When does personal style morph into self-repetition?
My query paraphrases one posed by Varga in his book Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers, but it’s obviously equally relevant for us as photographers.
In pondering the dilemma, I was reminded of an overseas photographer whose work I followed with interest for quite some time. The photographer lived in a struggling rural settlement, home to marginalised people with few worldly goods. Their faces were furrowed with the hardships of their lived experience, and they made wonderful subjects for the photographer’s lens.
The resulting head-and-shoulder portraits were powerfully emotive, the solemn demeanour and direct unsmiling gaze of the subjects thrown into sharp relief against incongruously bright-coloured backgrounds. Technically the images were very good, and the photographer’s engagement with the subjects was clear.
The photographer’s personal style of portraiture was instantly recognisable, even from small thumbnails in mixed online galleries. So recognisable in fact, that I felt somewhat guilty when I realised I’d become bored with the work, despite its obvious merit, and I soon stopped following their portfolio. It seemed to me the photographer’s personal style had morphed into self-repetition.
With this in mind, one of the things I’m most grateful for is that when undertaking my Fine Arts major in photography, I was required to commit to a range of self-directed half- and full-year themed projects as part of my studio work. This was a catalyst to me pursuing a broad range of practices and themes far removed from the experiences and kinds of images I’d made prior to study. As a consequence, I’ve enjoyed pinhole photography with a paint tin, black & white and colour darkroom work, lomography, 35mm and medium format film photography and digital imaging.
My chosen projects included, amongst others, a photographic essay on an abandoned mental asylum; one centred on haiku poetry; another abstracted series on the settler landscape; and environmental portraits featuring immigrants from far-flung places who have made Tasmania home.
I employed different approaches to each project, ranging from straight, minimalist photographs; to moody, digitally-manipulated images; to documentary-style pictures shot with black & white film. You can view a few samples from some of my projects under (surprisingly) the My projects tab.
My point – and I do have one 🙂 – is that I think it’s imperative that we challenge ourselves in our photographic practice, to avoid just repeating a limited personal style with which we’re comfortable because we believe we’ve “mastered” it and can be assured of reliable results.
Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with specialising, but that doesn’t mean you can’t produce imaginative and varied work within an overarching genre – Rui Palha with his street photography, and Berenika with her surreal manipulations, mentioned in earlier posts, are both successful in achieving this in their work.
In terms of incorporating variety into your practice, I can only say that stepping outside my comfort zone was the very best thing for my photography. And it was fun, and personally rewarding. I can recommend it!
What’s your experience with a personal photographic style?