Mel Burford is a talented New York City based photographer and she’s teaching part time at Columbia University. She suggested that I write something about photographic style, in part to provide fodder for her students.
So here are some thoughts:
A photographic style is an outward expression, a reflection, of the essence of the person who made the photographs.
Styles fall into one of four types: innate, copied, applied or neutral. Neutral is really a variation of innate but it has no uniqueness. I’ll explain more. Regardless of which type, they still reflect the person who made the picture. And it’s not as if this neat and tidy categorization fits everyone. It’s more of a sliding scale, a zone system that taps the range of personalities that we are.
Let’s talk about innate and neutral first. Innate style is simply the way a person grows into making pictures after getting through the technical stuff and shucking the learned stuff. The more complex, dimensional, unique, interesting, funny, distinctive, compassionate or whatever a person is, the more that person’s photographs will be complex, dimensional, interesting, distinctive ...
Neutral style is that which isn’t distinctive. Photographs made by someone with a neutral style simply reflect the subject being photographed without a distinctive photographer’s voice. There’s nothing that distinguishes the photographs, no quality that elevates the subject matter beyond what it is. In these settings, the quality of the image depends entirely on the quality of the subject. If the subject isn’t interesting, the photographs won’t be. These photographers tend to be the ones who say there was no photograph to be made in a given setting because there was nothing happening. Which is ridiculous, of course. Most of the amazing photographs made are not of inherently interesting subject matter; it was the photographer’s seeing, his or her expression of self through the images that makes the photograph compelling, regardless of the subject matter.
Some people never grow beyond a neutral style because they have nothing within themselves to invest their photographs with, beyond simple representation. Other people who are making neutral photos are still on the path to realizing their style. They can be stuck in the technical layer of how the camera works or get caught up in the gear layer of photography or have a teacher who forces rules on them or otherwise inhibits their voice. Others just never figured out how to push themselves beyond their present way of making pictures and never had someone in their photographic lives who could move them beyond the present.
Another way of saying this is that some people are unique and therefore make interesting pictures. Other people are not so unique and make less interesting pictures. Others still may be capable of uniqueness but haven’t been awakened.
Copied style is self evident, sort of. You see a photographer’s work you admire. It has a specific quality that you try to copy. You’ll never succeed at making pictures like someone else makes them. But you may well learn from trying to be like someone so it’s not an inherently bad thing. A local radio host on our amazing jazz station was talking yesterday about how early on Dizzy Gillespie tried to copy Roy Eldridge’s style, saying, “Man, if I could play like him, I could really get to my own style.” The same can be true for a photographer. The general principal is that when you step outside of what you’re doing now, you grow. But of course.
Applied style is when, usually early on in the learning process, you notice general tendencies - tilted horizons, no detail in blacks, saturated colors, desaturated colors, a photoshop filter, etc. - and you think there must be value in applying some of those qualities to your photographs. It’s a variation of copying someone’s style but is even more shallow. Some people continue to apply these layers of stuff to their photographs beyond the early learning stage. You can tell when someone’s photographs are only techniques applied to a setting by removing technique. What’s left after applied technique is removed is usually a neutral style. But not always.
So how do you achieve your own style? Make pictures, get feedback, be critical of yourself, know what you want to say about what you’re photographing, continually elevate what you set out to say, read books about subjects you know nothing about, look at art and ask why it is good, look at photographs you’ve never seen, have a personal project in the works at all times, make pictures of friends and relatives, make pictures of things you own, make pictures of something you hate and of something you love, make pictures of yourself that tell you what kind of person you are, make a picture today that you didn’t make yesterday, return to pictures you’ve made and make them again but better, say three different things about one small setting, photograph five cliche’d subjects in a way that isn’t a cliché, ask three friends to make a telling picture of you, use one lens to photograph everything for a week, light everything you photograph for a week, make at least one picture of what you photograph from two feet away and another 20 feet away, put nothing important in the middle of the frame for a week ...
I could go on and on. The short version is this: Continually challenge your self.