CREATING STYLE IN PHOTOGRAPHY
Adding A Personal Touch To A Mechanical Medium
By Bill Dobbins
Painting is an art where the hand and the eye of the artist are readily evident. There are almost infinite opportunities for individualizing a painting. There is the surface on which the painting is done – such as a wall, parchment, wood, paper or canvas – the medium- including fresco, charcoal, pencil, water color or oil. There are stylistic and technical choices including nature and thickness of brush stroke, there is choice of color palette as well as aspects of visual style like perspective or degree of abstraction.
As a result it is usually not difficult to determine where in the world and during what time period a painting was created. This is very useful in the art world when it comes to being able to determine the authorship and provenance of paintings and there are many experts who can (supposedly) know precisely who made a painting and when it was created by examining it very carefully – both by eye and increasingly nowadays using technical analysis.
Of course, you don’t have to be an expert to tell the difference between a 40,000 year old cave painting, the decoration on an Egyptian tomb, the Sistine Chapel and a cubist painting by Picasso. The challenge in painting is to create a work that makes a lasting impact on the viewer and the culture, not simply for it to be different. The history of art is replete with insignificant paintings that are very different. Actually, in the commercial art world the challenge is to produce work that is familiar enough so the market recognizes it as collectible art but is different enough to have a recognizable style and identity – so that it is recognized as collectible.
However, when it comes to photography the situation is very different. The photographic image is created mechanically and technologically. The hand and eye of the artist is not so readily evident. A lens projects an image to be recorded onto some kind of recording medium such as film or an electronic card. With film photography there are all sorts of chemical processes involved in developing the film and making prints of the resulting image. The mechanical and chemical aspects of this project create some fairly strict limitations on what kind of individual interpretations are possible.
When the process is digital rather than chemical there are a lot more possible variations possible. But to be recognized as a photograph the result has to look like a photograph of some sort rather than some kind of illustration or graphic representation. There are other types of interesting images that can be created but we have a certain expectation of what a photograph is supposed to look like – which seems to have something to do with having it connected in some way to what we think the world itself looks like.
It is my view that the brain accepts what it thinks are actual photograph as “truth” in a way it doesn’t not do for illustrations. So while overly produced or processed photos gain in graphic sophistication they can also lose in terms of impact. The same is true of too much reliance on digital processing in film – as viewing of a Transformers movie by anyone over the age of 14 makes obvious.
But there is no doubt as the technology of photography has evolved over the past almost 180 years there is no about that the possibilities for individual artistic manipulation and expression – and style – have continued to increase, and will likely continue to do so.
Daguerreotypes were introduced in 1839, involved fixing an image on a polished sheet of silver-plated copper and allowed for very little artistic variation from one photo to another. When photography involved to capturing images on plates covered with wet and then dry emulsions, the choices available to photographers were still primarily where and when to set up their cameras, which lens to use, what subject, time of day, weather to select and so forth. Photos were almost all in BW (color experiments didn’t pay off until the 20th century) and the ability to make a greater variety of artistic and stylistic choices didn’t increase dramatically until the development of film.
Any student of the history of photography is aware of how freeing the ability to use film was to the art form. Ansel Adams wrote a number of books on the degree to which creative expression could be achieved by things like choice of film and type of developer, juxtaposition of exposure and development time, type of paper, toning, bleaching and use of dodging and burning to control exposure and contrast in specific areas of a print. We saw silver, platinum and prints made using other kinds of emulations. Some photographers produced ultra-sharp images (Group f/84) and there was Pictorialism, a movement which used soft focus and impressionist techniques to achieve what they believed as a more artistic results.
In the late 1930s color photography became widely adopted and smaller cameras (the 35MM Leica, the medium format Rolleiflex) made photographers more mobile and, along with taster film and lenses, gave them access to subjects not readily available before. But the nature of photography remained basically the same: an image captured in two dimensions from a fixed point of view.
Painter David Hockney, himself no stranger to shooting photos, had this to say on the subject: “There is nothing wrong with photography if you don’t mine the perspective of a paralyzed Cyclops.”
Painters on the other hand, Hockney has pointed out, are able to develop an image over time, with thought and reflection and the ability to change and layer elements. They are not tied to a representation of conventional reality but can rely on imagination and even fantasy to put into the painting what they see in the inner eye of the mind.
Limitation in art is not necessarily a bad thing. Think of the poetic form of haiku: a Japanese poem of seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five, traditionally evoking images of the natural world.
My life, –
How much more of it remains?
The night is brief.
– Masaoka Shiki
Or how about the sonnet? The is a poem of fourteen lines using any of a number of formal rhyme schemes, in English typically having ten syllables per line. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, but he was also the author of 154 sonnets that are greatly admired as works of art of the highest order.
Haiku and sonnets are not Russian novels but they represent a kind of artistic expression that is concise, concentrated, pointed and succinct.
The same could be said of photography as compared to painting.
But given that the medium has such obvious technical limitations on artistic choice, why is it we are so easily able to so easily recognized the individual work of outstanding photographic artists? How have these photographers been able to impose their personal style and point of view on a medium so restrained by technical and mechanical restraints?
One answer involves their knowledge and mastery of the variables of the medium and ability to use all the choices and alternative available to them that are discussed above. But the other, and perhaps more important element, is something I have written about elsewhere.
Photography, like vision itself, is more complicated than it might first seem.. Vision itself is one of the complex processes the brain and nervous system are involved in. And the application of our visual system to making of photographic images draws upon intuitive and unconscious resources that we are largely unaware of.
Photographers may use machines and technology as tools for image making but the nature and style of the result are are determined my the eye, the brain and the nervous system – mostly functioning without our being conscious of the details of the processes involved.
Many years ago, when I was much less experienced at photography than I am today, I stood side by side with another photographer shooting pictures of his girl friend in a park. We both had decent cameras and used no strobes or reflectors. We just went click, click, click. Looking at the photos later, mine were acceptable and his were not very good. That’s when I first realized how much of good photography, no matter the technology involved, is done on an unconscious and intuitive basis. You think you are doing it on purpose – and in part you are – but the “artistic” and stylistic part of it are taking place to a large degree out of your control.
I once had an assistant shooting over my shoulder as we tried to get as many shots of a model we could in the last minute of two of setting sunlight. The same kind of thing happened. My pictures were fine but I simply couldn’t use any of his. Same model, same light, comparable cameras – significant difference in results.
Video is becoming increasingly important in our culture as shooting motion becomes easier and easier and there are so many more ways of viewing it such as TV, tablets, computers, smart phones, game consoles and more. And yet there is still something remarkably compelling abut a powerful still image. We often remember past events, movies and people in terms of single images of them rather than a sequence of moving pictures. It is so much easier for the memory to retain one powerful image than a whole series of moving ones. And certain photographs from the past have achieved iconic status and have become as enshrined in the culture as the great paintings of history like the Mona Lisa or statues like Michelangelo’s David.
So how do excellent photographers achieve individual and recognizable style in a mechanical medium? Simply by working hard to master photographic skills and then letting their eyes, brains and intuition do what they do and express their own unique point of view. They may feel they are doing much of this consciously or that their creative ideas simply “occur” to them as they work. As wth most things in life, what you “feel” you are doing in not necessarily relevant to wha you are “actually” doing. Or how you are doing it.
Painter Willem de Kooning had a very long career but at the end suffered from advance dementia. But in his early 90s, when he could not really function in the rest of life at all, they could take him into his studio, put a paint brush in his hand and he was able to turn out paintings surprisingly like the masterpieces he was famous for. Artistic work can be mediated by the conscious mind but it comes from somewhere much deeper inside.
Of course, aspiring artists of all sorts have to fact the that not everybody is given the same talents and gifts and wanting to do something is not the same as actually being able to do it. You can put in the 10,000 hours author Malcolm Gladwell says is necessary to master a skill (Outliers) and find you just don’t have what it takes – genetic talent, personality, psychological makeup or whatever. A Somerset Maugham novel (The Moon and Sixpence) describes an aspiring artist who gave up his job and family, moved to Paris and starved in a garret for years trying to become a great painter. The problem was he lacked talent, no sacrifice would make up for that fact and he ended up an artistic failure.
But how do you know if you have the requisite talent? For the most part: YOU DON’T. If you want to be a photographer, you need to just keep shooting photos. For years. Nowadays this is much easier because the cost of film and processing is no longer an obstacle. If you shoot enough photos over time and make an effort to learn what you need to do about the necessary technology if you have any really significant inner inspiration it has the chance to express itself. Your own eye, mind and sensibility can make itself evident and your own personal style can emerge. You may not need exactly 10,000 hours, but effort and experience over time are definitely important.
Of course, becoming a success as a professional photographer is increasingly difficult nowadays. That involves talent, circumstances and increasingly a lot of pure luck. But commercial success is a different subject than developing your ability to express your inner vision though photography. Achieving this requires the intersection between nature and nurture – and the nurture part of it is something over which you have a lot of control.
But there is no substitute for experience. All this all takes time, patience and perseverance over time. You can’t finish first unless you first finish.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer, writer and videographer located in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. He was Founding Editor of Flex Magazine and has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY
BILL DOBBINS ART
THE FEMALE PHYSIQUE WEBZINE/GALLERY
This post is intended to educate and inform on photography and the history of photography and to lend critical insight into the nature and cultural impact of photographs. Images are published pursuant to the Fair Use except to the copyright act. If any copyright holder objects to this use the images in question will be promptly removed.