The Adulthood of Photography. Style, some photographers have it, others don’t, many people don’t even know what style is and in photography if you ask five professionals, chances are you’ll get five different definitions about the word style itself. Established photographic style however is a key ingredient that will identify a professional photographer from their colleagues.
Normally photographic style is associated with those that have made it as the leaders in specific genres of photography. When one sees the old Playboy style images before it’s change a few years ago, few know that Ken Marcus influenced that style, though up until almost a few years ago, it was more associated with their number one contract photographer, Arny Freytag, Marcus’ former assistant.
Personally, I define photographic style as the following:
Photographic style is a consistent, identifiable quality in a visual body of work that portrays the artistic personality of the photographer, plus the life-influenced reflection of what the photographer saw and felt during that depiction of time.
Another photographer, Bruce Weber, noted for his regular contributions to Vanity Fair, used his style of photography to help propel ad campaigns for Abercrombie & Fitch while taking fashion and editorial photography to a sexier level. Weber will always be associated for his “chiseled,” youthful, erotic and sexy styled images made famous by Calvin Klein campaigns of young, “white-men” clad in underwear — a style often coined as “homoeroticism” and easily identified through the consistent, memoir-feeling black and white photos.
Like all photographers who’ve built their name, Robert Farber is no different with his painterly style. While Farber is known more for his commercial and nude work, his style was still evident in one of his previous books, American Mood, yet instead of models and nudes, the inanimate subject matter of the American landscape was captured though Farber’s style.
Annie Leibovitz “raised eyebrows” and showcased her style with multiple Vanity Fair pregnant cover from Demi Moore to Serena Williams. These photographs represented Leibovitz’s photographic style. Her photography style is identifiable and seems to come from the close collaboration between her and her subjects.
What many photographers don’t realize is that Leibovitz’s style primarily evolved from her work as the top photographer at Rolling Stones during the infancy of the magazine. Leibovitz credits the development of her style through the close and romantic relationship she held with Susan Sontag, a noted writer and essayist, who mentored Leibovitz with constructive criticism. Sontag once told Leibovitz, “You’re good, but you could be better.”
Ultimately style is something most photographers strive for but don’t know how to achieve it and those that have style, are sometimes stereotyped into one genre of photography. All photographers passionate about their craft should set a goal to achieve their own, personal style. Consider it as the ultimate growth spurt in becoming a professional, or entering the adulthood of photography.
So how does a photographer develop their style? Well the first step is to develop consistency in their shooting habits. This includes consistent exposure settings, composition, cropping, lens selection, lighting quality and all the other technical aspects of developing a photograph. Consistency is key. Sometimes this also involves consistency in the subject matter captured, but as Farber proved in his book American Mood, the subject matter can vary from photographing models to landscapes within the photographer’s lifetime body of work. It’s the shooting habits more than the subject matter.
Though today I’m primarily known for my photographic style in photographing women, my roots date back to photojournalism and once Farber told me, “Your photography has a photojournalistic style, telling the story.” While I shoot less photojournalism today, my style in that type of photography was evident, according to my previous editors. I like to consider my style more of an editorial style that came from my photojournalism, but regardless what I think, my photographic style is more interpreted or defined by the thoughts of the viewing audience. For it is they who will ultimately label your style of photography. That is the reward of having photographic style, the viewing audience can see a photograph and almost immediately associate it with your name.
Second, a photographer must understand that style develops over time. No need to get impatient, it will come, provided you have the will to create through the expression of your photographic passions. Photographic style is work in progress and you only “pro”gress by putting effort into it. Photographers must increase their own understanding of what their photographs mean to them and others. By increasing this understanding, photographers elevate their ability to reach their photographic, but personal, style much sooner.
Third, study your previous photography. Look for a pattern amongst your past photos and focus on those similarities. Make that pattern a “working theme” you focus on at every future photo shoot. If you have a client that wants “X,” give them X, but then ask if you can also give them your photography style. The same goes for any self-promotional shoots, go after your concept, but do so with your identified pattern in mind. It boils down to your photographic style is created subconsciously out of habit.
Fourth, form a habit, a habit of shooting frequently. Photographic style doesn’t come from your camera sitting on the shelf, you’ve got to get out and shoot — and it doesn’t matter what your subject matter is, just shoot! Often, I’ll hear photographers say, “I can’t find anyone to photograph.” My response, “Put your camera on a tripod and photograph yourself.” And if you’re like me, more comfortable behind the camera than in front, then I recommend you grab anything in the house and challenge yourself to photograph it. One of the most famous photos is Edward Weston’s iconic image of a bell pepper. There are no excuses why you can’t grab a camera and work toward mastering your photographic style. Consistency comes from shooting frequently and understanding your shooting habits during those moments.
When a photographer’s work is consistently identifiable and often emulated by others, then it’s said that photographer has fully developed their style. Until then, photographers follow a path searching for their style and it’s often found over time — once found, a photographer has taken a step forward in becoming a professional. It’s not about asking professional photographers to define photographic style, it’s about being able to spot those that have it and creating your own so you can enter into the adulthood of photography.