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.