When I was first starting out, I got deeply into conversations about style. What is this thing that will get me hired? How do I get it? Recently, I’ve realized that a photographic style isn’t the be-all and end-all magical thing that many beginner photographers think it is.
Why You Shouldn’t Chase a Style
Like most of my articles, my views on this topic are informed more by my art practice than someone who might be more interested in other types of photography. The remainder of this article is wholly my opinion and how I’ve navigated my photographic practice. Your experiences may vary.
My point still stands. Having a style is great; it makes a photographer’s work instantly recognizable, which I suppose commercially, might get you hired. But style isn’t really something you can work towards, I don’t think. Instead, you can of course focus on the technical skills. But assuming that you are already at a place within your learning where you have a technical skillset, you should then focus on having or developing a point of view: what you want your work to say.
How are these things different though? How is style different from having a point of view or something to say?
For me, my practice aims to explore our relationship with ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Essentially, I’m interested in bigger philosophical questions, such as “what is truth?” or “how do we behave within capitalism?” What are some things you are interested in or want to explore? These are things you can actively write down or read about and work on within your photographic practice. This, in the context of an artist statement, is a living document. You might work on it in a few hours or a few weeks, or even over a longer amount of time. But it can (and probably should) change as you change.
Style, on the other hand, is more about what your work looks like. Generally speaking, a concept or an idea cannot center around what things look like. For me, I tend to use minimalist compositions and selective use of color and form. Not only can you not reasonably develop a style, or navigate it in such a way that you kind of direct or steer what your style is, but I think it’s detrimental to do so.
You figure out what your interests are and what things you want to say and you do that for a year or two. You work on one series of images and then perhaps another and another. And then you look back and you figure out what are the common choices you are making. This might happen after a year or two or more, but is reasonably even longer than that.
The Equivalents of Photography
Alfred Stieglitz coined the term “equivalents”. This is a simple concept but is an important one to think about when working in the ways described above.
Photography is bound to the physical world. If I want to create a photograph of something, it has to exist in proximity to me within the real world. If I want to photograph a pizza, I need to have a pizza in front of me. If I want to photograph a horse; same thing, I kind of need a horse in front of me. If I don’t actually have access to a physical thing, I can’t photograph it.
This is all well and good, but when your work is concerned with abstract concepts then it becomes trickier. As from the previous examples of my own work, how do you photograph something that isn’t a physical thing such as “truth” or “capitalism”. The long answer is you have to think of other things which will make people think of these things.
Art photography is image-making that contributes to a broader artistic discourse. I consider myself very much a photographer and then an artist, but in this particular corner of the photography world, art has to come first. So there is a certain way, almost, to do things.
What are ideas you like to explore in your photography? And how does that inform your style? Or if you don’t already work in this way where the idea comes before anything else, then do you think you will give it a try now?
Interesting article Ali. I remember thinking about photography like that when I was in University for Fine Arts. We had to make artist statements and the work had to have a deeper significance. I think this is the big difference between Fine Art photography and commercial photography as you stated. In commercial photography you are hired exactly for your style. For me my use of color, fun, creativity, negative space, bold colors. If I turned in something different then that, I would be in big trouble! Like if you order a salted caramel ice cream and the person scooping it was feeling like giving you pistachio instead.
I agree that style isn't something you can work out, it's not about using the same Photoworks effect all the time or asking models to use the same poses, it's something that builds with time and experience. However, if you want your work to fit into the definition of particular time's style then you should be following things that are determining for that exact style.