help. The other half is bullshit that might as well be about management consulting or tennis, it's glib, empty, pseudo-inspirational blather.

Nowhere do we learn what a personal style is, or how to develop one. None of this stuff is really harmful, a lot of it is helpful, but his thesis appears to be that a personal style, whatever it is, will simply emerge by screwing around a lot. The author's personal style appears to me to strongly resemble popular cliche.

So what IS a style? Let alone a personal one.

It cannot be anything except a set of photographic choices, made the same way across multiple pictures. There's literally nothing else. See, for instance, this essay, and this one.

What's a personal style, then? Presumably it is a style that you make consistently for all your pictures. For some people it seems to mean "I always screw on a Lee Big Stopper, and take incredibly long exposures" or "I mute the colors slightly and bang on the local constrast a lot." They might not be interesting or unique, but they're sure as heck some choices.

Why would we want one of these things? I think there's an analogy with painting. We want our pictures to be identifiable as ours, we want that cool Art cachet, we want to stand out from the crowd. It ain't gonna happen, of course, there's too many photographers. Someone's gonna cook up a style a lot like yours and they're going to market themselves better, and that's that. Standing out from the crowd has nothing to do with style and everything to do with marketing yourself. Just tell people that these pictures reflect your personal style, it doesn't matter if you have one or not.

Painters, I think, have "personal styles" for a couple of reasons. First of all, they may be the only member of their school that became famous. The current pigments, the current ideas of how to draw faces, all that stuff, might have been all over back in the day, but now it's just da Vinci. Second of all, painting is jolly slow work, and it's pretty hard to learn. "Why do I paint a buckle like that?" "Well, it looks like a buckle, doesn't it? It took me all day to work out that method, why would I waste another day just to have a second way to paint a buckle?"

We're not saddled with this in photography. We can create a new style as easy as pie, simply by making some different choices. Unscrew the Lee Big Stopper, set the camera to Vivid, and shove a vignette on everything. Lo, another style.

The point of a style isn't that it identifies you, anyways. The point of a style is that it serves the material. Vermeer could never have painted The Last Supper, because his damned window would never have lit all the dudes up. His style constrained him to pretty narrow subject matter. His strength was not that his personal style was sooooo awesome, it was that he found things to paint that looked good under that style.

We can change our style to fit whatever we're doing, in but a moment. Arguably making those choices is what photography is all about. There's no brushwork. It's not like we have special skill in mixing colors. We're just making good photographic choices and, as a mass of choices, this comes out to selecting or creating a good style for the work at hand. If you have a personal style, arguably, you're all finished. The creative act inherent in photography is all wrapped up for you, you're just churning out the same things over and over.

Make your photographic choices again and again. Make good choices.

You don't need a "personal style", nobody does.


  1. Andrew,
    As a newcomer to your site, wanting to find out more about you after reading your comments on TOP, Kirk Tuck, Ming Thien, LuLa, etc., I have chuckled my way through your "back numbers", especially in relation to the patronising slop that comes out of the last two.
    I have found other thought-provoking websites through your writings and I thank you for that.
    I'm a similar age to you, a Brit living in Canada (one of my stops in a never-ending wandering of this damn globe!) and have been taking/making photographs since I was a teenager.
    Don't be too hard on Steve Gosling, in the film days he was a fair photographer in an up-and-coming Britpack; I think he's just succumbed to the lure of the Internet, as have so many wanting to make a buck in these modern times.
    Days gone by, he made a fair income from magazine work, especially Outdoor Photography in the UK. That's no longer the case, with so many wanting a share of an ever-decreasing pot.
    But I take the point of your article; what is "style"?
    Might I ask: how did we do things in the "good old days"?
    I have, in my book collection, "The Best of Popular Photography", published in 1979, after 40 years' of the magazine.
    In this, after the usual nonsense about the "great" Stieglitz (sorry, he's my personal bete-noire), one reads laments about the multitudes all being able to take photographs, about developing 'personal style', about how the 'great' have done their thing and how they operate workshops to help us 'take better pictures'!!
    Which all goes to show, there's nothing new under the sun!!!
    Please keep up the good work in your writing, you're my American Mike Chisholm (Idiotic Hat), another waterspout in the desert that is the Internet.
    Somehow I wish this bl- -dy worldwide web had never come into existence, as it merely serves to encourage and sustain mediocrity; that's my two cents' worth.

  2. Thank you!

    Mr. Gosling, to be perfectly honest, seems to be a fine technician and the photographs he attached to his piece *did* strike me as slightly off-center from the cliches. One by one, I'd dismiss them instantly, but as a group they feel a little moodier than the usual fare, and that is what he claims to be going for.

    It's not Great Art, it's not a Powerful Theme, but there does feel like there's a little something going on there.

    However, that didn't serve the narrative I was pulling together, so I left that part out ;) Artistic license!

    I love Stieglitz, myself, but not so much for the photographs as for the influence and the generosity. He made a handful of really good pictures, to my eye and a lot of weaker ones, and I have tried and tried to like Equivalents, but they always fall short of the mark for me. But as a promoter of wildly varied talent, he's practically unmatched.