While talking with photography students recently, I was asked by one hopeful attendee about how one finds their style. I get the question a lot from photographers. When I was younger, I asked that question a lot.
Style is like a lost and scared puppy, the more
we try to catch it, the further away it runs
I guess it helps if we first discuss the definition of photographic “style.” For me, and there will be some slight variations from others, it is the way our images, as a whole, look. Their visual appearance. It is a combination of composition, subject matter, tonality, contrast, dimensions, process, etc. When fully realized, it is our signature. Our photographic identity. It is, in a way, a reflection of who we area as individuals.
So how do we find ours? The truth is that we don’t. Our style will find us. But, we must have the patience to allow it. Style is like a lost and scared puppy, the more we try to catch it the further away it runs. All we can do is create serious, personal, and honest (vulnerable?) work. And not stopping. It might take months, or it might take years, but eventually you will realize, while considering your body of work, that you have a style.
Mine came as a shock to me. I had been a newspaper photojournalist for almost 20 years, and then another few years as a university photographer, before I started shooting landscapes with any semblance of seriousness. During those day jobs, I never thought about my style. Not once. It was work and, while I liked my images and they were made by me, they were not created FOR me. Then one day, while I was putting together a grouping of landscape images, it hit me: Holy crap, I have a style. I describe that style as: black and white, reticent, quiet, balanced, straight-forward, often centered, and at the intersection of man and nature.
I had wondered for a long time about style in my landscape photographs. And when I least expected it, when my back was turned, it found me.
Those who rush the process, who force it, will ultimately fail as they risk the pitfalls of being contrived and artificial and cliche. They work will say more about their influences than it will about themselves. Self-identity disguised by a costume. Play acting. Pretending.
Students, the ones who inquire most about finding a style, are at a disadvantage. Much of their work is created as an assignment for class, to be evaluated by, and to impress, their instructors. Much of it is outside their area of interest or their comfort zone. Some assignments they simply hate. Yet, these must be done. Much of higher education is, be definition, about external influence. And that can make finding a personal style much more challenging.
My advice to photography students is to simply not worry about it. Use your college experience to learn, absorb, and be influenced. Discover and learn. Take away what you find valuable, discard what your find inane. Allow the experience to help shape and define who you are as an artist.
Then, when you least expect it . . .
addendum: Style is not a static, once-you-find-it-you-stick-with-it, thing. It is a living, breathing, dynamic being. As you learn and experience new things, find new influences, and just plain get older and, hopefully, wiser you will find that your style will evolve and ebb and flow. It’s a lifetime process, and we should to embrace that. Special thanks to Guy Tal for reminding me of this crucial aspect.