Today’s article was inspired by a comment made by one of my readers a couple of months back: “It is interesting to look at your posts around 2 years back. I originally found the blog through reviews (surprise) but kept reading due to the good available light photography. Now a lot of the photos from back then look quite dated in comparison to your recent work, especially the processing.” I don’t know if it’s just the processing, or the fact that the processing is now entirely subservient to the idea, not locked into what is required for a certain look or style. I’ve always had an internal conflict between making images that are recognisably ‘Ming Thein’, not getting stuck in the same mould, and to a somewhat lesser extent, making images that are different from everything else. To anybody serious enough about photography that they seek to make a name for themselves – be it through commercial or gallery work* – I suspect this is not a unique conundrum. So what can we do?
*Arguably the same at times
Almost all photographers start out without a visual identity, or one that is imposed on them by the limitations of subject or hardware. Then, the more images one sees, the more images one takes, the more one experiments and tries to increase control over his or her output, the more variability occurs. The cause of this is mostly a lack of experience, and not really being proactive throughout the entire workflow – postprocessing might be applied consistently, but this cannot produce a consistent result if the starting point is not the same. This is the early experimentation phase. There may or may not be an intermediate period of producing images that are heavily stylised in a sort of blanket way – think of this as ‘turning the same filter up to 11’ on everything. Visually, there is consistency – but at a very superficial level. Consistency of style and recognizability across different images, with that style being complimentary to the ideas and content of the images, will not come until much later.
Once some degree of control is achieved, we will then start to see another period of variability, but this time with the aim of replicating other styles which the photographer has seen and liked from third parties; they may or may not suit the novice photographer’s work, but the imitation stage is important along the road to development of style because it signals the emergence of conscious control over capture and output. (We’re barely halfway through the stages of creative evolution of a photographer, by the way.)
At some point in the near future, the novice is no longer going to be a novice. He or she is going to be pretty confident of getting something usable out of a given situation, and probably even in line with initial expectations going in. They have a level of control that yields some level of predictability in output; frankly, most ‘professionals’ I’ve seen never really pass this level – the creative stylistic part that follows is left to the client, or not even asked for. But the more ambitious are also going to start getting bored of making images that look like somebody else’s; either we settle into a sort of stylistic neutral-anonymity that is neither unique nor distinctive, or next comes a desire for images that can be legitimately called their own in entirety.
As you might have guessed, we’re back into a sort of wilderness stage: experimentation, shifting between extremes and shooting either very narrow subjects/situations or very wide with the hopes of finding something that sticks – both from an aesthetic standpoint and one of personal satisfaction. (For example, it’s possible to really like conflict images, but not really want to put yourself in such situations; or like being in such situations but not like the chaos of the images.) From experience, this stage can last a very, very long time. You can find a style you think works for you only to find that it isn’t really versatile and limits your opportunities, or you can simply grow bored of it. Thinking and working in terms of idea-based projects becomes really the only way to move forward after this point; that way every image and its presentation has a clear objective even before capture; it is easy to evaluate ‘does it work?’ The challenge comes in finding an original idea; finding an original idea that is easily communicable, and then creating an original means of presenting an original idea in a way that is at least somewhat obvious…
It is probably quite obvious that this is not a trivial challenge; unfortunately I can’t give you a magic formula for this, because I don’t think one actually exists. (There are several very visually diverse starting points for stylistic presentation that you can adapt to your own preferences in Outstanding Images Ep.4 and Ep.5, though.) The only thing you can do is both be open to inspiration from your surroundings and be prepared to spend some time developing an idea – and making adaptations so that it is actually executable. Finally, the curation process is of course critical. I think it’s pretty clear from the images illustrating this article that there’s a line of evolution over time even for the same subject matter or opportunities seen in a given location; on top of that, there are also experimental deviations that may or may not lead to some changes afterwards. I’ve deliberately chosen images from a location I’ve been to very frequently since seriously starting photography; images that I recall being very pleased with at the time, not images that appeal to me now – the latter would of course have resulted in a very different (and much more coherent) set. I’m still pleased with much of the later work, but honestly – a lot of the earlier stuff makes me cringe.
Assuming one makes it this far, it’s quite possible to be comfortable in that mould for the rest of your entire photographic career and not diverge too much; the classic examples would of course be Ansel’s landscapes, Salgado’s people, HC-B’s decisive moments, Gilden’s street portraits etc. What we don’t see is what they choose not to show us – for all we know, HC-B might have a separate and personal set of coloured still lifes he never shared; Ansel might have shot wide angle nudes with slow sync flash, and Gilden might do architecture. But it’s equally important to note that these photographers have become synonymous with one style of image and even one subject – this is both good and bad. We have now come full circle.
If you have managed to develop a distinctive style – subject matter aside – that makes your images instantly recognisable as being attributable to you, that is a good thing if a) you can get your work seen by as many people as possible; b) that style is liked by a wide audience, or at least provokes a polarising reaction so it is talked about and thus viewed more; c) satisfying to you; d) ideally commercially valuable; e) not easy to reproduce. Over time, the real challenges are going to be c), and to a lesser extent, d). The world wants different, remembers different. But an image that is different now is not going to be different for long, simply because for everybody who wants to be different there are ten other people who see copying the new as the easy path to individuality – which of course has the exact opposite effect to what is desired. The result is a lack of difference, and a reduction in d).
The real problem is that we as photographers also get bored: creativity requires perturbation and change in the process to spur experimentation and thus production of something different; be it in environment, subject, light or something else. It is impossible to shoot the same thing in the same style repeatedly and produce work that is different: we will have conditioned ourselves to look for and be receptive to those situations which fulfil the necessary conditions to producing images of that particular type. By doing so, our receptiveness to other alternatives reduces, and thus the chance of making a different image.
Personally, I feel very conflicted about this: how long do we need to stay with a particular style or output until we should move on? How do you tell if you are creatively stagnating? Can you run multiple projects in parallel but still be fully devoted to the one you’re working on at any given time? From personal experience, I know the latter is very tricky – not just because your conscious mind has to be in two places at once, but because often prosaic considerations preclude this – what I’d carry for Forest is different to Idea of Man which is different to The Paintings even if the latter two could be executed in the same environment. Even if there was hardware overlap, the settings and shooting styles are very different.
The trouble with these questions is that the personal answers are very different to the commercial ones, and one really drives the other: whilst one particular style might be commercially in demand for a long time, the minute fashions change, you may not be able to respond if you have not already been experimenting; and if you have been doing the same thing for years, the inclination to experiment is generally not there. Perhaps a certain amount of malcontent with all of one’s work is necessary. Perhaps what they say about the journey being the purpose is true: I’m not there yet, but I know I’m on the way. MT
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