I believe that every photographer brings something of himself or herself into the taking of a photograph – simply by being a different individual than any other. What I mean is (and I have written about this before on the blog); I believe we all show something original in our creative work. It might not be grand, but it’s ours. However, does this mean that every photographer has a specific personal voice? Originality – as I see it here – and a personal voice are closely connected, but does that mean that every photographerer – the occasional snapshooter as well as the pro – has his or her own voice?
I think not. It takes more to have a photographic voice than just being a person who shoots a snapshot now and then even then when that 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 be able to distinguish a photographer’s personal voice.
What is a personal voice 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 voice 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 voice is closely related to bold and majestic landscapes or the voice 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 clearly recognizable photographic voice. Finally for many photographers post-production is where the personal vocie emerges and where the photographer’s own vision and expression comes to together in a specific manner. I believe before mentioned Ansel Adams’s photographic voice 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 photographic voice 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 voice 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 complex studio pictures. The whole process involves so many choices, these in turn; depend directly on our personal tastes and interests. This is why it for most of us takes a while for a personal voice to develop, because at in the beginning the photographer might simply explore all the possibilities in photography, and not yet have fixed ideas about how images ought to look according to his or her taste.
Now, this last statement, is interesting in connection with what I wrote in a posting not long ago, Trust Your Instinct, 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 a personal voice and creativity? I actually think so – if you think of a personal voice more as style. I think a well develop style – if used consequently – can inhibit our creativity. That’s why we as photographers need to take chances in between, 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 styles and make it part of our photographic voice.