“Only after becoming somewhat adept in a chosen field of study do most people feel comfortable developing their own distinctive style. More than one successful writer, for example, confessed to beginning their writing career by attempting to write in the same manner as the writers whom they admired. Artists, and other genuine people, are never truly comfortable in a fabricated role, living a life of mimicry, adhering to society’s preconceptions. Each person intuitively seeks to place the stamp of an emergent personality upon their greatest creation, the formulation of their self-identity. A person’s self-identity, similar to works of art, is autotelic, they reflect their maker, and are ends all unto themselves.”
Kilroy J. Oldster
From time to time I like to revisit images and reprocess them. This is the case with the above shot of Water Holes Canyon from 2010. It can be a painful process for me. I’m not the biggest fan of looking back on my work and cringing at its quality considering where I was at that time but it’s really important towards helping to understand and refine your personal style.
Beware Guru Salespeople
Personal style is one of those topics in photography and the greater art world that I tend to get really pissed off about. Our social media dominated culture is full of gurus, trendsetters, and influencers who like to feel empowered by telling us this or that is “hip” or will bend over backwards to help you allegedly develop your style while peddling you their sponsored wares at which point you will be magically touched with the super mojo that will make people notice you and/or your work. Don’t believe it. Ya see, here’s the thing. You already have a personal style shaped and influenced by your own unique life experiences just waiting to emerge. That’s the trick right? How do you get there?
Mimicry and Overstaying Your Welcome
Modeling is a critical aspect of development in the animal kingdom. We tend to ascribe it more often to other mammals, thinking we are surely better than all that. I don’t know how many nature shows I’ve watched with my son on the topic of mimicry. Oftentimes, it’s overlooked how important it is for our own species at a basic level. Babies learn phonics by listening which becomes the basis for all human verbal and later written communication. As teenagers, we rebel against what we have learned and co-opt that root to come up with our own current, seemingly meaningful slang. If you are a parent or grandparent, please don’t ever say “jiggy with it.” However for some reason, the tendency is to look at artistic development and endeavor as existing in a vacuum which is really weird. Why would the grail of discovering your personal style be that when you finally get there you should be immutable and fixed in stone? This is a terrible thing to do to yourself as an artist but it’s a trap many fall into trying to reach the top of the proverbial mountain.
Consider Pablo Picasso and his Blue Period as an example. Imagine the loss to all the world if ol’ Pablo stopped there and didn’t have the courage to change. I say courage but that is inadequate to describe what is the ever evolving journey of a true artist. Some would call that following the muse. Whatever, I see the secret sauce as his openness to review the works of his contemporaries and to operate within the pulse of the changing artistic movements of that time and to use them as fuel for the creative engine.
Where I think many photographers get stuck is focusing too much on copying someone else’s work without stopping to understand why they did what they did that is unique and made you pay attention in the first place. You got to think like a teenager minus all the awful distracting hormonal stuff. Man, do they make it easy these days though. How many photoshop plugins or actions are out there to make editing quick and easy? If your editing is quick and easy, it’s not your style. Don’t be a cheap hack living under the delusion that just because you got 1,000 likes that you are an artist. Perusing through Instagram, I am seeing so much work that looks like a knock off of Max Rive. Max’s work is of the highest quality and fundamentally there is nothing wrong with trying to emulate it as an academic exercise but you have to push beyond just holding up a mirror.
My wife is obsessed with Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix. She pulled out all her clothes, threw them all on our bed, and picked up each one asking if it brought her joy. If not, it was destined for Goodwill. I’m not super into providing a mass exodus portal for my stuff. Not all my camera gear, after all, brings me joy but it is functional. I’d rather have new Zeiss glass thank you very much. The overall message of bringing you joy is applicable though.
I’m a big football (soccer for you philistine Americans) fan. I can’t write that without the words to You’ll Never Walk Alone echoing in my head. I breath it. When a player hits the zone, it is customary to say that they are finding joy. This is the creative sweet spot. I could tell you all day long how to compose a shot in the field but that’s how I would do it and not how you would. Different experiences, different results as we all have a unique filter that reflects the world and how we see it. I know I interpret everything as a series of lines and shapes. It’s how I see things walking down the street and is as intrinsic to me as how I breath. I also love softness and symmetry. This is reflected throughout my work in relatively flat perspectives. My work doesn’t have tons of front to back depth with a lot of contrast like you are likely to see on the cover of Outdoor Photographer Magazine. I know when people get it because they say it looks like a painting and not because that was my intention but because I’ve tapped into a more universal way of seeing that is available to anyone. But that’s me. How do you get there?
A Personal Style Exercise
You have to expose yourself to as much photography and other art as you can. Look at thousands of images a day. Flickr, Instagram, and 500px are good places to start but don’t look at just one as they all have their own overarching stylistic patterns. Look for what brings you joy then write down why. Don’t do this on an electronic device. Get a piece of paper and a pen or pencil and physically write it down. Recent research has demonstrated that writing things down helps to create a mental picture of the world and helps with learning in a way that is lacking when electronic devices are engaged. With respect to goals, there is a 42% greater likelihood that you will achieve it writing it over typing it. After you have created your why list, try to condense it into ten to fifteen adjectives or short phrases. Write those on an index card and throw it into your camera bag. Take it out first when you get ready to head out into the field or to the studio and read it again to establish your intention. While you are about to click the shutter, does what you are looking at in the viewfinder match some of your list? All of your list? Do you want to move to reframe? Does this composition bring you joy? If not, move yourself or the camera.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten frustrated trying to make a shot work. My default is to find a linear pattern and spin the zoom barrel while the shutter is open or to move up and down. I’ve done this with everything from trees to lobster traps. It’s always fun and that helps me reset so I can get back at it.
A Long Time Ago In A Slot Canyon Far Away………
When I was standing in the sand in a slot canyon in Arizona, the answer to the joy question was yes but I wasn’t armed with all that I know now. The memory of the place seems perfect in my head. I was out on a week long photo trek with my friend Dave. My grandmother had passed just a day into the trip and my family strongly encouraged me to stay where I was rather than cut it short and head to Tennessee for the funeral. On that afternoon, we had just discovered Horseshoe Bend and wanted to forego hitting what we knew would be a crowded Antelope Canyon in favor of a place we’d likely have all to ourselves. I recall the transition down the wider throat of the canyon in the blazing summer heat wondering if we’d made the right decision with 40lbs of camera gear weighing heavily on my back. As the sandstone cathedral closed in, narrowed, and the air got cooler time stopped as we explored the twists and turns undisturbed by another soul.
Now though I’ve studied Ansel’s Zone System at length, poured over large format books of black and white photos of John Sexton’s work, and witnessed jaw dropping large prints of Clyde Butcher’s in Florida. I realized my vision for the experience of long ago needed to be dialed back from my initial youthful interpretation. I’d overcooked it with color and I wanted it to be in black and white. That’s the difference between mimicing someone else’s work and making it your own. I’m finally feeling some joy with an image I’ve been looking at for almost a decade. Maybe in ten years I’ll want to do something different with it and that’s ok too. It’s self directed and I can say with certainty, because I’ve looked, that it doesn’t look like anything else out there. It’s all mine.
Until next time,