I’m going to be brutally honest here.
Lately I’ve been in a bit of a funk. Not just photographically but with life in general, but since photography is such a large part of what brings me creative satisfaction in life this funk has me thinking. A lot. Probably too much.
But I don’t think I’m alone.
Over the last few weeks I’ve read and listened to a whole bunch of photography related ideas centered around personal photographic style, motivation, the process of searching for our voice, the idea that maybe sometimes it all becomes too much and we just need to step back or change directions a bit.
I’ve been looking at a lot of different photographers work and have been going through the difficult process(at least difficult for me) of going through and purging out a lot of my Instagram feed, eliminating those big aggregate accounts is pretty easy but trimming down the personal accounts is always hard for me.
Maybe it’s a false sense of not wanting to offend someone if I unfollow them. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that the number of people I’m following has grown way too large and honestly I’m not seeing more than a quarter of the work I should be due to those awesome algorithms. It’s a work in progress, but I’ve been really enjoying discovering a TON of photographers work that I’ve been following and it’s just not showing up in my feed. (A silver lining maybe? A bit of sweetness to chase the bitterness of choosing to unfollow someone even though they likely don’t know or don’t care. It’s that desire of not wanting to make someone feel bad or think their work isn’t “good enough” for me.) Usually I find that the people I have unfollowed have beautiful work, it’s just a subject matter that I don’t find all that interesting and while I want to feel like I’m supporting the artist regardless of their art, I also feel like I’m doing it a disservice by just scrolling past it or worse giving it that like and then scrolling by.
BAH! Instagram derailed me there. This isn’t an Instagram post.
I think we all feel that pressure or desire to want to be able to say we have a specific style. It’s an ego thing I think. A natural desire to want to somehow stand out in a sea of other photographers and artists. It becomes a false symbol of the fact that at least someone feels like our work is unique, recognizable and best yet…possibly it’s memorable.
If you haven’t yet, please go give a listen to Episode 178 of Shutter Time with Sid and Mac. They talk about personal style when it comes to photography. It’s a great episode inspired by an equally great blog post from Olaf Sztaba of OlafPhoto, check that out too. It’s worth it.
Olaf, Sid and Mac all agree that we shouldn’t focus so much on that specific style or genre, rather that we should follow our hearts and create images that speak to us. Of course we are talking about on a personal level here not so much on a professional level. For example, a wedding photographer will pretty much be sticking to weddings to keep the bills paid and food on the table. I’m not talking about situations like that.
On a personal level though, I agree…to a point.
Why box ourselves into a corner of shooting JUST landscape photos when we find joy in all sorts of different genres of photography. Personally I’ve been very focused on only sharing my landscape work, even though I do enjoy shooting portraits, real estate, small town street photography, or even just trying to document little moments with my family.
Why don’t I share that work more? Curating your shared work is needed, but by sticking with sharing only landscapes have I ensured that anyone looking at my work will think I’m a one trick pony?
We’ve all heard the phrase Jack of all trades, master of none. It implies that it’s better to focus on being great at one thing rather than being just mediocre at many things. But somehow over the years the full saying has been forgotten. Let me refresh your memory.
Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one.
Yep, that last part changes things a bit doesn’t it?
If you’ve been following my Instagram feed you’ll see I’ve been rotating in some of the portrait work I’ve done over the years along with my landscape work. I’m trying to ease it in, but it’s comical how heavily ignored those portrait photos are and how quickly I’m dropping followers because of it.
It’s ok though, I know it’s nothing personal. People were following me because they liked the landscape work I was putting up and now seeing something different maybe it just isn’t their thing. Hopefully that will just mean that new people that decide to follow me will be enjoy all of it. Or maybe I just suck at portraits even though I enjoy them.
I said above that I agree with Olaf, Sid and Mac to a point.
I think the biggest thing that I’m not 100% agreeing with is that I think too often photographic style gets mislabeled as the genre of photography you share. I agree we shouldn’t limit ourselves to just a single genre unless that really is the only thing you are passionate about. But I think style is more about the aesthetic, the feeling and the visual approach to seeing that we then translate into a finished photograph.
It’s the way we see light, the subtle clues we leave in our compositions, the way we use color. It doesn’t matter if it’s a morning sunrise over a scenic vista or an evening portrait done for a client. Often times a photographer’s style will be noticeable no matter what the subject matter.
Here’s the catch. I don’t think we can create our own style. At least not by forcing it and it isn’t something we can search for and just find. For it to truly be OUR style, to create a photograph that allows the viewer to truly connect with and recognize the photo as OUR work, we have to be willing to put our honest emotion on display.
It’s not always easy to put yourself out there for the public like that because there is the very real chance people will hate it. That is a piece of you they are hating and it can be real hard to not take it personally. But that’s a topic for another time.
Style isn’t just a preset, it’s not the latest VSCO looks or popular editing trends. Don’t get me wrong, I love using presets to speed up my workflow and get me on my way to expressing myself in my imagery, but they are just tools, not style.
It’s something that just happens over time for some photographers and doesn’t for others. Something that slowly creeps into our work the more we create, the more we evolve as visual artists, the more comfortable we get with ourselves and the way we see the world. It’s something that quietly embeds itself in your work the more you ask yourself, and can honestly answer, questions such as why you are making that photo and what does it say to you?
Also important to note, for those that have found their “style” or “voice”, it can evolve over time. Sometimes changing until it’s barely recognizable when compared to previous work. It’s completely normal. Really, it is. Think about it, as we get older our tastes change all the time. Be it our taste in music, tv, movies, or even just how we go from loving super sour candy as a kid to really not enjoying candy that much at all as an adult.
It. Is. Normal.
I don’t feel like I’ve found my voice just yet, maybe I never will. Then again, I don’t know if it is truly possible for any artist to truly SEE their own personal style, even if it’s completely obvious to everyone else. You may have a million people look at your work and be able to identify a single unifying thread between your entire body of work, a distinct way you use color, or even a specific way you tend to frame a scene, but for you as the creator of the work it’s invisible.
When we look at our own work, it’s super familiar to us. It’s extremely difficult to look at your own work without having memories from that moment, your own thoughts about the photo and of course your own unique way of picking out every single flaw or mistake you made. All of that can blind us to being able to see the things that make our work look unique to other people.
We search and search for that elusive style in our work. Seek out our unique voice. But do we really know what we are even searching for? Better yet, will we even know it if we manage to find it?