The Push/Pull of “Style"

It’s amazing how many coincidences occur when you look for them. ;~) 

For a project I’m working on I got around to thinking about what “style”, if any, it should have. Just putting a word into your forebrain tends to make you see it everywhere. Sure enough, within a few hours I had encountered two very prominent articles by photographers about their “style.” Without naming them, I’d say that one didn’t actually have a style I could perceive, the other had a fairly clear style, but I don’t think it came across the way he thinks it does. 

Damn. Could I have a style that others don’t see? Could my style be misinterpreted?

That’s one of the tricky things that happen when we start talking about the more artistic side of photography as opposed to the technical. Art is slippery. Moreover, there’s a school of thought that says if you think you’re an artist, you probably aren’t. The corollary of which is that if you don’t think you’re creating art you might actually be doing so. Which means that we’re dealing with the liberal arts version of the Heisenberg Principle. 

We are in a twisty maze of passages. 

I can think of two strong reasons to pursue “style” in your work. First, it can set your work apart from that of others (your style is visually unique from theirs’). Second, style usually requires consistency to achieve, and consistency is a good thing. I can certainly charge a client more if I’m consistent than if I’m inconsistent ;~). 

I don’t think of style and art as being the same thing, by the way. Sometimes style becomes art, but not always. “Art” also tends to be ephemeral. What we see as unique and artful today may look drab and mundane tomorrow. Some of that is that great style and great art will be mimicked, and thus eventually everyone will be overexposed to it. Museums are full of timelines of art, and it’s very instructive to walk through that timeline and try to interpret what was happening that generating the changes along the way.

As usual, I’m getting a little off point. Today’s exercise is about being aware of the push/pull of style and using that to better understand what is and isn’t working. 

Here’s a good starting point: 

  1. Write a paragraph (no more!) that describes the photographic style you are trying to achieve. 
  2. Take some pictures in that “style.”
  3. Show those pictures to an audience with no preamble.
  4. Ask them to describe your photography style.

In a perfect world, what you wrote in Step 1 gets replayed to you in Step 4. I’m betting you don’t live in a perfect world. 

I’d argue that you don’t actually have a style unless others see it. Put another way, if others don’t see your style when you’re trying to achieve one, something is wrong. When something is wrong, you need to correct that. (Some artists might suggest that it is often through creative mistakes that their art gets developed. That’s another story for another day.)

Which brings me to another point. I’d tend to put the practice of photography on a scale of development:

A. Technically excellent

B. Technically excellent, uniquely styled

C. Technically excellent, uniquely styled, and emotionally involving

D. Technically excellent, uniquely styled, emotionally involving, and artistic

While it’s true you can create something that’s emotionally involving and/or uniquely styled that exhibits poor technique, I’m trying to build a simple ladder here that you can try climbing and evaluate yourself with. Today we’re dealing with the issues of succeeding at Step B on the ladder.

We have a lot of questions to answer (caution: I’m going to use the Socratic method here and not answer the questions ;~):

  • What is a style?
  • How do people recognize a style?
  • Are there things about a style that have to remain the same, while others can vary? And if so, what are those?
  • Is mimicking a style a style?
  • How much of the style is composition? How much is perspective? How much is color? How much is post-processing?
  • Did Ansel Adams have a style, and if so, what was it? Galen Rowell? Art Wolfe? Jim Brandenberg? How about the other Web-folk you read, for example, Scott Kelby? 

As I said, I’m not going to answer those questions, I’m just trying to get you to think critically about style and how it might apply to you. 

The headline says “push/pull.” Just to be clear: you’re trying to push a style out to the world that sees your photographs. They pull a style (or lack of one) from them. It’s when those two things match that you know you’ve got style down pat. If they don’t match, you have to figure out why they don’t. 

That said, there’s also a school of thought that says “just do what you want to do.” The world will either follow or not, but that’s not important, only what you think is important. To me, that’s a bit narcissistic. Moreover, it’s a bit out of character with a key element to most photography practice: sharing the photo. Thus, I believe you need to close the feedback loop and find out if the message you’re pushing is the one that’s getting pulled by the viewer. 

That doesn’t make the photograph a failure if the viewer doesn’t see what you intended, by the way. You can make a great photograph that people love while failing at getting across the style you had hoped to. 

A corollary to this is: we don’t talk about what photographs convey enough. We talk too much about the technical details, and even when we talk about composition we tend to talk about pragmatic things (e.g. “I couldn’t get the tripod quite where I wanted it so had to…and then I saw a Coke can on the ground so I removed it.”). 

I actually don’t stick to a style. I have several “styles” I execute from time to time. Two I’ve shown very small snippets of are what I call Big Sky and Dirty Africa (I’m not going to further in telling you more about what I’m intending, because then I can’t actually perform my little closed loop test I outlined above ;~). When I’m out and about on my own I’m always thinking about style and emotion and art, and often I’ll run into something and think “oh, that’s perfect for the Big Sky series.” If you know and understand your style(s), it’s easier to find it.

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