Recognizability, uniqueness, creativity and style

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Tokyo, 2007

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

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Tokyo, 2008

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.

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Tokyo, 2009

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.)

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Tokyo, 2012

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.

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Tokyo, 2012

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…

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Tokyo, 2013

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.

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Tokyo, 2013

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.

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Tokyo, 2013

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).

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Tokyo, 2014

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.

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Tokyo, 2014

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.

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Tokyo, 2014

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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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. This is great Ming. It’s like you’ve given words to the photographic journey I’ve been experiencing which is really interesting. I’ve never heard it quantified this way, and It’s comforting to know there is a journey and others share it. The “getting something usable out of a given situation” phase is really frustrating, you can get great shots but their is little in the way of style like you say, so it’s had to see a way forward. It makes organising a website really difficult when your shots and subjects are all over the place!

    I feel like I was stuck in that phase for the last five or six years until I had a breakthrough moment last year when I started to really uncover my style and came to the conclusion that I can only really go forward with a project. Where as before I knew a project was a good idea, but I didn’t really know why other than to unify a series of shots. I think I’d rather the unity came from style than subject.

    Currently I’m noodling ideas around on what that project will be, as you say, there’s a lot of factors that are not easy to align. Juggling all this between a day job means things tend to take a lot longer too.

    Anyway, thanks again, and as usual, great photographs!

    • Thanks Ross. Increasingly, I think curation plays a far greater role than we give it credit for – more so if you’re trying to establish a style or experiment with one that’s outside what you’re normally known for. The former because you want to establish consistency; the latter because you want to make sure that your existing standards are upheld and the images ‘work’.

      Visual coherence can come from either subject (if the subject is distinct enough) or style – but generally it’s easier to shoot different subjects in the same style than the same subject in different styles…

      • I’m certainly devoting more time to curation and taking it more seriously since I purchased one of your courses and saw how you’d made it part of your process and spoke about how important it was. It’s a whole new challengefor me, but dumping photos then editing a few and dropping them in a randomly titled folder is not good practice, kind of like shooting a movie and not editing it. Which is nuts! I guess it’s the thought of more ‘work’ when at the start it’s easy to think of photography as litterely just taking pictures.

  2. Hi Ming, your comment about malcontent builds on a theme you’ve touched on a few times, about being a perfectionist. I suspect you are an optimiser rather than a satisficer. A satisficer will tend to stop when things are “good enough”, whereas an optimiser will always look for ways to improve.

    One of the things I’ve found interesting about your “How to see” series is how often you will spend ages at a location taking different shots, then end up binning all of them as not being good enough. It’s a bit of a relief in some ways; I don’t feel so bad about coming back from a shoot with few or no keepers! It’s not unknown for me to take shots at a location and spot a perspective during curation that I didn’t see in the heat of the moment, then having to return.

    I think there’s a lesson there about always being willing to experiment. It’s certainly interesting to see the progression in your style as shown in these images. Thanks for sharing.

    • You need a third category: I’m a malcontent: it can always be better. One thing about working a location – I find that sometimes turning around is necessary because we forget about what’s behind us…

  3. I’m at the stage of trying to forget all about style because otherwise I shoot the style and not the image. And if a little voice starts off when I bring up the camera – “you’ve done this before, you know” – then I tend to put it back down. I hope I can see what you’re saying in this excellent article but I guess I find “style” one more thing I’m holding on to and thus to let go of. Who cares? I know that sounds rather shallow but sometimes not caring helps.

  4. Thanks so much for your insights and images….I appreciate both a great deal and the depth of conversation that can arise out of your thoughful creatively inspiring posts.

  5. Hi Ming,

    Do you think there is any additional distinction for photographer style when shooting landscapes? I say this from a music perspective, years ago I did a lot of opera, and in that the highest levels of performance were generally when a singer forgot about their intellectual conception of how a section should be delivered, and instead more ‘became’ the character, reacting in realtime to what the other characters were doing. The amateur delivery was clever pre-decided interpretation, but the really good singers used that as a foundation but went a bit more into reacting in the given moment, and would therefore often vary performances significantly. So when it comes to landscapes, the early phases you describe above are bang on the money, and these days processing is probably more synonymous with style than it should be.

    But going through these to the level where you can create what you want and have the ability to choose to render in a style or not – my old music background would basically suggest that the star of the show is the landscape you are shooting, and that will not necessarily agree with your own style. (Assumption: fairly ‘neutral’ post processing) I’m of course not talking passive tourist snapshots, but more that it forces a decision to take the shot in front of you in the best way that you can, or to slap your style on top/curate it out if necessary to maintain consistency. So it gets to the question of whether you are seeing and then later selling your style vision of the landscapes you are seeing around you, or just seeing and selling the best landscapes that you see in a more eclectic form (is the star of the show me the photographer or the landscapes?). If you want to get a reputation for being more than just a good photographer, then maybe you need to go down the style route, it gives people expectations and allows the portfolio to be more easy to accept as a whole. I suppose sometimes you see shots that are just so beautiful that they really should be shown as they are. Of course the flip side: maybe you take a hundred of these shots where you are trying to simply do homage to the scene and you realise that there IS a distinct style after all running through, maybe just in the consistency of your perception of what you see as beautiful.

    Food for thought. Thanks for the post, it’s generous of you to give such easily accessible insight into your development. I often hate showing my shots from years ago, actually with the exception of the just straight clean beautiful shots, so maybe I should shoot like that to keep things more palatable for the future me to look at 😉

    • Style applies to every subject, I think. But at the level of mastery, these technical and presentation considerations are probably already intuitive and second nature – you just do it without thinking about it consciously unless you want to change something materially in an experiment.

      That said, I think the subject and vision/style must of course be in harmony – and you may either be good enough to do that to be able to recognise a good fit, or good enough to make the PP work.

      If something doesn’t fit, it doesn’t mean I won’t shoot it. I’ll curate it together with images that do work as a set instead…

  6. “Personal style” still just doesn’t seem right to me. The style should be dictated by the subject (being the ‘gesture’ or itness of the photo), not the photographer. Devoting energy to the personalness of the style (paraphrase: conforming to the style of the photographer) is at least a limit to, if not a detraction from, the idea of the photo.
    Trying to wrap my head around this .. arguing as a question..

    • You can present the same subject in many ways: there is no wrong or right, there is preference. Preferences of the photographer = style. A simple example may be whether to use shallow or extended depth of field – one is not better than the other if both are executed correctly.

      • Yes, and that choice should be a function of what is suited to the subject. Devotion to a style might very well result in a photographer conforming exclusively to one or the other as “part of their style”? Thank you.

  7. I am glad I’m not a pro photographer who’s bound to deliver style to anyone by either demand or self driven ambitions.
    I’ve never striven to obtain a style, but along the way it becomes evident one has a certain way to see and describe the world through one’s images. That goes for everybody I think.
    Ming, your thoughts about all this may even become more complex since you master so many styles to perfection. Choices about one’s future evolution is not going to be less complicated just because one is super skilled. One may know so much that the head is close to explode, because you may take that image in thousand directions, and the choices about the composition and exposure has to be made in microseconds. Add on your retouch skills and what have we.
    Wonder if we toss out all our intellectual intelligence brain noise about photography and stand back empty headed while we shoot, would intuition then take over?

    • It’s more complicated for sure because if you go out with no objective in mind – for yourself or for a client – then the images either tend to be very safe, or very meh. Intuition is required to some degree, but I think it also does well with a little restriction: intuition within a broader general remit, I guess. Failure pushes the envelope…

  8. Really interesting to see the progression here, and I’d argue that processing is only one small element of it. Purely based on this selection of images, it looks like you made a massive step forward in all areas between 2009 and 2012 — anything in particular in your creative evolution you think lead to that?

    • I wanted to attribute it to several big gear changes – D3 and full set of zooms to M8 and one lens – but I think it’s actually because I took a huge hiatus due to work for most of 2010; I landed up reconsidering and seriously changing my approach after that, and being involved with a video production for my employer at the time. I think that was the start of my awareness of color and emotion and the cinematic style, which then subsequently influenced things like structure, order etc…

  9. A nice and humble blogpost, Mr Ming.

  10. Hello Ming,
    Maybe my question is out of article topic, but i want to ask you some thing about the photo contest,
    have you ever enter the photo contest ming ? do you have any opinion about photo contest

    thnks

    • I have entered two, won one, placed in another. But in general I don’t enter because the competitions generally demand unlimited rights, and you don’t want to lose the rights to your best images – nor do you want to enter compromised ones.

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