Photographic style: the good, the bad and the ‘necessary ugly’ (Part 2)


Part 2

Bad style

This is the second instalment of a three part essay on photographic style. Part 1, addressed what I see as the three determinants of a photographer’s personal style. This second part looks at the dangers of imitation. Part 3 will look at what I call ‘necessary ugly’ style (by which I mean styles that gain effectiveness from eschewing artfulness).

For every renowned authentic personal style, there are obviously going to be a slew of imitators.  There is nothing wrong with imitation per se. As an exercise in mastering techniques and compositional devices imitation is a valuable transit station we should all pass through in our search for a personal style.  Grundberg notes that Robert Frank seems, at various points, to have imitated André Kertész and Henri Cartier-Bresson before arriving at the “…purposefully offhand, grungy and slightly ominous style that came to maturity in The Americans.” [1]

But imitation is a trap as well as a teacher.  Many photographers content themselves with mastering the styling’s associated with a particular genre and happily produce immaculately executed images indistinguishable, one from another, in authorship. Dependent on a particular piece of equipment, software manipulation or specific technique(s) these images, in small doses, can be beautiful and satisfying. In larger doses their mannered monotony grates. There is no doubt producing such images can be immensely enjoyable for the photographer. At the same time, if this is the photographers sole output [2], they have reached a creative hiatus.

For most, the solution is a personal project that challenges the photographer to grow. This can be achieved in many ways: new subjects, new co-workers, personal study of new – to you – work, or purchase of new equipment can have significant impacts on photographers working practices and output. In general though, the way to develop our photography is to develop ourselves through new experiences that expand our life experience.  If we never step outside our comfort zone we will never grow and neither will our photography.

The true creative has two additional choices though. Firstly, they may dig deeper rather than move on. Daido Moriyama, Joel Meyerowitz, Martin Parr, Sebastião Salgado, and Nick Brandt (to name just a few) are examples of contemporary photographers who have significantly extended our understanding of a particular genre’s visual possibilities. Secondly, perhaps more radically, the photographer can simply move to another art form to develop creatively. Robert Frank moved into documentary film making following publication of The Americans. Other important photographers like Paul Strand, William Klein and Gordon Parks did likewise.  Many have switched (or returned) to painting as their primary creative outlet, e.g. Bill Brandt and Henri Cartier-Bresson (both returnees).

Margaret Bourke White summed up the mind-set of the true creative when she said:

“The element of discovery is very important. I don’t repeat myself well. I want and need that stimulus of walking forward from one new world to another.”

[1] Crisis of the Real, p. 46  published by Aperture 1990

[2] I’m not suggesting mutual exclusivity between genuinely creative work and producing standardised genre images. Creative photographers, intent on growth, still need to eat. 😉

 © John Meehan 2014


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