Photographers bang on about style like it’s something we decide and follow through – wedding photography, black and white, strobes. That’s it, you’re done. Consistency in that paradigm equates to style. However, I disagree.
First, style isn’t about the camera you use or the film type. If you had put a 35mm into the hands of a master photographer like the late Edward Weston, or a contemporary digital point and shoot, he would still produce images in the style of Edward Weston.
On the flip side of that statement, the style of Cartier-Bresson wasn’t that he shot 35mm black and white film. Anybody could do that. Cartier-Bresson’s style was in the journalistic story and the visual vocabulary of what he had to say about the world. The value was in Cartier-Bresson’s brain not the technology he used in the era that it was employed. It included his politics, relationships and where he chose to employ that technology. It wasn’t in the how, but in the why. The context. The meaning. It was in what Cartier-Bresson had to say to us through his camera.
The pictures a photographer makes come from the mind: cameras don’t make photographs, people make photographs.
Second, style isn’t a premeditated attempt to capture a “unique look”. That isn’t style, it’s a consistency of aesthetic description that goes only as far as a recipe for software filters, subject selection or certain lighting. If a photographer’s story is a one-trick-pony then pursuing a consistency isn’t going to provide new tricks to that repertoire. That unique look can’t pretend to be a larger or more interesting story. I see this in a huge number of portfolios and Flickr accounts of technically proficient photographers. Who, of course, believe consistency is their style.
There was a running joke in the movie Art School Confidential where John Malkovich was a teacher who had been the one of the first to paint yellow triangles. That was his style. That was a box his character had painted himself into and it effectively parodied what I see as the conflict between consistency and style.
Third, style evolves over a long period of time as a body of work grows and the vision and mind of the photographer expresses through image after image. Style is not a premeditation of software filters or selections of technology that are easily replicated. Pick up a Leica, load some black and white film… no, you haven’t shot through Cartier-Bresson’s eyes with his politics and perspective. No.
However, style can over time include a curatorial respect for discarding the inarticulate. In the end, we only know the images that a photographer is willing to share with the world. That conscious choice at that time is where a photographer inserts the commas and full stops that make a story understandable.
Which drives to the heart of this idea of a style. I much prefer the journalism equivalent of a voice. Hunter S. Thompson was a brilliant writer because he had a voice. He had something unique to say. The man was a walking story that had legs, in the figurative sense. Voice and style are the same thing – verbal and visual equivalents. A good writer finds a voice just as a good photographer finds a style. Hunter S. Thompson invented Gonzo journalism! It was new. Fresh. His own style of telling an original story.
This is where you might pull out a pen and paper to write something simple about style. It is about what the photographer has to say about the world. Style is about the story not the camera. It’s the inner voice that a storyteller evolves or discovers that compels them to put that vocabulary together within the constraints of commas and full stops. Good photography is about the communication of ideas through a visual medium.
But perhaps a photographer doesn’t have a voice? So what. I don’t care. But creating consistency isn’t going to make someone without something unique to say any better at telling a story. Photoshop filters or a Leica aren’t going to replace that grey matter and it’s foibles of existence.
A photographer’s style comes from what they choose to point a camera at and why, the context, the intention, their inner machinations of belief and politics. Style evolves as humans evolve, it’s what makes us all interesting human beings. We grow, marry, divorce, realign, change our politics or religion. That dictates our style. And I say this because these things change us as we move from teenagers to adults and into middle and old age.
The idea that our style at 80 will be the same as our style at 16 is three parts fallacy and one part a self-delusion that we’re a genius Picasso. And that just ain’t so for the vast majority.
Just ignore anybody who tries to put you into their box of consistency. The path to mediocrity is in trying to please everybody and that’s what the consistency problem is all about. It’s based on the presumption that photographers need to appease other photographers. So I’m calling bullshit. Comments closed.