This is the start of a three part essay exploring ‘personal photographic style’. It is not an analysis of what constitutes photographic style per se but more a reflection on how it is arrived at (if at all). Part 1 considers basic determinants of photographic style, Part 2 is about Imitative Style, and Part 3, considering what I call ‘necessary ugly style’ , will follow in the coming days.
In his 1985 New York Times piece entitled ‘Robert Frank’s Existential Refrain’, Andy Grundberg notes the shifts in visual style in Frank’s work up to publication of The Americans in 1958 (in France). He observes of Frank, “…the young photographer tries on other styles like clothes, searching for the right fit.” Frank was thirty four years old when his magnum opus was published and a photojournalist with many years’ experience.
All photographers will relate to Grundberg’s observation regarding Robert Frank. Who, at some formative stage, hasn’t sought to imitate a favourite photographer in some way as we evolve into our mature selves?
For any serious photographer, ‘photographic style’ can be a thorny concept. Exhortations to develop a signature style are common. It is, at the very least, a double edged strategy however. On the one hand, it is a commercial proposition intended to create a unique market offer to attract clients in a crowded competitive market. On the other, a personal effort by the photographer to identify and deploy those elements of a visual language that best communicate their feelings and thoughts about a subject.
I am here concerned with the latter meaning of ‘photographic style’ which I explore in three parts (parts 2 and 3 to follow in the next few days).
By ‘good’ I here mean a personally identifiable and authentic voice (i.e. it communicates something beyond the purely visual).
We all know famous photographer’s whose work is characterised by a signature style. Developing a ‘personal photographic style’ is a goal of many photographers and there are plenty of colleges courses claiming to help.
But what exactly are the determinants of an authentic personal style? It seems to me there are three factors at play; two obvious, one less so. I will argue the third one is most important.
Firstly, there are the technical choices which contribute to the personal style of a given photographer. It is extremely rare, in my experience, to find a photographer who isn’t very particular about the tools they use. Most photographers favour particular focal length lenses, digital sensor size, and camera manufacturer. These choices extend to all manner of accessories (flash guns, reflectors, wireless triggers, tripods, filters, etc.) seen as key to achieving a desired look to the finished images the photographer seeks to produce. Obvious examples would include, Bruce Gilden and Martin Parr’s use of flash, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s use of the 50mm focal length (many other street photographer’s the 35mm), Ansel Adams and Andreas Gursky’s use of large format, Steve McCurry’s preference for Nikon (with 24-70mm zoom), etc., etc.
Secondly, most photographers have habitual working methods and techniques, in the way they use their chosen equipment, that impinge on their images in a consistent way: Some shoot from cars while others insist on tripods, some favour shallow depth of field, others maximum depth; some play fast and loose with camera angles and shooting positions (after Robert Frank), while some like everything straight and buttoned up in the frame; some favour high shutter speeds to freeze motion, while others slow everything down with neutral density filters to harness the effects of motion blur. The variations are endless and extend to software ‘workflows’. Serious photographers each have their ‘secret sauce’ they apply to images ‘in post’. The latter have dramatic impacts on visual style just shooting habits do.
So the first two determinants of style are equipment choices and how that kit is, specifically, put to work by a given photographer. These two are co-dependent (obviously) but, crucially, the choices made are also a reflection of the unique identity of the photographer.
This brings me to my third determinant of personal style.
The first two influences on personal style can be (relatively) easily replicated through equipment purchase, copying working methods and reverse engineering another’s post-processing workflow.
What can’t be replicated is the emotional and psychological connection of the photographer to his/her subject. The third determinant of personal style is, therefore, the unique identity of the photographer and, in particular, their capacity for understanding and empathy. Authentic personal style as a photographer depends critically on the capacity to connect with whatever you happen to be photographing (whether people, animals, landscapes or man-made structures).
Photographers with authentic personal style, I suggest, somehow imbue their images with their emotional response to the subject. Atget’s love of Paris, Ansel Adam’s awe of nature, Walker Evan’s fascination with the commonplace, Diane Arbus’s empathy with those outsider society’s mainstream (‘freaks’ is too pejorative), or Anje Niedringhaus’s compassion for the civilian victims of war are palpable expressions of their inner selves within their photographs.
We may imitate ‘the masters’, but what makes them ‘great’ cannot be bought (equipment) or learned (techniques). If, as is often asserted, we reveal ourselves when we photograph the rarity of distinctive photographic voices surely supports the argument that their authenticity depends on the capacity of the photographer to connect, as a human being, on a social/psychological/emotional level to their subject. And, furthermore, to capture that connection, in a split second, in the form of a photograph that points out to the rest of us a deeper significance (‘truth’?) we could not otherwise see.
This third intangible factor clearly cannot be appropriated. Whether we have the capacity to develop an authentic personal style or voice, capable of significant photographic statements, will only be revealed to us through commitment to learning and continual practice. Logging the hours may make us a better photographer technically (if the 10,000 hour rule is valid), but the growth in our capacity to connect with our subjects, and marry that to our technique, will determine if we develop an identifiable ‘voice’.
I wonder how many hours Robert Frank logged before arriving at the personal style so many of us admire in The Americans?
(Footnote: The essay from which this post is taken is a riff on an idea, a process of personal reflection and clarification. None of this means the search for an authentic personal style must be the aim of photographing for all of us. Indeed, it is entirely possible what we perceive as a photographer’s personal style is actually the result of curator’s and editor’s selection decisions. The rare glimpses we have had of Ansel Adam’s commercial work hints at this in his case.)
 Essay contained in the collection Crisis of the Real published by Aperture 1990
© John Meehan 2014