on developing a personal style

Tree with bokeh, through car windscreen

We both like to watch and join in with University Challenge (for non-UK readers, this is a TV quiz show where the contestants are teams from UK universities). There’s a question they ask sometimes where you’re shown a series of paintings and asked to identify the artist of each one.  The paintings they show are rarely the well-known ones, and are often quite obscure, but if you’ve looked at much art it’s surprisingly easy to get the answer right.

Every famous artist has a personal style that makes it possible to recognise work they’ve done that you’ve never seen before, probably down to some mixture of colour, texture, brushstrokes, line, form, and other factors. Subject matter can be a clue as well, of course, but they often deliberately show you something with subject matter that’s atypical of the artist.

It’s a mysterious thing, this personal voice, and when I began with photography I often longed to develop one. What I learned was that you can’t do it by trying, but only by photographing time and again those things that fascinate you. Think about handwriting – there isn’t much personal style to be found in children’s handwriting, but as we get older our handwriting becomes more and more distinctive and recognisably ours. And we don’t have to try – style is a by-product of maturity, whether in life or in our artistic work.

Just as copying someone else’s handwriting would feel forced and unnatural, trying to develop a style by imitating someone else’s is never going to work. Neither is basing it on attempts to be different:

“There’s nothing wrong with seeking to do things in a unique form, but seek to be different for the sake of being different and you won’t have images that express your vision, you’ll have photographs that are merely different. You can get that in a million ways that have nothing to do with good photography. You can be different without ever saying anything. You yourself are unique – you have ways of seeing your world that are unlike those of anyone else – so find ways of more faithfully expressing that and your style will emerge.”

David DuChemin

Your own style comes from being the unique person that you are, and learning how to express that through whatever medium you choose as yours. There is a sting in the tail, however:

“One cannot express something compelling, interesting or inspiring without first having something compelling, interesting or inspiring to express. And so, in pursuit of expressive work, one also becomes motivated to seek those things that are worth expressing: meaningful experiences, complex thoughts, powerful emotions, and useful or interesting knowledge.”

Guy Tal, The Expressive Photograph

In other words, taking more interesting photos is not a matter of standing in front of more interesting stuff, but in becoming a more interesting (or perhaps, more interested?) person.  And developing personal style is inextricably linked with having the courage to be the person you are. That might mean taking photos that will rarely get a ‘like’ on Facebook or Flickr, being prepared for other people not to understand what you’re doing or saying, shrugging off criticism that genuinely doesn’t feel relevant, having friends and family ask you why you no longer take those lovely flower shots, and generally being prepared to be unpopular if it goes that way – not easy in this age of social media popularity contests.

This is a worst case scenario, of course.  The chances are much higher that there will be at least a small tribe of people who’ll love what you’re doing and will be happy to say so.  But the point is that it’s not easy to express your real self in a world that’s trying to make you conform from the moment you’re born to the day you die, and it’s that real self that holds the key to your personal style.

And there’s another element to personal style that’s often misunderstood:

“…..vision also is not something you find in complete form and have from that point onward – it’s something that evolves and changes with you, reflecting your sensibilities, thoughts, skills and maturity at a point in time.”

Guy Tal

Your personal style shouldn’t be something that, once ‘discovered’ (like a sort of Holy Grail), never changes.  As you change, so will it, and if you don’t change you’ll become stale and so will it.  The people with the most distinctive personal styles are usually those who frequently change what they do, re-inventing themselves constantly.  In the music world, David Bowie, Tom Waits, and Madonna spring to mind.  But yet another thing – constant experimentation and exploration will inevitably result in work that is less sure of itself.

“In our culture there is little understanding of the growth process of an artist – which is often conducted in a very public arena.  For the very public artists, for film makers and novelists in particular, there is little room for the work made during necessary periods of creative flux.  Concert musicians report the same dilemma – a style matures idiosyncratically and spasmodically, moving not from beauty straight to beauty but from beauty though something different to more beauty.  Few reviewers value the ‘something different’ stage.

Julia Cameron, Walking in This World

You might not be at a stage in your photographic career where you’re being reviewed, but it’s often the case that the people around you will not want you to change.  They like what you’ve been doing, they want you to keep on doing it.  They don’t want to be challenged in their appreciation of your work.  They don’t have the fine artistic eye that you have developed.  It’s relatively easy to dismiss this kind of thing when you don’t care much about the people involved – much harder when it’s people whose good opinion matters to you – friends, loved ones.

The difficulties of becoming aware of your deep self, and making yourself vulnerable by putting that self on show, explains why so many people produce accomplished but bland work that lacks any kind of personal voice. It feels a lot safer to stick with the tried and true, the stuff that’s been done before – the stuff that reflects someone else, not you. There is good news, however.  If you work at photographing what fascinates you, without regard for what the world thinks, then your personal style will ultimately reveal itself.  Like a shy puppy, it will slowly creep out from behind the sofa.  It may get scared and dive back in again a time or two, but eventually it will roll on its back at your feet and let you tickle its tummy.  It has no choice.

In the spirit of taking risks, the images in this post are all experiments and explorations that I’ve made in the recent past, with trees as subject.  The first three  and the last one were created in-camera, the remaining two are heavily processed. Some of these work, some maybe not, and some I might not normally have chosen to share.  However, all of them fascinated me at the time.

Autumn wind

Autumn leaves, birch tree, impression

Last autumn leaves

Birch tree, autumn impression