This is part one of a two part article by photographer Alain Briot on how to establish a personal photographic style.
Style has no formula, but it has a secret key.
It is the extension of your personality.
1 – Introduction
Personal style. This term has meant different things to me over the years. When I studied at the Beaux Arts in Paris Personal Style had the feel of something unreachable, the feel of something one sees and finds in museums, the feel of something which others -those who have “made it” and who have been recognized as the masters- possessed. Personal style had the feel of something that students -those who have not made it, those who are studying, trying and working their way up- did not possess.
I was not the only one to think that way. Most Beaux Arts students felt the same. We all struggled with the concept of personal style as well as with the perceived necessity to somehow acquire a personal style. I remember the discussions we had among students first at the Beaux Arts, where I studied painting and drawing, then later at the American Center, also in Paris, where I studied photography. These discussions centered around how we were going to develop a personal style and how this was going to happen. At the time we could not visualize what that style was going to be nor if it was going to be. Our discussions regularly ended with the belief that personal style developed over time, that we had to wait, work at our current projects and expect a unique vision to emerge from our hard work at some point in the future.
Personal style at that time in our lives was a mystery. The masters had it but how they got it was unclear. We knew that time and work were involved. We knew that developing a personal style was important to make each of us unique, help us stand out and acquire a visual presence of our own. But whether that was going to happen or not was a mystery.
2 – Who are we ?
During the discussions we had as students we forgot one crucial element: ourselves. We focused on others, on the Masters, on the recognized, the accepted, the artists whose work was collected by museums. What we needed to do was focus on ourselves. We needed to think about what motivated us to study the arts, be it painting, drawing or photography. We needed to focus on our personal history, on the path we wanted to follow. We needed to consider our family and our past and from there move on to consider our expectations and our future. We needed to carefully analyze what we liked and disliked. We needed to make a list, so to speak, of the subjects each of us enjoyed painting and photographing. We needed to become aware of which subjects we were ready to spend hours, days or years working on.
Those subjects were most likely different from those we were asked to work on at school. At the Beaux Arts subjects were used as teaching examples, as exercises designed to have us practice specific skills and understand specific concepts. Yet at the time, as if often the case in school, we couldn’t quite separate the two. We were fascinated by our studies more than by our personalities. Our efforts and attention were oriented outwards rather than inwards. Certainly, studying the work of those who have been recognized as masters of their art is important. But when it comes to developing a personal style what matters most is finding out who we are, what we like and dislike and what we want to do with the time we can devote to our chosen medium.
Driftwood and Glowing Sandstone, Antelope Canyon
I love returning to the same locations time and over again to create images different from all those I previously created. This image of Antelope Canyon was created during my most recent visit, in late Fall 2004. I had not seen the light effect shown on this photograph prior to that day and had not tried this composition either.
3 – Who am I? I thought this series was about photography!
The questions I listed above are not easy to answer. To some they may appear as having little to do with becoming a better photographer because they are not related to equipment, technique or craft.
Do keep in mind that we are at part 9 of a 10 part article series (if we count “Being an Artist” which I will be writing next). In this series we looked at many aspects of photography in regards to equipment, technique and craft. We studied many ways you can become a better photographer. If you are starting the series with this article you may want to go back and read the 8 previous installments. If you have read the series so far I assume you are ready to learn how you can develop a personal style.
Again, the questions listed above are not easy to answer. This is because we are rarely asked to answer these questions in the context of learning how to improve our photography. In fact, I was not asked to answer these questions when I studied painting and photography in Paris, although my studies were conducted in world-class institutions. In regards to personal style I was asked to study the works of the masters and the history of art, that was all. Fortunately, I come from a city that fosters the arts, has numerous museums and holds world-class exhibitions year round. My studies in art history and my countless visits to museums and galleries have provided me with a broad understanding of art and have allowed me to compare the styles of many different artists. This knowledge has proven invaluable in terms of reflecting upon my own personal style.
However, at the time of my studies in Paris, not once was I asked to consider what I personally liked to paint or photograph, nor why I chose to become a painter or a photographer, nor “who I was” as a person. Why, I really don’t know. I assume this is due to how art is taught. Somehow beginning artists are supposed to discover who they are and what they like to paint or photograph over time, through trial and error. This is fine when you have plenty of time on your hands and when the only thing you do is art. But when art is only one of the many aspects of your life, when your time is limited, when you are getting older, or when you need to learn how to develop a personal style, this approach does not work very well.
This article is about helping you develop a personal style. As we will see, there are a number of potential errors one can make when considering what is personal style. In what follows I will try to define personal style by describing what , in my opinion, personal style is and what personal style is not.
4 – A personal style is a unique and personal way of seeing
People don’t watch enough. They think. It’s not the same thing.
While visiting a street art show last year I was amazed at how many of the exhibiting photographers had merely copied the styles of famous photographers. I surmise they had done so in order to give a unique “quality” to their work and, perhaps, to allow them to stand out among the many other photographers who exhibit at art fairs. Among them I found several “Ansel Adams,” several “David Muench,” and at least one “Jerry Uelsmann.” The show being held in the Southwest there was a large number of landscape photographs on display. But if the subject had been portraiture, wildlife, travel photography or other mainstay photographic subject I believe I would have found a similar attitude in regards to other famous photographers. I do understand that this approach is legitimate from a legal perspective. After all these artists all create original works of art and do not sell copies of images created by the originator of the style they emulate. However, it is difficult (if not impossible) for me to remember these artists for anything but a pale copy of the masters they copy.
At this point you may be wondering what is personal style. The above story is an introduction to a very important statement in regards to personal style, a statement that, for the purpose of this article, I will be using as a working definition for developing a personal style:
Developing a personal style is not copying someone else’s style
Developing a personal style is finding who you are
and making your work be the extension of your personality
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with being influenced by another artist’s work or by trying to copy or duplicate this other artist’s work as part of one’s learning process. In fact, making copies of famous paintings was part of the training young painters had to go through. Before visiting art museums became a social activity, museums were mostly visited by art students who set up their easels in the museum’s aisles and proceeded to copy the paintings in front of them. They were not trying to become faussaires i.e. artists who make a living making fake duplicates of famous paintings. They were simply trying to understand how the master composed the piece, selected the colors and applied specific brushstrokes. They were learning by doing, by practicing the craft someone else had mastered before them.
However, there is a difference between making a copy as part of the learning process and making a career out of imitating another artist’s work. I believe that personal style is the extension of your personality. In photography I believe that personal style is your personality presented though the photographs that you take. If one merely copies someone else’s style one negates his or her own personality.
Linhof Technikardan 4×5, Schneider Super Angulon 75mm f.56, Fuji Provia 100F
I aim at conceiving my own compositions rather than duplicating those other photographers have created before me. I thought of the composition above during my first visit to this location. While I have seen images of this location by other photographers, I have not seen this composition done by anyone else.
5 – Choosing a subject is not developing a personal style
Every man’s work is always a portrait of himself.
Ansel Adams, Carmel, California, 1979
As we will see later on in this article choosing a subject that you enjoy photographing is part of developing a personal style. For some this is the first step towards developing a personal style.
However choosing a subject that you like to photograph is not similar to developing a personal style. To verify this point one only needs to look at the work of photographers who photograph different subjects while maintain a coherent style across the various subjects they photograph, with allowance made for the specific requirements of each subject.
For example deciding to photograph landscapes is not enough to develop a personal style. Similarly, deciding to photograph Formula One races is not enough to develop a personal style. Just the same, deciding to photograph Alaskan Wildlife is not enough to develop a personal style. You get the idea. To develop a personal style one has to photograph his or her subject of choice in a style that is unlike anyone else, a style that anyone can recognize as being your personal style.
This brings us to the subject of style and to the difference between subject and style:
Subject is what you photograph
Style is how you photograph it
You can photograph several subjects in the same style
Choosing a subject is answering the question “What do I want to photograph?” Subject choice is about what you photograph.
Choosing a personal style, or rather developing a personal style, is answering the question “How do I want to photograph my chosen subject?” Style is about how you photograph.
Developing a personal style is not the same as choosing a subject. These are two different choices. The former is easy, the later is difficult. If you have not chosen a subject yet I recommend you do so before considering what your personal style might be. Of course doing things in this order is not an absolute requirement. One can develop a personal style while shooting a variety of subjects, without having a particular predilection for any of them. However, if you want to set up a structured environment in which to develop your personal style, choosing a subject first will make things a lot easier.
As I said earlier you can photograph different subjects with the same style. This means that potentially you can develop a personal style shooting a variety of different subjects at the same time. While this is feasible and may result in success in terms of finding a personal style, it will also make things more complicated because you will have to think about how you are going to photograph several entirely different subjects. I therefore also recommend that you work with only one subject while developing a personal style.
6 – Choosing a subject is not the same as choosing a genre
In the previous section we learned that subject is what you photograph and that style is how you photograph it.
One more concept needs to be introduced and that is genre. Genre, in art, is another term for art movement. For example Impressionism is an art movement and therefore a genre. So is Surrealism, Dadaism, Cubism and any other art movement.
Genre defines how you look at your subject
from the perspective of the art movement you embrace
For example impressionism seeks to express how it feels to be at a specific location, or how it feels to be engaged in a specific activity. For a surrealist painter the goal is not to reproduce reality in its minute details. The goal is to bring forth that aspect of reality which will cause an emotional reaction in the audience when they look at the painting in front of them. Different techniques have been developed by surrealist painters to achieve this goal including pointillism, in which dots of colors rather than brushstrokes are used, expressive brushstrokes, which show as much the painter’s gestures as they show the subject depicted in the painting, and saturated colors juxtaposed in a calculated manner so as to create a different impression when the painting is viewed close by or from a distance.
How does this relate to photography and to landscape photography in particular? For one, genres –photographic movements in this instance- are part of photography just as much as they are part of painting and other visual arts. The
f.64 group of photography is one of the most famous photographic movements. If you embrace this movement, this genre, you will seek to emulate its masters, be it Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Willard Van Dyke, Imogen Cunningham, Sonya Noskowiak, John Paul Edwards and others. The tenets of this movement, also known as Straight or Pure Photography, were defined as being the elimination of any “qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form.” In practice f.64 photographs are characterized by lack of image manipulation, careful rendering of delicate tonalities and image details, extreme depth of field and the refusal to use softening filters or lenses, heavily textured papers and printing or retouching processes which involved altering the overall appearance of the photographic image.
The decision not to use softening filters was one of the major tenets of f.64 which was created as a reaction towards the Pictorialist movement headed by Moriarty. The pictorialist genre endorsed the use of soft lenses and diffusing filters in order to give the image a soft, poetic look. The pictorialists also endorsed the use of veils, setups, props and other artifices, either in the studio or outdoors including in wilderness settings. f.64 endorsed photographing the subject in its natural state, as it was found, without altering it in any way.
Notice that a genre is subject independent. What is defined by it is an approach, a methodology, a way of seeing and representing the world. What is represented within this genre is up to the artist. In the case of f.64 the subjects chosen by the various members of the movement covered the gamut from landscapes to portraits to nudes to reportage to cityscapes and more. What brought all these subjects and artists together was that they adopted the same genre and thus were part of the same photographic movement.
Do you have to choose a genre? While this is certainly not an obligation your work will sooner or later fit into a specific genre, whether you choose to or not. This is because as we look at various photographs, as we decide which ones we like and don’t like and as we make choices for our own work, we slowly but surely start working within a specific genre. This process is sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious. I am sure that there are numerous black and white photographers out there who are not aware of the influence f.64 had on them nor that their work is really part of that genre.
Personally I do believe it is better to know which genre your work is moving towards or becoming part of. This knowledge will allow you to make informed decisions, including the decision that you do not want to be part of this genre, that you want to depart from it, or that you want to make changes to its set of tenets. For example, a number of contemporary color landscape photographers were originally influenced by f.64 but decided to work in color instead of in black and white. This simple change makes them less recognizable as embracing the f.64 genre. Yet, when one looks closely at their work, besides not working in black and white every other tenet of f.64 is present: small apertures are used (the tenet behind the adoption of the name f.64), depth of field is carried throughout the image and softening or diffusing filters are not used. Notice that although created by a group of black and white photographers there is no statement that f.64’s Straight Photography approach has to be done in black and white.
Clearing Snow Storm over Spiderock, Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Hasselblad SWCM-CF, Zeiss Biogon 38mm f.3.5, Fuji Velvia 50
My first and foremost passion is the grand landscape and I seek to be out there when unique events take place so I can both experience and photograph them. This photograph of Spiderock, taken just as a winter storm started to clear, represents such a moment
7 – Personal discovery is not personal style
It is common for artists to discover new ways of creating images, new approaches and new techniques. Often these new approaches or techniques will lead to the creation of images that the artist had never seen or done before.
I have been there several times. First, during my studies at the Beaux Arts where I “discovered” painting techniques and styles which I considered to be breakthroughs in the world of art guaranteed to bring me fame and fortune. Second, when I purchased my first camera and experimented with various lenses, films and darkroom techniques, achieving results that I believed guaranteed me posterity and worldwide fame.
I was wrong in both instances, a fact I was promptly made aware of by my teachers. What I had just discovered had not only been previously discovered by other artists long before me it had also been elevated to a level of perfection I could only dream of. My teachers recommended that I study the work of these other artists at length and that I not only become able to duplicate their art but also become the world’s expert on their work. Only then would I be able to go beyond what they had discovered and, perhaps, make discoveries of my own.
The same rule applies to any artist working in any medium. This process is part of the journey towards developing a personal style. It is not personal style.
Keep an eye out for part two of Alain’s article on our blog soon.
About Alain Briot
You can find more information about my work, my writings and my tutorials, as well as subscribe to my Free Monthly Newsletter on my website at www.beautiful-landscape.com You receive 40 free eBooks when you subscribe to my newsletter.
I create fine art photographs, teach workshops and offer DVD tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold. All 4 books are available in eBook format on my website at this link: beautiful-landscape.com/Ebooks-Books-1-2-3.html Free samplers are available so you can see the quality of these books for yourself.