Where has technical style gone? Why don't more photographers attempt to adopt a technical style?
I wonder sometimes if I have a good perspective on this. Maybe not. Maybe the kinds of photography I see have changed too much: I know I look at a lot of photography online now, which means I look at a much greater percentage of amateur and occasional work, much of it by real tyros. In absolute terms I don't think I see less work by experienced, competent photographers than I used to, but as a percentage it's much less. A great deal of what I see are snapshots, put online for God (and the photographer) only knows what reason.
It's tough to judge snapshots. With snapshots, people aren't trying to express themselves or create an impression. Let's say you were a sports-car enthusiast: snapshots are the equivalent of taking the bus. Let's say you're a gourmet: snapshots are the equivalent of fast food. They're just random camera-product. Pretty tough to complain that they don't have any distinction.
Still and all....
It used to be that you first had to pick a camera, and a lot of cameras gave you different, distinctive looks. I'm not just talking about obvious and deliberate camera signatures like that of the popular, very funky Diana camera (recently re-introduced, for those of you who missed it the first time around—although for that price, I'd just get a Holga and call it even). Consider this picture, for example, taken with a premium 6x6 folding camera of the 1950s, an Agfa Super Isolette:
Even tones, lots of detail but no harshness, and smooth, unobtrusive bokeh. The picture's shape (pretty much, if you don't crop) and even the style of shooting (Isolettes are not quick cameras, easier to use if you enlist a little cooperation from your subject) are determined by the camera.
Moreover, mercifully, with an antique folder there is not a lot you can do to the image except print it competently. As Tom K. mentioned in the comments to the last post, "it's reasonable to imagine one photo having hundreds if not thousands of different 'looks' depending on what Photoshop editing you will do to it." A black-and-white photographer in the '50s had to choose not only a camera, but a film and developer, some of which had subtly distinctive appearances, and a lot of people had their own style of exposure and development that they liked. But once chosen, it was all set in stone, and what you got was what you got. You had to live with it. It contributed to lending a sort of consistency to your work. Now, as Tom points out, not only is the image infinitely plastic, but each one can be re-interpreted again and again, in all kinds of different ways.
Then there's the thorny issue of authenticity. In the comments to Ctein's recent post, a reader named Taran asked Ctein about adding grain to his digital images. Film photographers used to take considerable trouble to establish ways of working that were technically distinctive—think of Phil Borges, or Sarah Moon, or Ralph Gibson, for example, and, for that matter, Ctein's own 16x20 dye transfer prints are very characterful—and, yes, some photographers liked and used a lot of grain. But those distinctions were inherent to the materials, whether it was graininess, or the "off" colors of cross-processing, or whatever it was. And you can indeed duplicate those effects digitally, in Photoshop or some other image editor. But then they're false, in a way. And that's troubling. The question becomes, why would you do that? Why add arbitrary distortions to your pictures when you don't have to?
One of the features of modernism was that materials have their own properties and qualities, which should be allowed to come out. Thus, furniture makers exposed the natural properties of wood, paintings could be "about" paint, Rodin used the stoniness of marble as part of the subject matter of his work, and so forth. Digital has about the same problem that plastics have, which is that it doesn't really have its own inherent properties. It's...well, plastic. Yes, you can make plastic look like wood, but it doesn't take an aesthetic genius to realize that the result doesn't have any integrity.
Still, I wonder why more photographers haven't used the great flexibility of digital to consciously develop a technical style or signature that suits their taste and their vision (and maybe many have, but I just look at too many snapshots). Here are a couple of examples of what I'm talking about, pulled from my own experiments. Mind you, I'm not necessarily saying that any of these technical styles are good technical styles. But they illustrate part of the range of what might be done with digital.
(If you're having trouble seeing the effects in any of these, click on the image for a larger version. And don't ask me what I did to make these, because I don't remember—just mucking about in PS, is all.)
Now, none of these "styles" are sufficiently compelling to me to make me want to adopt them for all of my own work. But I have noticed that I tend to apply many of the same "corrections" or filters to digital files in preparation for printing them. I tend to like vignetting and desaturation, to name two. Maybe I've begun to develop a technical style for the right reason, which would be because I love the look and crave it. Here's an example (my apologies if you've seen any or all of these pictures before, by the way. I'm just using them here as illustrations for the discussion).
Now, I'm aware that there are a couple of issues that I'm not addressing in this post. For instance, consistency. In digital you can indeed take every image as a separate case and apply wholly different "looks" to each one depending on its needs. The problem then becomes than an inconsistent range of effects, as a body of work, adds up to a junky, demented hodgepodge. Also, I haven't broached the subject of printing and how it affects image preparation. In a way, printing provides discipline, because it brings experimentation to an end—to hit the print button, you've got to decide what you're going to do to the image, but you also need to have reached the point where enough is enough and you're done.
Finally, I wonder just how many photographers actually have arrived at a distinct technical style. Maybe I'm just not aware of them. Here, among TOP's readers, Mitch Alland has been outspoken about his personal technical style and how he achieves it. Maybe lots of other photographers have too. Do any come to mind? Among digital photographers, I mean? Have you?
And if you haven't, how come?
Mike (Thanks to Feli di Giorgio and Jeff Liu)