Monday, June 4, 2012

On Style

I was once told that my photography has a certain distinct style to itthat even if a photo of mine is uncredited, you can tell it's mine. I spent a long time going through all my pictures and trying to figure out if there truly is any sort of stylistic touch that strings my photos together under a personal, quasi-cohesive, artistic umbrella. But the thing is, I really couldn't find one. But what really gives something a certain style? What does style even mean? 

We say Terry Richardson has a style, boldly defined by portraits of celebrities with high contrast and strong flash. Some imitate his style mockingly, but the fact remains that imitation suggests some kind of  inherent quality in the original work that is characteristic and thus can be imitated. So if his style is cohesive and distinct because of its visual similarity and technical consistency, is style just a visual technicality? 

"Parade" - Robert Frank, from The Americans (1958)
In a world of color photography, perhaps black and white can be a signature. But the concept of style outlives the lifespan of color photography: there was, after all, style back when photography was only black and white film. Two of my favorite photographers, Robert Frank and Jacob Riis, have bodies of work that are entirely black and white. Yet they have their own distinct styles. The former beautifully captured the awkward melange of social conformity and gnawing loneliness distantly observed throughout the various echelons of America, translated through his technical deviations from the photographic norm that was contemporaneous with the mid-twentieth century (many photographers and critics at the time were outraged by Frank's unusual focusing and the covering of subjects' faces with objects). 

"Street Arabs in their Sleeping Quarters" - Jacob Riis,
from How the Other Half Lives (1890)
Riis focused on a narrower cross-section of American society, taking photos of the poor living conditions of the Lower East Side in the late 1880s with a contrasting, almost perverse beauty that in fact highlighted the squalor he wished to expose. (In other words, he needed a bit of beauty in order to make sellable the ugliness he was photographing, because after all, he was trying to sell a certain lookthe right look that would be attractive enough to garner the attention and spark the interest necessary to mobilize the reform of an impoverished New York. Innocent and attractive children sleeping in a dirty alleyway serve to attract viewers and make the photograph pretty, while simultaneously demonstrating the destitution of the area. Perhaps under the name of "social reform," it could be considered philanthropic, and indeed Riis's photojournalistic work How the Other Half Lives was a crucial spark in spreading awareness of and even ameliorating the terrible living conditions he photographed. But Riis's true motives have on occasion been shown to be a bit more selfish; the welfare of the impoverished was important insofar as their poor living conditions had an adverse effect on those of higher social rungs, hurting the entire society and not just those living in tenements and suggesting a somewhat condescending desire to reform for the sake of others…but I digress. This isn't about ethics or photographers' intents and motives. That's a totally different subject altogether.)

But I return to my point on stylethat both Frank and Riis photographed in black and white but they have different, characteristic styles, namely because their subjects were different. So is style not just a technical aspect, but one of subject matter? Sally Mann is (albeit controversially) known for her photographs of her children, so is it the subject, the content, of the photographs that deems the style? 

If the subject denotes the style, then I can definitely affirm that my own photography has no style. I don't take pictures of the same things, and while some may find their niches in certain types of photographyfashion, conceptual, landscapeI can't sit still long enough in one without being devoured by the passionate desire to try another. When someone asks what kind of photos I take, I hesitate before I say "different kinds"I do still-life, I do landscapes, I do model/fashion shots, I do self-portraits. It seems almost taboo when I insinuate that I don't just do one type of photography. On one hand, perhaps it suggests the utility of versatility and adaptability to different subjects and different photoshoots. However, on the other hand, there is that paranoid, insecure feeling that if I don't stick to a specific kind of photography, then perhaps one may think I am not fashioning any kind of photographic style. I have a photo of a mountain here, a photo of a vase of flowers there, a photo of a model by a window here, a photo of a city skyline there. Are they similar subjects? Obviously notI like shooting different kinds of subjects. Do they have the same technical consistencies? Obviously notdifferent kinds of subjects call for different techniques, lighting, compositions. Perhaps there is no solid definition of style, or perhaps I am just looking to deeply into the concept. One thing that I can safely say is that style does seem to define some kind of consistencywhat is consistent is not the issue, as long as there is a kind of consistency. So if consistency equals style, then I suppose I don't have a style.

But then again, I am consistently inconsistent. I won't ever settle for one type of photography over another, and I will always try and dip my toes in other photographic worlds (although I don't know how to dip my toes and sometimes I fall right in, headfirst, but that is a personal qualm). So if consistency equals style, then perhaps I do have a styleand it is that I don't have any style at all.


  1. oh dear god I love you. I can't tell if your writing or your photographs are more beautiful.

  2. Well I suppose it's not a matter of you not having a style, but a matter of you not having found your defining focus whether it be subject or composition. Many of the artists listed did not originally start out knowing exactly what their niche is, but by expirementing with different forms (which is what you do) they have found what has worked for them and what hasn't. And instead of disregarding it, they've really honed their skills into making work that is both consistant and recognisable.

    I'm still working out what I like and don't like art-wise, i guess it's the adolescent condition.