All the workshop gurus and self help photography courses advise me to “develop my photographic style.” I don’t know what my style is. How can I develop it?
~ Bothered, Bewildered, and Confused
Dear Bothered, Bewildered, and Confused:
I’m gonna call you BBC for short if that’s cool? It is? Cool, thanks.
BBC, I hope you’ve never heard me say that during one of my workshops or presentations because I don’t buy into the notion of “developing a style.” From what I can tell, the pursuit of some sort of definitive style has created an enormous amount of unnecessary angst and wasted time among way too many photographers who’s time would be better spent creating their art and not trying to find ways of fitting into some predefined box.
(For the record, the idea of “finding your creative voice,” which I also disagree with for similar reasons I’ll outline here, is just a different flavor of “developing your style.”)
Before I get too feisty though, let’s talk about what style is. Style is defined as “a manner of doing something” and “a distinctive appearance, typically determined by the principles according to which something is designed” per the Oxford Dictionary. Style is not an end goal. It’s not something you definitively achieve at some point in your life as if it were a box you check in your list of things to accomplish in photography and then hang up your camera forever. It’s not a skill or ability.
The art world tends to categorize artwork based on the way a piece looks and incorporates stylistic elements. Popular artistic movements and styles over the course of history include expressionism, abstract, cubism, impressionism, minimalism, pop art, realism, photorealism, and surrealism to name just a few. We could talk in depth about each one of these–and as curious human beings, I’d recommend knowing about each of these if for no other reason that to get new ideas for your own work. In such a discussion, it would inevitably come up that some artists possibly gained some increased recognition by the outside world for their ability to adhere to a certain set of requirements defined by each style. Perhaps some artists achieved fame and fortune because of it too. What style doesn’t tell us, though, is the value and meaning of the work to the artist, which I feel is a much more valuable measure of worth than how well one conforms to societal standards and gains outside approval, fame, or fortune.
Let me ask you this, would you rather spend your time trying to fit into a bucket and be recognized for it by other people OR living a rich and meaningful life by exploring the world around you through your photography however you wish? Are you photographing to appease the outside world or to make yourself happy?
Everybody has different reasons for photographing. To each their own. And to make it in the freelance industry I work in, I need to consciously balance creating photographic work that fits my clients needs with what turns me on otherwise I wouldn’t survive.
But whaddya get if you manage to develop a style anyhow? A certificate from the Artistic Style Academy? (I made that up) A grilled cheese sandwich? (With green chilies!) A million likes on Facebook or Instagram? You and I both know, only one of those things would be worth it.
You know what my style is? It’s called “WHOA!! LOOK AT THAT!” with a splash of “ISN’T THAT AMAZING?!” Since I began practicing photography in 2001, I’ve photographed everything from flowers to jewelry to food to soccer players to architecture to trucks to grand landscapes scenes. The only subjects I skipped were weddings and funerals. In doing so, I’ve fine tuned my likes and dislikes. I now find that I’m frequently attracted to water, which includes oceans, lakes, bubbles, rivers, creeks, bubbles, puddles, inside of coffee cups, and bubbles. I just love everything about water. That doesn’t mean if I experience moments of awe and wonder in sand dunes or around trees or inside a building that make my heart spin I don’t photograph it because it doesn’t fit in with patterns or tendencies related to my other work. How would I know whether I love sand dunes as much as I love bubbles unless I stepped away from what I know and always do to explore the idea?
As I mentioned in my last post (“Playing Favorites”), each photograph I’ve made represents a significant moment in time for me, one I deliberately noticed and wanted to preserve and possibly share with others. All of my images contain meaning if to no one else but me. My intent as a photographer isn’t to make photographs, especially within a given style, but rather to fit as much life into my lifetime as I can. You know, that whole “you can sleep when you’re dead” thing. The camera just happens to come with me as I wander and wonder to help me tell my stories and experiences. I’m not going to artificially limit myself to a specific subject, location, method, or otherwise in the name of pursuing some style just so other people notice me and my work.
And you shouldn’t either.
Instead of worrying about the elusive search to fit into a predefined box called a style, simply photograph what YOU love. Not what you like and don’t like, but rather what you LOVE. No matter what you think you should shoot or what other people tell you to shoot. Whether that’s trains, mountains, butterflies, rocks, cars, live performances, trees, rivers, flowers, roads, cactus, fences, clouds, bubbles, or otherwise, photograph whatever lights you up, whatever it is you see right in front of your eyes that piques your curiosity and causes an emotional reaction.
Explore different themes, subjects, approaches, and representations. If you see work that inspires you, don’t copy or imitate it. Ask yourself what you love about their process of creating and how you might incorporate it into your own work in your own way. Make it your own creation.
Play with processing techniques. Add light, add shadow, add color. Subtract light, subtract shadow, subtract color. Add vignettes. Blend multiple images. Blur them too. Try slides. Try prints. Try mixed media. Experiment with anything and everything.
Do whatever makes you happy and helps you communicate whatever it is you wish to say about the world around you. Understand why you do what you do. Do it with intent. Do it with conviction.
Keep doing what you love. Stop doing what you don’t love and find something else you do love. Repeat and repeat often.
In doing all this, the collection of images you create over your lifetime will add up to the one and only BBC [insert your real name here] style. You are the only BBC on this planet in your form. Through your existence alone, you’ll naturally put together the one and only “BBC Style” for us all to see, celebrate, and appreciate. As Ernest Haas said, “Style has no formula, but it has a secret key. It is the extension of your personality. The summation of this indefinable net of your feeling, knowledge and experience.” Besides, if you’re going to have a style, what better one to have than your own?
Don’t try to be different. Don’t try to fit in either. Just be you exactly as you are. You already have your own interests, abilities, intents, and goals. You already have a way you approach a scene or subject, incorporate light, use filters or HDR, process and present your images. Perhaps you haven’t repeated any one vein long enough for it to become “a distinctive appearance,” but you already have a “manner of doing something” when you photograph.
Here’s the thing, developing a style implies you’ll do something the same way over and over again such that it becomes identifiable. You are not a static creature. The style you have today will very likely different that the one you’ll have later if you continue to discover and grow with your photography and life. To state the obvious, if you’re constantly growing, it’s impossible to stay the same.
So BBC, I’m going to be blunt. Don’t waste any more time chasing this idea of developing style (or “finding” your creative voice). Go photograph whatever you wish however you wish. As George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, an 18th century French naturalist, said, “The style is the man himself.”
Be well, be wild,
Have a question about photography, art, and/or the creative life? Need some advice? Send your question to Dear Bubbles at firstname.lastname@example.org to be possibly featured in a future column post. (If you’d prefer a different display name than your real first name, please include your preferred nickname in your note.)