Musings on developing a style

I have been back in India for a few days after a week in Singapore. Returning reminds me how the chaos of India contrasts dramatically with the order of Singapore. As a street photographer, that same unruliness is one thing that makes India so compelling. On the other hand, as a person who thrives on efficiency and order, Singapore holds an equal attraction. I wrote in the first of these three blog entries about the “journey” that Singaporean society as a whole is trying to take as it moves up the economic ladder. As I see it, such progress will only be made when individuals embrace the more unruly aspects of the creative processes. In this blog entry, I will answer the query of one Singaporean who has taken on that challenge.

Joanne, who was a student in my class on street photography, took the initiative before the class even started and wrote me. She was responding to the letter that I send all workshop students in advance of any class, suggesting what to bring (and how to prepare for the class.) She took me at my word, when she read the closing line of that letter where I always write, “Please e-mail me if you have any questions.”

She wrote me:

I have been thinking about the direction of my photography in general. I am a novice, bordering on keen amateur (if there is such a thing). I recently picked up photography, as I bought a micro four-thirds camera and went for my first photography course, last year. Since then I have been trying to find my style.

I have no ambitions to do this for a living. I started wanting to capture moments in my life but that alone is not enough to keep me going I found. I stopped taking pictures for a couple of months. Instead I start to observe and listen to the conversations that I have about photography within myself. In simple terms, I want to use photography to make a difference.

I am hugely inspired by a local photographer’s work in Cambodia – he is using photography to raise funds for a remote village to build a cement road so they have a way out of poverty. I want to take pictures for a purpose (in addition to doing it for fun of course). I love stories about human beings and want to tell stories with my pictures.

The line that caught my attention was where she wrote, “Since then I have been trying to find my style.“ That struck me as a great way of defining the quest that almost all photographers set out on at some point in their careers.

With that in mind, I have been thinking about how I “found my style” and how other photographers who I know did the same thing. Rest assured there is no one, single, guaranteed path to take. In fact anyone who says that there is such a simple, assured route is probably selling you a bill of goods. Still, having studied the history of photography as well as having analyzed my own path (and that of other photographers,) there are a few broad lessons that can be learned. Many of these points are things I have written about before, so if I appear to b repeating myself, bear with me.

First, finding your style is a slow process, where the journey should be enjoyed as much as the destination. In fact, obsessing about the end goal is the surest way to push it further and further out of reach. The process is very much one of learning then discarding most of what was learned, followed by more of the same.

On reason I succeeded in finding my style, is that over the years I have learned and practiced almost every kind of photography. Studying history of photography in college sped up that process a good bit. I learned how to do landscape work, portraiture, nudes, self-portraits, food, weddings, etc. Having tried all those genres, I could then do two very important things with what I learned, as I was ”finding my style.”

First, I could take certain aspects of each genre and incorporate some small part of that into my own photography practice as I developed my own style. Second, I could discard those various styles of photography, knowing that though I was capable of doing them, they were not using my set of skills and interests to my maximum potential. To make this crystal clear, half of developing your own style is knowing, and then discarding, as many other styles of photography as you possibly can.

The next thing to do is learn how we interpret/experience photographs. It is one thing to look at an image and say, “I like it.” You will grow much more as a photographer if you understand what makes a photograph work for you. Composition, the use of light, angles, textures and the controlled use of focus are some of the factors that shape how we experience different photographs.

After that, you should be able to look at different styles of photography and similarly break them down. Some stylized imagery relies heavily on the photographic tools noted above while other styles of photography depend heavily on the content/subject matter that is being shown. Both the formal elements and the content influence how we experience the imagery and the best photographers are usually masters of both.

You can also study how other creative practitioners in other fields found their own styles or voices. Since photography is such a technology dependent process, as compared to say writing, some lessons will transfer between media, but not all. Writing is a good example of a pursuit where studying the work of past masters is almost a given, as is mastery of the craft. Writers usually practice their discipline almost daily and most writers acknowledge the long hard slog that most go to get from rambling beginner to stylized master. A huge part of finding your own style in photography is mastery of the craft, of the tools.

Joanne, my Singaporean correspondent has taken a few very important steps. First, she has thought about the “professional photography” question and decided she has no ambitions to do photography to make a living. On one hand, that is probably good. On the other hand, commercial photographers tend to use their fear of poverty as a great tool to spur some incredible acts of creativity.

The other thing that she has done is to identify some photographers whose work (and style) she admires. This is very important, not because she wants to necessarily “be like them.” Instead, she can study their work, their career paths and their thinking (assuming they blog,) so she can understand how those photographers found their style.

The other thing Joanne communicated to me, in person, was how serious she planned to be in pursuing photography in general and the process of finding her style in particular. This was reassuring to me, because succeeding as a photographer can be just as challenging as succeeding in any other pursuit, be it law, medicine, or science. In those other fields, no one says it will be easy but because the business of camera manufacturers is to make photography seem ever more simple, too many photographers do in fact think that photography is “easy.”

In thinking about the question of “style,” I have gathered a few posts from this site, which could be of help to anyone considering setting out to find their style. The most relevant ones include:

The point of reviewing all of this is to better understand how I, as one person, worked through some of the steps that I outlined above (and to learn from my journey.) In the best of all worlds you will want to try to get inside the thinking of others who have gone through this same process to see how they did it. Then take a bit from each and then synthesize your own path, which by definition will lead you to your own style.

You may have noted, I spent no time endorsing or opposing any particular type of photography or advocating for any specific photographic “styles.” I did that for a very specific reason. Style is a lot like taste. It is highly personal and quite subjective. Like taste, it is usually discovered at the point where personal experience, emotional make-up, philosophical inclination and innate talents intersect. Since that is bound to be unique to each person, I have nothing to offer on that question, other than some tools to help you find that point of discovery.

6 responses to “Musings on developing a style”

  1. Short answer: A chance one takes but I say it is still worth it to be doing work that is unique to the individual.
    Long answer: Probably another blog entry on how certain photographers keep fresh by regularly tweaking their styles or making big leaps to new styles.

  2. Yes, and how many more will be expended on this never ending quest…..

  3. …and there was me moaning (ad nauseum) that I’m just a photographic ‘butterfly’ moving from one thing to the next, and seemingly unable to settle, and that I would never be able to develop the ‘holy grail’ of ‘my own style’ – This puts it in a whole new light…thanks David…

  4. Understanding the question is half of finding the answer!

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