No Easy Way Around

I often get questions about photographic voice and how to create a signature style—not the least since I regularly teach a workshop called “Your Photographic Voice”. However, there is no easy answer to the question, simply because there isn’t a quick and simple solution to finding this unique way of expressing oneself, not as a photographer nor in any other art form.

The not so helpful answer is; it takes time to develop your own signature. Moreover, it’s not something you can sit down and figure out or construct. As a photographer, you need to find the signature style, rather than create it. Or let it find you. Nevertheless, there are things you can do to allow yourself the freedom to grow into your practice and find your way. Once you fully accept this freedom, originality follows almost inevitably.

So keep in mind, the way in which all artists discover their individuality takes time. In fact, you develop your voice through your whole career or life span as a photographer. It’s in constant development, and the longer you have been nurturing your art, the more distinctive your voice grows to be. If you are concerned with developing originality, first of all don’t think about been original. This is something I have addressed before. If you try to be original, the result will rather be contrived. Instead, don’t think about being original, but allow yourself the freedom to experiment, exploring as many different mediums, subject matters, and approaches as possible.

It is only through the process and practice that a photographer develop true originality, as he or she slides subconsciously into repetitive patterns that build upon one another and over time form natural habits. Originality is the accumulation of a series of these subconscious processes, that when seen as a whole are a representation of the originality inherent in each individual. Not two people are the same, and thus no two people’s work is the same. When one photographer—or artist—makes work that appears similar to another’s, it either isn’t as similar as it may appear, or someone isn’t being true to their own individuality.

To be true to your own individuality, you need to pursue your passions. It’s through passionate work you develop your voice. Passion is simply the foundation of any successful, personal expression. As such, I think that is the strongest advice to take to heart—literarily. Photograph what you are passionate about. Find themes and subject matters you really care about, not only photographically but personally.

Then make photographing these subjects personal, that is to say photograph what you know. Photograph close to home, physically or figuratively. For instance, photograph your family or photograph your friends. Many a renowned photograph has made a name for him- or herself by photographing their personal relationships, among others Sally Mann, Nan Goldin or Larry Clark, to mention a few.

What makes your photography stand out—over time—is showing the rest of us how your world looks like photographed. Tell us your story—in your photos. When you share your personal life, you share your life experience and your heartfelt revelations. Just remember, when I write personal, I don’t mean private. Nobody wants to pry into your private life, but sharing your personal experiences will make us curious and capture us. Through a personal approach, your photography will be able to touch others and make them learn more about life, in general.

The late photographer, Diane Arbus, once wrote: “The more personal you make it, the more universal it becomes”.

A final thought about how to pursue a personal, photographic voice or encourage this budding individuality is to take in as much art as possible, from as many different approaches as possible. And I don’t talk only about photography now, although if you are particularly interested in nature photography, for instance, open up yourself to other photographic approaches as well. If your only reference material is nature photography, it is easy to see how the work you make might quickly become a reworking of other nature photographs. When absorbing a vast array of different approaches to making, alas not only photographic approaches, some will filter their way into your work, distilled through the prism of your personality. So give yourself as much inspiration as possible, from as many varying sources as possible. Even seek out work that you dislike. It will refine your own signature.

70 thoughts on “No Easy Way Around

  1. Good words, Otto….”you develop your voice through your whole career or life span as a photographer.”……Something we all need to understand, in a world of ‘quick fixes’

  2. I love this post Otto. I go to Boston’s MFA often and I find that the way a painter presents light or color will inspire me in my photography. Especially with color, my eyes learn to see colors in real life that I’d never noticed before. And I find conceptual ideas to contemplate from science – such as the thought that light can bend. When I was in high school I had a job after school and summers. I worked for a lab that made Petri dishes filled with various agars. One summer I was an inspector. I had to use a light table to view each dish and look for contaminating mold that might have grown. Some dishes had grown rather large displays. There was texture, color, and, caused by both, high drama in many of these growths. It might look like a sunrise, or otherworldly, or an irregular and sinister dark mass of gunk. The thing about the mold was that as I looked at it, I was aware that in an hour it would have changed. I always wanted to capture these remarkable presentations, but I couldn’t stop to take a photo while on the job! Sometimes I’d try to describe them to my mother when I’d get home. The point being, I learned that scenes are fleeting. Thanks for this wonderful post.

    1. I am glad you enjoyed the post, Mary. And thank you for sharing your experiences. I have seen those molds growing on the agar in petri dishes, and yes, the do form the most peculiar patterns and “images”. Goes to show that there is inspiration everywhere we look.

  3. That last image is priceless. Lots of good advice, Otto.

    Too many (amateur?) photographers see a great shot they love (online or in a book) and try to emulate it. What’s the point is copying someone else’s vision.

    1. I am maybe not as dismissive of photographers starting out, who copy images by others they have seen and like. It is part of the way to learn. But if you only keep copying then it’s kind of wasted, isn’t it.

      1. Thank you Otto. My friend wrote poems to the theme of grieving and I will provide my Polaroid Transfer images, I had photographed years ago in Paris, Sculptures sitting on gravestones, on E6 film and than transformed them into Polaroid Transfers on watercolor paper.. We are using a self publishing company. We’ll see if we get successful.

            1. I’m following Otto’s blog since years. It is inetersting and a way to meet interesting bloggers inthe comments! Two years ago, befor covid my wife and I had the pleasure to meet Otto in hisbeautiful town, Bergen 🙂

  4. In the physical world, I’ve disliked the taste of a certain herb, cilantro, ever since I first encountered it in Honduras in 1967. A few years ago I learned that some people have a variation in a group of olfactory-receptor genes that allows them to strongly perceive the soapy-flavored aldehydes in cilantro leaves, which therefore makes the herb taste bad. I wonder whether or to what extent our DNA might cause us to have good or bad reactions to more abstract things like musical or artistic styles.

      1. I can’t remember if I previously recommend two books that present the insights of recent DNA research. One is Blueprint, by Robert Plomin, and the other is Innate, by Kevin J. Mitchell.

  5. You have touched on this before but perhaps it was not stated directly to this topic. I think it was about you are in the moment with the environment or what you see when you are taking picture is one of the factors that give you your personal view of the world you see. A great post!

    1. Forgot to say, the accompanying pictures in this post are great. I do like every one of them! Adorable and touching moments. These are what draw viewers.

  6. I think, Otto, your advice are not only highly precious for photographers, but just for everybody! Make experiments in our lives and find out through them what is really important for us! Many thanks and best regards

  7. An excellent post Otto I particularly like your comment near the beginning: ‘As a photographer, you need to find the signature style, rather than create it’

  8. i wouldn’t say that i’m passionate about subject matter, i would say i’m passionate about the photograph itself, esp if it reminds me of being out on the road with a 35mm film cam, 50mm lens, shooting whatever passes my eye… ie. photography that was nothing to me when i was a teenager, is now that photography which is my jam lol

  9. One of the things most notable about your photographs is the personal aspect. You are consistent, Otto. The photos you’ve shared today tell a family story and are so appealing. I love that first photo, in particular!

  10. As it happens, my newest entry on The Task at Hand, posted just this morning, provides support for what you say here — and some concrete examples of what can happen if you take the advice you’ve offered seriously. Your comments about originality are especially important. A willingness to be guided by our own inclinations — even if they aren’t in vogue at the time — often leads both to self-satisfation and to appreciation from others.

  11. Yes, Art resembles life, and it’s passage as we are busy living it, and experiencing, doing what we do, be this work, business, studies, cooking, making a family or Art.
    It takes time, and experience doing it, to do it personal, and better.
    Great post Otto.

  12. Powerful photos, Otto! Love all of them. I agree it is important we are true to ourselves. And without fear to make mistakes. Experimenting is a good way to find how to express ourselves, our ideas. But it does not always work. We must accept it. And yes, inspiration comes from many different sources…
    At the end as you say our style, our signature will arrive…

  13. That whole concept of originality applies to writing as well doesn’t it Otto. When we try too hard it’s stilted but, like photography, when we follow our instincts, inspiration happens.

  14. Reblogged this on Aparna Rao and commented:

    Wonderful post, Otto! I especially loved this line – “If you are concerned with developing originality, first of all don’t think about been original.”

    This thought applies to any artist wanting to find their style. So egocentric of us to think that, isn’t it the art that finds us?

    Thank you for this. 🙂

  15. So wonderfully said … bravo Otto. I love that you write about the artistic side of photography … I can relate to all of this. Style, individuality, creative identity are important and something I think about often. I especially like the paragraph that starts, ‘It is only through the process and practice that a photographer develop true originality,’ and ends, ‘When one photographer—or artist—makes work that appears similar to another’s, it either isn’t as similar as it may appear, or someone isn’t being true to their own individuality.’ For myself I know it has taken time, our layers of experience can only build up and blend with time. Nowadays I see a lot who don’t think about the personal experience and an individual voice or style, and perhaps find it more important to just get the end product.

    1. I think instant gratification almost required by social media pushes many towards quick solutions and an end product – any end product. Whereas it takes time, as you point out, to find you own way. A poignant input, Denise.

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