Towards Finding a Photographic Style

Posted on May 18, 2011

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A "realistic" representation of a skunk cabagge leaf

Been thinking a lot about photography lately. I had my first show, what two years ago, and it was eye-opening. It was a mixed-media show and people walked right by the photos. At the time, I decided it was because photos have become so ubiquitous that it is hard to see them as art.  And, it’s harder than ever to think about what I do, why I do it, and what sets it apart from other people’s work.

In the first place, I take pictures for two reasons. Like many people, 99% of my pictures will never be seen anywhere but on a computer. Even though I try to maximize the data I capture on a digital image, since I don’t own Photoshop, and I don’t post-process them, those images probably don’t come out as well as if I just let the camera “do the thinking.” I do that partly out of habit, and partly because “someday” I’m sure I’ll incorporate digital workflows.

How I "saw" the leaf

On the other hand, when I shoot film, I’m not thinking about the picture. I’m thinking about the print. I’m thinking what, if any, departures I want to take from reality. I’m thinking about the contrast levels, what paper I’m going to use, if I’m going to dodge and burn it, etc.  Good digital photographers also think of these things, and I’m don’t feel that there is any right way to get to the finished product. My point is just that there is a difference between a good picture  and a good image in which every part of your art has been applied to create the vision that expresses what makes that picture different because you took it.

Lately I scanned all of my medium format negatives (1200 of them). I think I certainly do have a style. I think that if you put my scanned pictures, with no post processing up against another person’s work that my “eye” and their “eye” would be clearly differentiable. And, as part of that I make certain consistent decisions when I expose my images that carry across them. But I’ve been looking at that recently and wondering, is that enough? Are the images I make unique enough to make a person stop and think? Do I have enough control over my technique to express the things I want to express?

I’m not sure on the first question, but there is no doubt that on the second I definitely need to make better negatives. My negatives are just plain hard to print.  This first came because for the first 600 or so I didn’t even own a light meter. You have to understand my camera is 40 years old. There is no meter in it. I started using my SLR as my meter. And if I always used the same lens and the same zoom, I might eventually have gotten enough data to make that work. But sometimes I would use the SLR, sometimes the DSLR, different lenses, etc. In retrospect the failures behind that approach are obvious and multitudinous, but at the time I was too excited by what I was seeing and not worried enough about how to move that through the process. Add to that that the film I was using had tremendous latitude (TMAX 100) and I was getting printable, if not predictable, negatives.

Sure, I read about the Zone system and understood it in-camera, but I had not done enough testing to apply it in the development stage.  Around this time I picked up John Blakemore’s Photography Workshop book. This book had the perfect blend of technical detail, including a simplified film test, and personal expression. It re-invigorated me and got me looking actively to define my style, instead of just passively as I had been before (you can read my review on Amazon). I’ve been doing some film testing now and really feel my negatives are getting better and better. So much easier to work with. I’ve also got a whole list of other technical experiments to run, which I’ll report on later, from film types to filtration.

At  the same time, I realized that if I have some thing to say, then to “get heard” (or seen), I should concentrate on portfolios of images. I’ve had long-term projects in mind so one picture will mentally go to one portfolio, and another to another, but I’ve decided to more actively pursue this in the terms of shows or books.

One interesting thing is that images, like stories, seem to come to me full-formed. Each of these collections wants its own style, which I can see in my mind’s eye, even if I don’t know just yet how to create it from camera through developing to printing. For one portfolio, I’m even building my own Ultra-Large Format camera, which I’m contemplating destroying after the portfolio is done. To create those images in an analog fashion I’m having to not only build the camera, but learn alternative printing processes.  Sure, I could do this digitally, but for me the process I go through, the things I learn and feel on the way from the picture to the image are as important as the final print. Does that make me an artist? I’m not sure. The only way to know that is to create an image and see if it moves another person. But at least I now feel that I can create unique images in world where images are increasingly the medium and that motivates me to continue my explorations.

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Posted in: Photography