It seems to me that there are some interesting (and useful) points that bear more discussion before we leave the topic of "style" behind for now. (This is going to be long, and I realize that will scare off many readers, but it's Sunday, and anyway, sometimes length has a purpose.)
Reacting to some of the comments to the "Technical Style" post: First, bear in mind that not everybody has, or even wants, a style. It was really a follow-on to my observation that most successful (artistically successful, and sometimes but not always financially successful) photographers do seem to have a style to call their own. Lots of people just do photography for fun, and they don't need or want or even intend to ever be a "success" at it in anybody else's terms. And that's fine. Really, truly fine. Remember, many enthusiasts have an engagement with photography that doesn't even have much to do with pictures. I've always said that people should have fun with photography in whatever way they see fit—whether it's by developing friendships with others through a shared passion for a certain type or brand of camera, or an interest in the mathematics of optics, or (a new passion of which a great many people are enamored) comparing the features of the latest digital SLR and speculating about what the companies are up to. If it's a hobby and a diversion, and you enjoy it or are diverted by it, then more power to you, I say. This is really the opposite of snobbism, it seems to me. Who is anyone to insist that photography always has to be about pictures? For some people it's really not, and that's okay.
Second, I think what we're calling "style" is an amorphous and suspiciously furtive term. I sometimes wonder if we all mean the same thing by it. For me, the "technical" part of style is only one part of it. The other two aspects that are uppermost in importance are subject matter and what people now call "vision," meaning, I think, the characteristic way that we each tend to like pictures to be organized. If you take as an example the Englishman Michael Kenna, just for example, I think it's fairly clear how those three factors relate. In terms of subject matter, he (usually) likes landscape and the features of the land. In terms of how he likes to see, his pictures tend to be simple but exquisite or elegant, often with central objects from a distant or middle-distant perspective, often without too much information, having some of the aesthetic simplicity of Japanese prints or calligraphy. Finally, technically, he shoots medium-format black-and-white with a sense of both darkness and glowing light, tending to simplify the tonal range yet without risking the harshness of high contrast.
Okay, now that's all oversimplified, and doesn't do Michael Kenna justice, but bear with me. What I'm saying is that all three of those elements work together to add up to what we understand as his style. So what I'm calling "technical style" is only a part of the whole, and arguably not the most important part, although, ideally, it's probably impossible to "separate it out" of the mix.
Another thing I'm claiming about style is that when it's real, that is, when it's organic, or integral to the artist, then it something that not only might be difficult to arrive at for them, but it's also something that's not easily abandoned. I speculate that this is because it satisfies some organic need (in the past I've called it an "appetite") on the part of the artist—something about the Michael Kenna "look" really honestly and deeply gratifies Michael Kenna, so that the production of his work isn't a chore or a job for him, it's something that he pursues with relish and enthusiasm because he finds it satisfying. I'm fairly adept technically and acute visually, and I'm pretty sure that I could do one or two pictures that would mimic his style pretty well. But because it doesn't reach a deep need in me in quite the same way—because it's not my style, that is—it's probably not something that I could keep up indefinitely. (I might also "miss" the subtlest magic of it, the deepest characteristics of it, simply because I'm not him.) Where I went to art school, this was commonly referred to as "energy," as in the sentence, "That project had no energy, so I gave it up." (Musicians sometimes refer to the same thing, or something very close, as "having something to say.") The "energy" required to pursue a way of producing images until it becomes a style, and the energy needed to keep going in that style indefinitely or for some long productive period, is driven by this inner need on the part of the artist that I'm talking about.
Now consider the "vision" aspect of style. This is tough to reduce to a few sentences, and actually it's tough to get a handle on at all, sometimes. And I'm cherry-picking obvious examples, obviously. But consider William Klein, who once described his style as "no taboos":
I photograph what I see in front of me, I move in close to see better and use a wide-angle lens to get as much as possible in the frame…A technique of no taboos: grain, contrast, blur, decomposition, accidents, whatever happens.
His way of organizing pictures visually is pretty close to the opposite of Kenna's, isn't it? Up close, whereas Kenna is usually far away; chaotic where Kenna is ordered and elegant; technically slapdash where Kenna is technically adroit. Yet, clearly, that's what moves him, what speaks to him, what allows him to create the kind of pictures he wants to see—and that's what makes him so good at getting his own kind of pictures.
I could name photographers who have a clear style (for better or, sometimes, for worse) from here until nightfall, and I suppose the happy generalizations could go on and on about it, with good but inconclusive illustrations, effectively forever. But a couple of further observations about it: I think that if you have a good grasp on what you think a photographer's style is, whether you articulate it or not, then you can be said to "know" that person's work; until you have that sense of them, you're not really there. I have some photographer friends whose work I think I would recognize cold.
(One semi-humorous test of this would be to imagine one photographer's work in another's style—an exercise that in the right hands would make an amusing novelty book (although the potential audience might be somewhat limited). Imagine David Hamilton and Helmut Newton exchanging styles, for instance—severe German women in fishnet tights and high heels photographed with vaseline on the lens and in soft, pastel colors. Heh.)
Second observation—unrelated—is that I think there's something that might be called "strong" and "weak" styles. At least, as I analyze how I've come to think about this over the years, I think this describes one of the characteristics of my thinking about it. (See what you think.) A "strong" style is something the photographer almost can't help, and that seems to find its way into all of their work. Diane Arbus, for instance, couldn't seem to help making Arbuses—even her magazine work is recognizably hers. A weak style, on the other hand, is something the photographer puts on like a coat and then takes off again a month or a year later. This describes many "bodies of work" in the art school sense. Although these may be very vivid and idiosyncratic (the more so the better in the academic scheme of things, I suppose), they're not integral—they haven't really earned the style they're working in, and they're not really committed to it, because they pursue it for a while and then jump ship. In fact, if you wanted to find some other word for this than "style," I don't think I could object.
There's a great example of this, although I'm no longer sure if I'm remembering this accurately or partially inventing it. I think I once read in an essay about Nicholas Nixon that he started off his career intending to deliberately change styles every year, but that, after a few years of this, he arrived at a style that was so "right" for him, that had so much energy for him, that he ended up sticking with it indefinitely. I've heard the style described as "snapshots with an 8x10"—Nixon, if you don't know his work, uses very wide-angle lenses on an 8x10 view camera and shoots impromptu groupings or portraits that manage to look uncontrived, in velvety, low-contrast B&W tonality. Really one of the most remarkable shooters of the past forty years, although he still awaits the ideal retrospective book.
I was delighted to have my own style addressed by a reader, robert e, who posted a comment to one of the earlier threads:
And since you opened the door to critiquing your work, Mike, let me say that the newer stuff you've shown on this blog in recent months has a distinct quality that I find compelling, and I think it has a lot to do with the character of the colors and tones, or light. There is a subtle richness and depth there, an organic weightiness, that draws me in, and which seems to me rare in purely digital work. Whatever you are doing, and however, it works well with your subjects, or your subjects work well with it. I've liked other photographs you've shown, but I really enjoy the style you've developed recently. (And they all seem to be more or less portraits.)
That's fascinating for me to hear—I'm not sure anyone has ever attempted to verbalize my style before! So thanks to Robert.
And perhaps I should use that, as one of the many clues to use as I try to arrive at my own "strong" style.
But if there's one point I feel like I should make to end on, it's the one I started with. You recall, I was reacting to people who have further ambitions for their work, who ask me to look at their portfolios or web pages, but who seem to have there only motley collections of generic photo-magazine blandness, pretty clichés, all lumped in together. Again, there's nothing wrong with that if you're just playing or relaxing, and nobody should tell you there is. It's only for those who are searching for deeper involvement or a higher level of participation in photography as a career who should beware. Perhaps one way to clarify what I'm getting at here is to say this: as you pursue and develop your own style (meaning some coherent confluence of subject matter, characteristic way of seeing, and technical signature), you are going to take "good pictures" in other styles—and you have to be willing to discard those. I once published, in a column on The Luminous Landscape, a picture of some peaches and lemons in a bowl. It was a pretty picture—I fancy it wouldn't have looked out of place in any agglomeration of nice pictures in various genres—but I remember feeling embarrassed afterwards that I'd used it, almost...troubled that I'd put it out there, held it up for others to see. Not that there's anything wrong with still lives of fruit; indeed, one could almost say that the world still awaits its great still life photographer of fruit, that is unless it's Irving Penn. But that picture wasn't mine. I took it, but it wasn't the type of picture I take.
(Not too long afterwards, I did take an actual still life of a piece of fruit that was mine, although it took Paul Butzi to recognize it and make into something. You might recall my beloved giant apple, although I can't find it at the moment to link to. I have Paul's print of it hanging in my living room. That does it for me for pictures of fruit.)
This whole business—what I'm calling style, and how we get there, how we arrive at the point where we have one—may not be the central question of photography, but it's possibly the central question of how to become a photographer.