Style as Signature

Boatshed1I often hear the term word “style” being used to describe a photographer or his / her work and it makes me ask the following questions:

  1. What is style in a photographic sense?
  2. What is my style, or better still, do I have a style?, and
  3. Does style matter?

Webster’s dictionary offers the following definitions of style:

  • A particular way in which something is done, created, or performed
  • A particular form or design of something
  • A way of behaving or of doing things

When I look at the work of certain photographers, I can certainly see similarities in:

  • Subject matter
  • Composition
  • Use of lighting
  • Use of exposure
  • Contrast and tonal range
  • The way the images are processed
  • The way the images are presented

And I am sure there are several more.  One can often recognize an image created by a certain photographer because it bears some kind of resemblance to other images created by the photographer.  But ask a person to describe why they think it looks like the work of a particular photographer and they will often stumble.  I think this happens because it is not just a singular element that defines the photographer, but rather a combination of elements, some of which are visible and some of which exist because they evoke a particular feeling or emotion.  In this sense, their style is their signature.

I recently read an interview with Michael Kenna (http://www.michaelkenna.net/ivwrap.php) in which he was asked to describe how his style evolved.  He stated the following:

“I think style is just the end result of personal experience. It would be problematic for me to photograph in another style. I’m drawn to places and subject matter that have personal connections for me and I photograph in a way that seems right. Where does it all come from, who knows?”

After reading this I wondered if Kenna really knows what his style is.  His response to the question seems to suggest that style is the result of who he is and is not something he consciously uses to create images.  In other words, he does not see his style as something tangible, but rather something that just “seems right” to him.

“What is my style” is a question I think most photographers ask themselves and I am going to go out on a limb here and say that most photographers don’t know what their style is and probably question whether they have a particular style.  I think this is because, as Kenna suggests, it’s a “personal experience”.  Some people may say “well, I shoot [insert specific subject matter] a particular way”.  But I don’t think that is a description of style.  For instance, does this mean if you go out and shoot a completely different subject matter you are employing a different style?  I think the answer is no because I believe that every photograph we take includes a part of who we are – each photograph includes our own personal experience.

And so, to my final question – does style matter?  To me, the answer is a resounding yes.  While I may not recognize my own style and may even continue to question whether I have a style, the one thing I try to do with every single image I create is get to a point in the process of pulling sliders this way and that when the image starts to speak to me – it starts to feel right.  This is the point in time when the image is reflecting not just what I saw, but also how I am feeling, which, as Kenna suggests, is my own personal experience.

And one final thought – how I am feeling today may be very different to how I will feel tomorrow, next year or 10 years from now, which means I could create several different images from the same photograph, each of which will somehow reflect my own personal experience at that time.  This, I would like to suggest is how our style evolves – we gain experience (both technically and emotionally) as we grow and we subconsciously include this growth in the images we create.

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3 comments

  1. Great article, Arthur! It helps me think about the question of style, whether I have one, and how it might (if there is one) influence the decisions that result in what you would call “my work.” I think our style is the sum total of what we bring as an artist, a person, a photographer to the experience of creating an image. And just as each of us is evolving, maturing, changing, so, too, is our photographic style; and though it changes, it seems to me that artifacts of one’s style remain even as other changes emerge; there’s till an imprint of the creator on the image. Thanks! Hope you’re doing well!

  2. Great post Arthur. Tremendous image too. I have struggled with the idea of style. I can see style in others work like our friend Chuck Kimmerle and a few others. Not a lot though… meaning I don’t see a unique style in a lot. I don’t believe I have a “style” at this point.

    I do agree that you don’t chase style rather it develops… and I’m thinking that as I continue to let go of my expectations and learn to be open to what calls me to be photographed the more my style will develop. Thank you for a though provoking post.

  3. Yes, you have a style as I have known you… Monochrome… Moody, employing somber moods, somewhat formal compositions and I think Ansel Adams said it well:
    “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
    ― Ansel Adams
    Therefore we all have style….because we all have unique life experiences that influence the expressions of our lives in images we make and develop… Just sayin… The concept in Minor Whites is in play as well “Equivalence” which explains our ever changing style and image making. Ok nuff said! Great image…formal, moody, and monochrome!!

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