I showed this image a couple of weeks ago but it kept calling out and begging me to make it black and white. That's part of my style.
One of the questions I always had, as a struggling, beginning photographer was, "How do you create your own style?" And no matter which grizzled, old photographer I asked the answer was always the same...
"Just shoot what you love the way you love to shoot it and you'll eventually have a style." Being in a smaller market, in many ways, made the process a lot longer for me. With a smaller market we always felt as though we needed to be prepared to shoot anything that came along and we generally reflected that in our portfolios. I spent the first ten years of my career locked in a conflict which was basically a schism between: "I'd love to have a personal style that people reconize." And, "I need to be able to show proficiency in everything from commercial portraits to large format product shots if I'm going to make enough money to survive.."
But all through this time of indecision and ambiguity in my commercial work I was shooting portraits of friends. I didn't consciously think of this work as "building a style." That was something I thought I should be doing in my "paid" work. Because I compartmentalized it this way I didn't approach my personal work with any sort of intention or grand plan. I just shot what I liked, when I liked and with whatever camera I happened to have at hand. There was no goal other than to make images that pleased me.
When I went into the studio and worked on trying to build a style in my commercial work it always came out in one of two ways: A train wreck. Or, A dweeby copy of someone else's interpretation of whatever subject I was photographing. While I usually, through entropy or laziness, light all my personal portraits with one big soft light when I walked into the studio and started shooting work for corporate clients it all seemed to match the stuff I saw in the portrait "how to" books of the time. I worked hard to emulate the styles of the "real pros." Or it would be like the work I'd see in photo magazines because they always told you how to do it and even showed you were to put the lights, with little diagrams and behind the scenes shots.......
Honestly, I despaired of ever having my own style, much less having anyone recognize that I was even close to establishing a unique way of looking at stuff. And I more or less stopped caring about it. But every week or even every day I'd find some gloriously hot, or quietly sophisticated beauty that I'd finagle into the studio to photograph.
One day I made this image:
The model was my assistant, Anne. I was playing around with my usual "lazy man's lighting" scheme which meant: Big, big softbox to one side. Just inches from the camera and as close as I could get it to the subject. And I put a few lights on the background. It was an image I was making just because I wanted to see how much I could fine tune the lighting I usually used to make portraits of my own friends. It was nothing I would really do for a client. Anyway, we spent an hour and three or four rolls of medium format film and we came up with this.
I made a print because I liked the quiet and calm look of the image. I made the print the way I made all my personal prints. I let the shadows go deep black because my wife, the graphic designer, liked the way that looked in my images (helped along by using very little fill light...). I stuck the resulting print up over my desk in my east Austin studio so I could study it. It was so different from the overly lit images I thought the market demanded (a cautionary tale from those who would learn from the "experts" on the web and in books. Sometimes the "education" we're getting in print and online is more of a history lesson.....). I'd been churning out the standard three light portraits for years. One main light. One fill light, two stops down from the main light. One background light. The crappiest portraits were the ones in which I used four lights....adding one in as a back light. It never looked right and I never liked the look. In my portraits or anyone elses.
Anyway, a friend came over to shoot a small product oriented catalog and she remarked about how much she loved the image of Anne. She asked if I had any more images in that style and I brought out an 11x14 inch print box with hundreds of prints of friends, acquaintances and random strangers whom I had asked in to the studio to sit for me, just for fun.
My friend almost came unglued.
"Why aren't you showing these to clients?" She demanded. "This is a wonderful style. This is your style. This is what you should be showing." Now I'm older and I always want to be right. But back then I was smart enough or flexible enough to take advice so I put together a whole series of portfolios that were mostly these black and white images I'd been making. And the amazing thing was that it didn't matter what kind of camera or what format I'd made them in, when I started printing them and sticking them in the portfolios they started looking more and more uniform.
I showed these books exclusively for the next few years, always adding new and interesting work. And a funny thing happened: People started asking for work "in my style." At first I had to ask them what they meant and they'd say: "You know. That classical black and white stuff where everyone looks quiet and calm. With the soft light and the nice shadows." And it because a reinforcing cycle. A circular process of paring images down to my barest and laziest lighting.
And now, when I show portfolios, or even when I write things here on the blog people refer to my style. And they tell me that they can see the same style no matter what camera I use to shoot the images with. The Nikon images look different but the same as the Olympus Pen images which look different but the same as the old Hasselblad images...
And I realize now how automatic it's become. And how much I hate my own portraits when the shadows are over filled. Or when there are gratuitous lights. Or when I ask my subjects to do silly and unnatural things.
My realization was the my style had to sneak up on me from behind and ambush me. Because the harder I looked for it and the more hypervigilant I became in my search the further the style would recede from me. I was doing it all along but I wasn't able to recognize it. I thought of myself as a failure of a commercial photographer until I replaced what I "thought I should be doing" with what I thought was wonderful to me.
And when I embraced my style people became much more interested in hiring me and using me. People even volunteered to model for me. And it was totally different than the stuff I was putting in my earlier promotional work because I realized that the only thing I could be good at, at all, was the stuff I was doing just for myself.
Here are a few things I've found that kill a personal style:
1. Embracing formulas from magazines, web sites and famous photographers. You might be able to learn something by copying technique but it only helps your style if you are finally able to discard the styles you've aped that come along with the techniques.
2. If I spend time looking at everyone else's work and comparing mine to it then I diminish my confidence in my own vision and start, subconsciously, to give power to other people's vision and try to "absorb" some of their magic. Always to my long term detriment.
3. I think subject matter is vital. I am only interested in faces and people. I'll shoot urban landscapes when nobody is around to play with but I really only show people and I really only want to shoot people. That's what's right for me. And I think the further you distill your selection of subject matter the more and more fluid and conversant you become in photographing it. To go from still life to food to landscapes to street photography to fashion to portraits is a sure recipe to never become truly conversant in any of it. In the beginning we shoot everything because we are so in love with the process and in how things looked once they've been squeezed through a lens and reconstructed from electrons or silver grains. It's like going from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to Snoop Doggy Dog to Madonna in the space of five minutes. A jarring experience. But while you might learn that you love the craftwork it's not a way to learn a focused style.
4. Nothing destroys style quicker than well meaning "experts." My funny story about this all has to do with detail in shadows. Everything I read, from Ansel Adams to Pop Photo emphasized that a good print (image) has detail in the brightest highlights and in the deepest shadows. When I would show my neophyte prints to established pros in Austin the standard critique started with the assertion that I needed to add a fill light to my portraits so we could see detail in the shadow areas. The mark of a "professional" image. But interestingly, the graphic designers at the hippest (and most successful) agencies as well as the art directors for magazines like Texas Monthly and Elle told me exactly the opposite!!!! One of the things they all liked was the "rich, black shadows." They thought it added a "wonderful contrast" to the prints. My lesson? Experts=status quo.
5. Finally, the most common way to kill style is entropy and laziness. Art ain't for the complacent. I'm lucky. Even though I may not have the native talent of someone like Richard Avedon or Irving Penn or Josef Koudelka, I am interested enough and motivated enough to practice on a regular basis. I kid that when I finish with a big photo assignment I like to relax with a little......photography. If you ask my friends they'll confirm that I take a camera with me everywhere.....and use it. The people who don't evolve a style are the ones who do too much brain work and too little camera work. All the theory in the world is meaningless in developing rapport, empathy, excitement and a comfort in moving through a shoot.
I firmly believe that the evolution of a style comes from making the journey and it's all part of the same happy process. When I shoot portraits for myself I enjoy the process entirely. I love looking at the clothes the person brings to the studio. I love setting up the lights and I love to watch the play of light across my friends' faces. I love coaxing just the right expression from them and we share in the joy of reviewing the images. If someone gave me a magic machine that I could use to automatically do all this and just get the same results I'd smash the machine and sell the scrap. The process of having fun is also part of the process of building a style.
While I believe that purely technical workshops can be a benefit I advise everyone who asks to just take the same amount of money, read the instructions and then set off on their own adventure. The iterative nature of the craft should soon make it invisible and automatic which frees you up to see. And when you have automatic craft and clear seeing.....well......then you have a fighting chance of developing a look and style.
There's just one more thing that will kill a style. The relentless pursuit of a style.....