As an afterthought to my second last posting Everything has already been done, I have been pondering about the connection between originality – the fact that I believe every photographer bring something of himself or herself into the taking of a photograph – and a personal photographic style. Originality and personal style is closely connected, but does that mean that every photographer – the occasional snapshooter as well as the pro – has his or her own style?
I think not. It takes more to have your own style than just being a person who shoots a snapshot now and then even then when the same person inherently – consciously or not – brings some of his or her personality into the picture. It takes a clear vision and a coherent body of work to be able to call a photographer’s work his or her own style.
What is style then? It’s a fingerprint of the person behind the camera that clearly relates to the photographer’s personal vision and expression. It’s this vague something that makes a photo stand out and shout this picture is taken by this photographer, no matter what the subject matter is and what technique the photographer has used. It’s a reflective projection of the person’s idea through the whole process of taking and making a photograph.
For a photographer a personal style results from many specific choices the photographer makes in composition, focal length, timing, lighting, the colour palette – or black and white – and other technical variables. But even more important is maybe the subject and subject matter at least for some photographers – such that Ansel Adams’s well known style is closely related to bold and majestic landscapes or the style of Henri Lartigue is very much connected to his choice of subject matter; his family and his relationship with the wealthy Paris. On the other hand some photographers, such as Albert Watson and late Brian Lanker, shoot across a whole range of subject matter and still have a clear defined style. Finally for many photographers post-production is where the personal style emerges and where the photographer’s own vision and expression comes to together in a specific manner. I believe before mentioned Ansel Adams’s style is a clear case of the latter. Without his eminent darkroom skills none of his photographs would have reach iconic level, his photographs would actually have been pretty boring. On the other hand a photographer such as David LaChapelle builds his photographs in the studio with bold colours and a bizarre, at times grotesque, and sexual twist to his approach.
Yet, even when a style seems to be grounded on one specific part of the production, be it in the studio or in the darkroom or a specific technique, I still believe that a conscious approach through the whole process from the first vision to the end result is necessary for the personal style to develop. Ansel Adams wouldn’t have been able to do his elaborate darkroom work if he hadn’t used the zone system already at the time of shooting the negatives. And LaChapelle still needs to have control of the output of his elaborate studio pictures. The whole process involves so many choices, these in turn; depend directly on our personal tastes and interests. This is why it sometimes takes a while for a style to develop, because at the start the photographer might simply explore all the possibilities in photography, and not yet have fixed ideas about how images ought to look.
Now, this last statement, is interesting in connection with what I wrote in my last posting Let instincts rule, that to be creative we have to let go of preconceived ideas of what a photograph ought to look like and tap into our unconscious mind. Does this mean there is a conflict of interest between style and creativity? I actually think so. I think a well develop style – if used consequently – can inhibit our creativity. That’s why we as photographers in between need to take chances, let go, lose control and give ourselves assignments to break with everything we believe in. To encourage creativity and to not be inhibit in our approach. Creativity after all means to bring into being something new and surprising. Then later we can then always bring that new revelation into our palette of style.