Originally written in 2011 for Pixiq, republished here.
What is style? How do you define your own style? And why do we need one? In this post I am going to try answer those difficult questions.
First I define the word. A style is a manner of doing something, a combination of features to someone’s work or execution that becomes distinctive. So, that’s mostly about how people visually recognise your work, and how your work is received and perceived. So the main reason a photographer/artist needs to have a ‘style’ is for other people’s benefit: to be able to identify an audience and to sell your photography easier. This is an important point.
The times when I’ve really had to think about my own ‘style’ is when marketing my work to a gallerist, client or agent. That’s when you’re called to look upon your work critically, shuffle it into sets and series if it wasn’t like that already, and generally identify what makes you different from everyone else. So let’s first get it straight, that style is in the eye of the beholder, and we have to put ourselves into their position if we want to understand and engineer our ‘style’.
Successful and satisfying photography should be a happy medium, so to speak, between doing what you want (the art) and satisfying what others expect (the business). For many people including myself, that ‘happy medium’ can actually be a painful and frustrating oscillation. Here are my thoughts, divided into 7 bite-size chunks.
Above: Corolla (2011). One of my images partly inspired by fashion photographer Guy Bourdin.
1. Under the influence
I think the starting point is to understand the nature of art. You’ll often hear the adage ‘nothing is new under the sun’. In a theoretical sense, that is true. Everything that is created is a rehash of something that has come before. However, whilst we can never be original, becoming hung up on ‘originality’ is missing the point. Any one single idea has always been done before, but a piece of work is never ‘one idea’, at least, if we think about what we’re doing and don’t just overtly replicate another work out of insecurity. We each remix our influences in our own original and pluralistic way. Our outlook is original, simply because the sum total of our life experiences, and the things we internally reference, become a combination as unique as our telephone number.
As the first step, you need to be open and honest (at least to yourself) about what inspires you. As an exercise, list 10 things – whether these are other photographers, other kinds of artists, films, music, literature etc. For each thing, say what inspires you about it. But also, be aware of the other things about each item that don’t necessarily inspire you so much. No-one likes all of someone else’s work. You have favourites, which are favourites for a reason (an easy but interesting task is to review the pictures on photo-sharing sites that you’ve added as favourites). The relationship between the inspiration and you is unique – because there is an aspect you choose to highlight above all its others. In the end, you have a shopping bag of your own chosen parts of those inspirations. Once you realise what it is about something that inspires you, you can make sense of the component ingredients baked into that unique dish of your own art.
Above: Girl dreaming (2008) self-portrait inspired by the painter Balthus. I’m inspired by many (eclectic) things outside of straight photography such as children’s literature, cinema, dreams and psychoanalysis.
2. Go compare
The first time I really started to get a feel for the ‘style’ of my own work was when I saw it in a book alongside other people’s work. Markedly, the other people in the book were of a similar kind of ‘peer group’, you could say, all of women’s self-portraits. I saw that my compositions, lines and curves were quite bold by comparison, there was a distinct use of primary colours. Nothing in this world ever makes sense without a context, it is easy to take the qualities of your work for granted, before having witnessed someone else’s approach.
I strongly encourage you to participate in something where you can see your work alongside other people’s. Another interesting time for me is when I have collaborated and worked alongside other artists. There’s bound to be something different about each of your approaches once you actually spend the intimacy of a shoot or project with another person. Those nuances go toward defining your own idiosyncrasies, your ways of doing things, giving you confidence to say ‘yes, this is me’.
Above: The spectators (2010). This was taken during a workshop where I was ‘teaching’ techniques associated with my ’style’, in this case the multiplicity technique combined with an interesting location and motion blur.
3. Ask the audience
Being any kind of photographer is about understanding your audience, even if you’re a fine-art photographer shooting mostly personal work without a brief set by someone else. It’s not just commercial photographers who have to consider their saleability; fine-art photographers have gallerists, dealers and collectors to please too.
Look at your audience’s responses to your work: when you share your work online, in exhibition, or just showing a selection of prints to a friend – whenever you can hear people’s feedback. Don’t get me wrong, this is by far not the ultimate definition, I’d be downright depressed after some of the glib things I’ve heard from people both online and in person. But what I am trying to get at is that because of the simple-mindedness of the general mainstream populous, they will start to clap their hands when your work becomes recognisable and thus help you pin down, and shape, a ‘style’. This is one of the aspects to sharing your work on sites like flickr.com– for good or bad, over time people like to see something familiar from you, having associated a particular quality with you from the start. Whilst personally I’ve always thought that as a bad thing – from the very first message I got a few years ago from someone displeased that I was straying from clone pictures – you don’t necessarily have to see it as negative.
If you’ve got a niche for something, that can be good, in terms of selling yourself. And as you’re reading this, as someone interested in finding or clarifying your ‘style’, it’s probably because you want to make a living from photography, right? That means you have to go a certain distance to developing a trick, a look, something that people can hinge your name upon. As much as I hate cheesy news angles, clichés, and recreating something I’ve done a million times, Ive also become aware that they provide a useful leverage to a platform to start with: a platform from which you can later do other things.
Above: The smothering (2008). This is by far my most popular image online and in exhibition, but not necessarily the one I’d personally like to be the epitome of my ’style’ long-term.
4. It’s all about you
If you thought only about your audience, you would not make it as a photographer, at least, a fine-art one. At least, you might make a quick quid, but you wouldn’t be genuine and probably not be very happy. After all, most of us do photography because we’re passionate about it. If you don’t persevere with putting your own thoughts and passions into it, whether they’re popular with the mainstream or not, then what’s the point? You’d might as well get a another job and leave the photography as a hobby (in fact many choose that, to avoid artistic compromise).
Whilst listening to other people’s opinions on your work can be illuminating, you should remember that you are your own boss and your final say goes. No matter how close people are around you, their words can only ever be a suggestion or opinion. You should trust your own instincts, even in times of hesitation, because one thing I learnt from someone is that an artist never makes a ‘mistake’. The word doesn’t exist. You can only evolve and develop. Everything you have done is some kind of expression, whether you still like that piece or not.
The question comes back to you: what do you want? A lesson that has been hammered home to me is that you should truly shoot what you love. Other people don’t have the answers as to whether you should shoot abc or xyz, only you can decide. When you want to ’sell’ your work to someone, it’s a case of getting smart. Your work is a set of playing cards. Play a smart hand, you don’t need to show them all. Play people at their own game.
Above: By the lake (2006). One of my earliest self-portraits that is still requested by galleries for exhibition.
5. Do your self-assessment
Look at all of your work, preferably stacked together, as thumbnails on a screen for example. One of the reasons I started using flickr.com was become I loved seeing those squares in a set stack up like a technicolour tapestry. Sometimes I stare upon my sets when I’m trying to work out my own style like a Sudoku puzzle – which is generally when I have nothing better to do, but it can be helpful to visually observe your own trends in using colour, light, tone and composition, laid out together.
Go back to your earlier work (as far back as you dare) and observe what you were trying to do. I once wrote a blog post encouraging other artists to value their earliest pictures and not be too embarrassed about them; sometimes it’s those images that have the least bridled expression, a genuine and effusive flow of expression, without the possible constriction from overthinking and self-criticism over time. By looking at (and appreciating) your earlier work, you might pick up some clues as to what has inspired you in your life, why you indeed turned to photography at all. Or, you might just end up wishing you upgraded your kit earlier or learnt sooner to stop over-contrasting everything. Who knows.
Above: Heatstroke (2011). A recent self-portrait from my work that was perhaps in line with a new ’style’.
6. Be aware of opinions and limitations
I haven’t necessarily come to a conclusion on my own ‘style’ by the way.
I came to think about this subject when I was told in a meeting with a gallerist, kind of an impromptu portfolio review, where he remarked that he saw the styles of multiple photographers in my work. His advice was that I should concentrate on one style, that I use colour well, and should leave the B/W to the ‘old guys’. I realise I showed him too much diverse work, so my choice of portfolio images was the main problem. However, his point about multiple styles is certainly true when I look across all my work. I do understand why gallerists want to see a recognisable element across an artist’s work, so it becomes easily marketable and collectable.
At first I felt like my fine-art career is flawed because of this apparent diversity I have – even within one ‘series’, my work can look different from picture to picture. But now, I’m questioning the whole critique, and wondering if I should really try and tamper with something that might actually just be incorrigibly inherent in my approach. After all, there are other elements to the way I work that can be critiqued as constants: my frequent use of myself as a model for example. Another portfolio reviewer remarked of my use of angle in my images, that the person is always straight-on, and that I should experiment with new angles. So whilst one reviewer tells you to stick to a style, another tells you to experiment more. Different opinions cancel each other out, and in the end only you can answer. Whilst it’s good to be experimental and try new things, also remember that it is your limitations that go some way to defining your style anyway.
Above: The Fourth Soil (2012), an unusual personal favourite because through the use of monochrome and negative space, I found to be quite divergent from my habitual aesthetics.
7. Keep moving on
You simply need to keep shooting and allow both yourself and your work to mature. Give yourself time to develop your work and don’t view ’style’ as a static thing. Keep doing what you want to do, and every so often check how it’s been received, so you can market yourself to make business from it. Those might sounds like ugly words for an artist, but they’re all part of the communication process we engage in as soon as we choose to make a piece of visual art. What would our photography be like if we simply sent a client or gallery a memory card of photos straight from a camera? Without the selection, editing, titling and appropriation it would have very little meaning. Choosing how to describe your work in order to market – ie. share it – is all a valid part of the process. Write a personal statement about your work, put together a series of images for a self-published book or exhibition proposal. Give yourself a milestone to aim for, because a book or exhibition puts your works into a solid outlet, another form of art in itself.
Above: The band Visions of Trees who I photographed in 2010, using a multiplicity technique as seen in my self-portraits.
The more I think about the word ‘style’, the less it means. Has anyone really got their own style? I’m not sure. Going back to my very first point for a moment: if no-one is truly original, then we can’t talk about people having a ‘style’ of their own, per say, i.e. where their name becomes an adjective; we can only talk about what style(s) they use, or merge.
Over time you might get attached to a certain technique or aesthetic but I think it’s misleading to claim to own anything. I’ve been asked to shoot jobs because the client wants me to do a multiplicity or trick technique, but those techniques are not uniquely mine, they are only part of a style that the client has identified in association with me in that space of time.
To succeed in any realm of photography is about getting known. Photographers get hired based on reputation, skill, and because a client knows them, believes in them, trusts them, likes what they do. The notion of ’style’ doesn’t have much substance when you think properly about it. Our only stylistic blueprint lies in our approach, our bag of influences, and our persistent, ongoing and intelligient fusion of other things around us. Whatever it is, it is not as important a consideration as simply keeping proactive and stimulated, and building a reputation.
Thanks for reading.