I recently came across a book published by Aperture entitled Photo Work: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice. I thought it would be helpful to have a browse through it as I start to think about putting my Critical Review of Practice together for my Final Major Project (FMP). As the title suggests, the book is based on posing twelve questions to professional photographers about their work and practice. The questions cover producing a body of work, photographic style and genre, re-working and revisiting previous work and working with the public output in mind.
I am very interested in the concept of photographic style (or voice), how we come to have it and how important it is to maintain it and work within it. So I will be focusing on various photographers’ responses to three of the questions in the book:
Do you have what you might call a “photographic style”?
Where would you say your style falls on a continuum between completely intuitive and intellectually-formulated?
Assuming you now shoot in what you would consider your natural voice, have you ever wished your voice was different?
Robert Adams features first in the book and I was interested to see his responses. I detected a sense of irritation on his part about the whole “style” discussion. He referred to respect as his only notion of style and emphasised that he did not intend in his photography to make a fashion statement or grasp an investment opportunity. He suggested that a photographer’s aim was to produce what Dorothea Lange referred to as “second lookers” and that first and foremost photography was not about names, brand recognition, gallery representation and other commercial considerations. In response to the final question, whilst he admired others work, he suggested that style was not something that might be copied or acquired.
Some of the photographers’ contributions are preceded by a key quotation from their responses. Alejandro Cartagena was one of those and I found it helpful in the context of my own work where I have talked before about creating layers of meaning:
“The more layers a project has, the more possibility there is that one of those layers will relate to someone.” (Cartagena in Wolf 2019:22).
He suggests that rather than having a photographic style that he works with different styles to achieve certain sensations that inform the viewer. On the continuum from intuitive to intellectually-formulated, he also had a flexible approach. His final response also refers to style having a limiting effect on the creative process.
Sian Davey relates more to a photographic voice than a style. She argues that voice comes from within “communicating from my own DNA.” (Davey in Wolf 2019:57). She speaks of her style fluctuating between her intellectual and intuitive self and being comfortable with that. She argues that both the intellectual and intuitive mind-set can create restrictions to our creativity:
“The thinking mind is often needed to inform a moment or help us through a process of inquiry. But equally, the thinking mind can stop us from seeing and responding to the unconscious material out there. It can close down the adventure and infinite possibilities of the unknown. Working intuitively takes us into the territory of surrender. When we relinquish the “self” there is the potential to feel the interconnectedness between everything – you, me, my history, and yours. Ultimately it all comes down to presence, being awake and staying in contact with the world around you.” (Davey in Wolf 2019:57).
I liked the quotation from Paul Graham which struck a chord with me:
“It’s fine to be influenced and work through those whose work changed your outlook. I certainly have, and I managed to come out the other side whole and wholly myself.” (Graham in Wolf 2019:78).
I have written on numerous occasions about being authentic in my photography and being true to myself. I feel that I have been on a long and significant journey during this MA, and whilst I have enjoyed reading about other practitioners, studying critical theory and following others’ photographic practice, I do believe that I have emerged the other side with a refined and revitalised practice rather than a substantially different style and approach. My practice is better informed than it was and it has evolved out of knowledge and a better understanding of photographic process and practice.
Todd Hido acknowledged that he had a photographic style and suggested that all photographers do. He says that whilst he might photograph people and places during the day or at night, somehow the images have a consistency. He sees style as personal and intuitive that grows organically overtime. I would agree with this and whilst our photography develops, somehow a consistency emerges that links images together.
My research in the area of photographic style has surprised me as I have always held the view that the majority of accomplished photographers have a style or voice that is recognisable, even across genres and using different photographic techniques. However, a large number of respondents in the book were reluctant to accept they had a style or that it was a concept that exists. The majority saw a combination of intellectual and intuitive approaches and considerations playing a part in their photography and the production of a body of work.
WOLF, S. 2019. Photo Work: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice. New York: Aperture Foundation.