Personal Style

One of the things I wonder about when I have nothing better to wonder about is the idea of having a personal style in your photography.  Have I managed, after all these years to develop my own personal style?  I can’t see it.  What I do see as I go through the images in the storefront, is that they almost all have a feeling of being shot in the 40’s or 50’s.  Is this because they’re black and white?  I don’t think so because I’ve seen some, not many, photographers who have a personal and MODERN b&w style.

But even amongst the greats, if you didn’t know that a shot was done by say Ansel Adams, would you know?  Could you tell the difference between Kertesz and HCB if you didn’t know who did a particular shot?  I don’t think I could.  Not by looking at any one picture.

Yes, I suppose you could shoot all your street shots at an angle, and then you might be mistaken for a better-known street shooter.  Or you could shoot “little people” and be mistaken for Arbus.  But my own conclusion is that unlike painting – where personal style is evident in the way the subject is treated – the single greatest contributor to your photographic style is still your choice of subject.

If I began to do still life shots of peppers, I could (if I were technically able) to be mistaken for Edward Weston.  And if I could live in Yosemite for a few years, I could turn out some Ansel Adams shots.

In other words, photographs – unless you get into painting them (so to speak) in Photoshop – are mostly about what you find interesting in the physical world.  And over time – those interests don’t really change very much for most of us – and so your personal style becomes simply a collection of what you want to point the camera at.  This is the weakness, and the strength of photography.

It’s why I said quite early on, that you are what you shoot.   Every shot is a reflection of your own character.   What you shoot, will over time be more important than how you shoot it.

My advice (and I wouldn’t give it except that I’m always asked for it) to would-be photographers is to study (or at least read) great authors (as well as not so great authors); and to listen and possibly study great music.   A good photograph (for me) is a visual question.  You want to look at it more than once because somehow, it tries to tell a story.

Is it possible for an absolutely boring person to produce a collection of fascinating photographs?  There is a relationship between what music you listen to and your photographic style.

It’s the reason that when you begin to study great photographers you often find that they have a musical background (Adams for example once thought he would be a concert pianist).  The relationship between proficient musicians and great photographers is hard to ignore.  And then add on top of that – how you spend your time on this earth.  Everything you experience ends up in that frame, or at least in your collection of frames.

I admit that I don’t know much about photographers that work in color – so I don’t know if the same connection holds.  I was trying to explain to someone the other day who was asking for advice about getting better b&w photographs was that I think in terms of the zone system in the same way a musician thinks about the notes of a scale.

Again – no accident that as I look through my shots – they’re filled with street musicians.  It’s just a natural attraction for me, as are small kids, and old people – because these are most interesting to me in “real life.”

But what got me to pondering this I often see workshops that promise to help the student find their own style.  And, as I say, this doesn’t seem to be something that can be learned in a workshop, but is, as I say the result of who you are as a person.

Is this an obvious observation about photographers?  I’m not sure since I see so many trying to “find their own style,” as I also did a long time ago – only to find – like at the end of the Wizard of Oz, that I was carrying it with me all along.  Or to put it another way – you are what you shoot.

Homage to M.W. (not)
Homage to M.W. (not)
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Dave

My name is Dave Beckerman. I am a photographer and programmer working in New York City.

9 thoughts on “Personal Style”

  1. This question has bugged me a lot. If I am to succeed at my own little goal of eventually selling enough of my prints, I or anyone like me needs, as you have mentioned a few times on this blog, to be known for something so people can find you. As in ‘the guy who takes those stylish black&white photos of New York” as you might be known to some people. But after I thought about that more, I don’t think I can yet ‘craft’ that. I capture images very instinctively right now. I see something, I raise the camera, I frame and I press the shutter. Images that didn’t impress me so much at the time (meaning images I look for after I’ve uploaded the card or search for after I’ve developed the roll) oftentimes are NOT the best images on the roll. I get surprised a lot. So, at least right now, I have to shoot what i see and look back at the collection later. Next week I might change my mind about this.

  2. Chris – I work exactly the same way. I see something – or I wait for something I think might happen – and frame and press the button (that hasn’t changed in the digital age) – and although my head my me filled with some abstract idea about the shot – I’m surprised to find – as I go through the editing process – that there is a pattern of subject matter that sort of accumulates, often without your realizing it over years and decades and that these things that interest you – these turn out to be your personal style (as opposed to how exactly you processed the film or capture). Do you see what I’m trying to get at? It’s just not the same as painting, or writing a book, or other arts where you are more free to change the “how” of what you present. With photography – it’s mostly the “what.”

    Or to keep with that grammar metaphor – with photography it’s the noun that is very important as opposed to the adjective or adverb in other arts. (Again – this is a generalization, but I think you can see what I’m getting at).

  3. Yeah, I absolutely do. Do you know the work of Harry Callahan? I came across the book that was published by the Center for Creative Photography about him. There’s a lot he says in there that applies to this issue, I think. I’m working my way through it now.

  4. I note that a number of “selling your photos” sites recommend that you show only one type of picture. Southwestern landscapes, flowers . . . whatever.

    Alas, this advice is too tedious for me to follow. Although there might be something to it, marketing-wise.

  5. Mike. That is absolutely 100% true. No kidding. It is next to impossible for me to sell anything other than New York.

    Although I sometimes put up shots from Paris, or other cities – my NYC work is all that sells; or maybe let’s say the ratio is 1000 to one.

    I think that the way to sell other stuff is to set up a completely separate site for other subjects with a nom de photo.

    It’s understandable – and not that different from actors getting typecast.

    I think I’ll create a name for myself like David Adams for my nature work. And Reggie Smythe for my European work.

    Novelist have been doing the same thing forever.

    Chris – yes Harry Callahan is one of the all time greats. I didn’t know him when I began shooting but I do now.

  6. Dave, this whole idea of personal style (or “finding one’s voice” as the more artistic like to put it)is an interesting if not somewhat frustrating pursuit. All the advice I’ve ever received, is along the lines of don’t chase it too hard, it will come to you in, as you say, “that pattern of subject matter that… accumulates” over time. Sounds like with your NY work, you’ve found your voice.

    Zack Arias, who is currently critiquing photography websites via his blog places a great deal of weight on creating a personal style, especially with a web presence.

    I don’t think you need worry though Dave, as I said, it would seem you’ve well and truly “found your voice”.

    Phill

  7. I think it’s the noun AND the adverb that are important. Even if you’re not talking about somebody like Gregory Crewdson or Cindy Sherman, who meticulously construct a photographic style with weird lighting and staging and so forth, there’s still a certain “how” involved in each person’s process that may not have anything to do with the subject matter. It can be hard to pin down, though, for sure. Especially when analyzing your own work. Mr. B, I think you’re on the right track: sometimes you have maybe a nostalgic style, a style that says you appreciate New York and its people. I would think that someone who hates New York could photograph the same subjects with a different style, although it’s hard to say what that would entail. Just out of curiosity, what percentage of your work sells to customers in NYC? And out of those, how many would you say are the “solitude” type of shots: empty benches, depopulated walkways, etc? And most important of all: when is your birthday? (Only kidding.)

  8. For me, when the “how” becomes pronounced – it disturbs me – though that is what is usually meant by style. I could invent one pretty easily – but it goes against my grain.

    Most of my pictures are sold to people who live far away from New York. Maybe 10 to 1. As a general rule – the less people, the greater the sales. The only exception to this rule is if the people create the same nostalgic, or maybe romantic view as the city landmarks. What I would call hard street photography is just about impossible to sell; and when I do that sort of thing, I keep it to the blog. Another rule: if a photographer likes a shot a lot, it is almost certainly the kiss of death in terms of sales.

    And finally, if you do have people in the frame – it helps if they are more of a design element rather than the main subject.

    Of course – if the shot is of a celebrity – then all bets are off. Celebrities will sell as well as landmark buildings.

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