Wednesday, March 05, 2008


It's common to worry about developing your own style. There are even books you can read to tell you how to do this. Frankly, I think it's a joke. Anything you do deliberately to differentiate your work would be better described as an affectation. Style comes from seeing that way, of doing things in a particular way because you have to to express yourself clearly. It comes from a varied background in photography or the arts. We're tempted to think that composers like Mozart developed their musical style de novo - but it's far from the truth, He had years of musical exposure and training before he started composing and he started composing by picking up where others left off, not by suddenly coming up with a totally new style - Beethoven the same. You'd think the 20th century composers with their non melodic music must have invented it one day, but truth is there were hints in the 19th century. Truth is music was moving that direction anyway. In art, picasso may have developed a totally new style of painting - but the precursors were there and I believe he started out relatively conventionally. Lots of his sketches are very classical in appearance (no eyes between breasts there).

Perhaps someone with a better background on Picasso can comment but I doubt he woke up one morning and said to himself - I need to be different to become famous. If I remember correctly, he was a respected artist already before he painted in the cubist style.

Edward Burtynsky photographs with an 8X10 not because he wants to show he's more manly - he has a point to make and the incredible detail possible with an 8X10 was the only practical tool at the time (nowadays he could in theory stitch with a medium format back, but perhaps in China he still finds the 8X10 more reliable and practical). His huge prints are made to have impact, for you to be able to see the scale, the repitition, the sheer effect on the landscape and the environment. 8X10 glossies just wouldn't do it.

My point? Well, I think you can probably assume you aren't going to develop a style overnight. It almost certainly is going to be a leap in the direction you seem to be going anyway. You can't buy it, read it, pick it up at a garage sale and you can reasonably assume it's going to come with sweat equity and probably not even at a conscious level.

Save yourself the trouble, don't try to rent a style. It'll come, eventually, if you keep trying to express yourself rather than make pictures to sell well or please others.


Jack bush said...

This is the best thinking I've read on this topic. Thanks; it helps.

A Jesse said...

As usual, crystal clear thinking and straight forward presentation. This is helpful. Thank you.

Steve W said...

Interesting topic and you've layed it out clearly. I believe that when starting out you are generally emulating other styles but as you continue to shoot you start to evolve so that your subject matter and method of processing narrow to reflect more of your own personal taste. I guess you could say that this eventually becomes your style. In the end, is having a recognizable style something that is to be desired? By definition, does style require that you are now shooting similar subjects and processing in a similar manner so it is recognizable? When this happens, you may have achieved a style but are at now at risk of becoming stagnant as a photographer. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

Well put!. Picasso did indeed start out quite traditional - albiet at an early age. If I recall my Art History correctly, the changes really developed from the social interaction of Artists hanging out at the cafe's etc, discussing Art, politics, the world and what they as Artists were working on. It harbored an atmosphere that pushed these artists to go beyond the training, challenging each others opinions, etc. That physical commraderie is still present today, in different form. It's in your blog and the Day Shoots and seminars, or just finding a fellow photographer to share the passion and venture out into the landscape.
The path to style is cluttered with emulation. Ultimately, if images are captured from the ehart, style will emerge. But style is not stagnant either. It might be subtle but change does continue for those whose passion feeds the desire to photograph. I think of Ansels later work vs. his early work.

George Barr said...

I was hoping someone better informed would put in their two cents - thank you for that Mark. And thanks to all of you for your comments.

mkinsman said...

You welcome, George. Thank YOU for publishing the blog and keeping us all thinking!

pnfphotography said...

I agree and sometimes you do not realize you have a certain style until it shows up with a body of work you have done with various different subject matter and then one day you notice that wow - that is my signature in photography. It is an evergrowing process photography isn't it.

Geoff Wittig said...

The irascible but admirably clear-minded David Vestal had a column on this subject in PhotoTechniques a year or three back. The gist of his thinking was similar; if one consciously tries to develop a style by being "different", she ends up with work that looks a lot like everyone else's. Only by doing the work that you really need to do, will you develop a unique eye.

Another tidbit I picked up elsewhere has to do with emulating brilliant photographers who have gone before. I think everyone has to go through an "Ansel Adams phase", trying to print dramatic grand landscapes. I also went through my "Elliot Porter phase", trying to make perfect small-scale color compositions. I've heard such exercises called "compulsories", like the imitative practice musicians must perform before developing their own style. Most of us benefit greatly from trying out a succession of other photographers' "eyes" before developing our own, organically, out of our own experience and sensitivities.

Geoff Wittig

George Barr said...

I agree with Geoff - many of us (definitely myself) went through the wanabe stages. About the only exception I have found is when an artist in other media crosses over and becomes a photographer - it seems they have already paid their dues and can often bypass all the 'shit' we had to go through.

mkinsman said...

I've spent most of my life as a musician, but "dabbled" with photography since I was 11.
As a song writer I spent years emulating my heroes before getting comfortable "in my own skin". So when I stopped playing professionally and picked up a camera again - this time as my main means of creative expression. I guess I have a "style" of my own, though I see my influences. I seldom think of an influence at the time of capture (as in gee, this would make a great Elliot Porter shot), instead, I am focused on the elements in the viewfinder that excite me. All too often, I find serendipity plays a role, just like my days of jazz improvisation - maybe that's just another view of the "decisive moment". For me, crossing over to photography from musis, I still go thru all the "shit" - the same way to Carnegie Hall - practice, practice, practice.

Rafa said...

This is the most lucid writing on the topic of style I have seen in a long time, or ever, for that matter. I do think people you can recognize by their style are people that cannot not do their style. They see the world their way and that's what they show to the rest of us.

Tim Gray said...

Not sure Mozart is the best example.

"He had years of musical exposure and training before he started composing."

He started composing at the age of 5, the same age as when he learned his first piece.