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Sunday, 14 October 2007


Mike, you've articulated well the idea of style and its function in becoming a photographer, but I feel that style best emerges subtly and slowly from what you're doing rather than something that is consciously sought and pushed. Perhaps a more important element of getting "there" — whatever "there" means — is to shoot in terms of "projects", which involves formulating concepts for series of pictures.

When I started shooting projects I found that all of a sudden I didn't have to look for what to shoot, rather, the subjects just appeared or came to me. A long-term project is my "Bangkok Series" book project which you can see here:


While a short-term project, shot over two days on a short visit to Tokyo, you can see here:


There is a relation on these two project, which, to me is a certain outlook on life — and I can continue with that view over some series of projects, but, ultimately, one begins to wonder whether one is not getting into a rut, after taking the umpteenth walk-by shot of passerby on the street; but that just means one has to keep on refining or renewing one's approach and the subtlety and depth of the concepts for one's projects — so it's difficult for me to know where I head next, but, then, art is not easy.


As a young and relatively "fresh" photographic artist, I find this discussion fascinating. I recently read "On Being a Photographer", by David Hurn & Bill Jay. They both strongly believe that style is best developed in the context and process of working on projects that interest the artist, rather than as an end in itself.

They are critical of (or at least unimpressed by) what he perceives as a new generation of photographers who are focused primarily on developing a photographic style, but whose work has little substance or depth. In this case the "style" becomes more like a gimmick, which is what I believe is what Mike referred to above as a "weak" style - one that the artist is not truly committed to.

I am struggling with all of this now. I've chosen not to go to art school, and I don't currently have a teacher or mentor. I find myself wondering how exactly such a "strong" style is developed? I doubt that Arbus, Kenna and Klein started out with exactly the style that they came to be known for. So how does that process unfold?

I'd appreciate hearing your thoughts on this.

I very strongly believe that style or vision is something that one arrives at naturally. I do not feel that trying to be an erstwhile Edward Weston or Gary Winogrand is a worthwhile goal. Much better by far to be an original you. Rather I believe that style or vision should naturally flow from doing the work that interests you. You should equip yourself to do the work that is of interest to you. You should work in a media that is meaningful to you.

The most important part of style and vision requires getting off you butt and ...DOING YOUR WORK, DOING YOUR WORK AND DOING YOUR WORK.

It is not accomplished by spending excess time on the web or shooting the bull with other photographers.

"I very strongly believe that style or vision is something that one arrives at naturally. I do not feel that trying to be an erstwhile Edward Weston or Gary Winogrand is a worthwhile goal."

You've set up a false dichotomy here, as if the choice is to be natural or copy someone else. I don't believe it's that simple either way. First of all, it's not "natural" to be an artist at all--the natural thing to do is to be a dilettante, probably. My experience--and I use that word advisedly, because it comes from experience, experience watching and helping and advising many photographers over many years--is that people really do have to work to direct themselves into what they're best suited for doing. I know of far, far more people who simply spin their wheels ENDLESSLY waiting for something to develop "naturally," than people who have evolved into a natural strong style they can call their own.

Conversely, imitation does have some benefit, at least at first, because when you have no idea which point of the compass to walk, a signpost really helps. It doesn't get you to where you're going, obviously, but it's better than nothing. In the end, of course, you can't copy someone else's style, for all the reasons I discussed but also simply because the meaning of a style changes once it's already been done.

Where I do agree with you 100% is that doing your work is the main way to get anywhere. I've often advocated that people simply set mindless quantitative goals for their shooting--spend x numbers of hours, shoot x numbers of frames--because work definitely does grow out of working.

Mike J.

Mike, when I saw the title of your latest essay, "The Elements of Style," 'William Strunk' popped into my head. It seems apropos of a writer to choose such a title.

I've been trying to relate Strunk's terse little book declaring that, to paraphrase, 'there should be no unnecessary words' to a universal truth about photographic style, and I realized that verbiosity runs rampant in some of the best literature, and unnecessary elements are almost a given in photography, unless we're talking about a studio shot.

Anyway, ultimately, I can't really think of anything in common between literary style and visual style, and so essentially I have nothing much to say here, and probably shouldn't have said anything. I guess I just enjoy typing. ;)

Oh yeah, great essay! It is a real thought provoker, at least for someone who can think. :)

"I find myself wondering how exactly such a 'strong' style is developed...how does that process unfold?"

Well, I can't say how it does, for any one person. Doubtless many people come to it by different routes, by degrees or all at once, with effort or easily, etc. But if I had to say, I'd say "follow your obsessions" and "work hard." (The latter is the advice Ansel Adams gave me in 1982.)

Those are the two main things. FOR ME there have been other things that have helped--but I can't say if what helped me will help you.

Mike J.

Hi Mike,

I'm really enjoying your struggle with this debate about style. Very entertaining indeed!

First, I concur totally with your assertion that photography can be enjoyable without any pretentions to a style. For the technically minded, fooling around with digital cameras can be an entertaining end in itself.

However, I can't help but think you're missing something very important. In my mind, great photographers are great visual story tellers. Their style follows on from their intent. To use some obvious examples, Burtynsky is passionate about telling the story of how industrial landscapes are changing the face of our world. To tell this particular story, he needs huge canvasses and a dispassionate, documentary style. The passion to tell the story came first, the style just followed on.

Let's use another obvious example: Cartier-Bresson. He wanted to tell the story of the "decisive moment", so he evolved a technical and creative style to present these decisive moments to his audience. He couldn't do that with anything else than a Leica.

I'm reading a wonderful book by Brenda Tharp right now called "Creative Nature and Outdoor Photography" and it is interesting to note that Brenda, despite being a wonderful photographer, has no discernable style. She is a working photographer who largely takes either stock photos or works on commission. A distinctive style would actually work against her in her vocation.

It seems to me that each photographer has to answer two questions. First, do you want to develop a distinctive style or do you just want to be a really good photographer? To use a musical analogy, do you want to gamble that your distinctive style will catch on with the public and let you achieve fame or do you want to be the consumate professional sidesman, able to adapt to any style of music?

If you choose door number one, then you must answer the question, "what story are you trying to tell?". Once you've answered that question, then you'll pick the technical and creative style elements that are necessary to tell your story.

When does a style become a rut? Is Michael Kenna trapped in his 'look' and can't escape? What if Bob Dylan went electric? Did Picasso mine the same vein for his entire career. Why does a photographer have to be pigeon holed to be a successful artist? Questions, only questions.

The advice to follow your obsessions is great. I always tell people to photograph what interests them. Too many photographers go looking for 'shots' with no plan or project in mind..they just want to find something that will catch people's eye. Sometimes that makes interesting, even great images, but the person's portfolio as a whole is a gibberish with no coherent message, meaning, look or style. That's what seperates great from mediocre...the overall body of work.

"...people really do have to work to direct themselves into what they're best suited for doing. I know of far, far more people who simply spin their wheels ENDLESSLY waiting for something to develop "naturally," than people who have evolved into a natural strong style they can call their own." - Mike

Mike, this is exactly what I was hinting at. I'm the type of person who has no shortage of ideas but a very difficult time focusing. For example, I currently have about six or seven different projects going but none of them are finished. And they've been "ongoing" for some time now.

Someone else (Mitch, I think) suggested working with projects as a means to bring focus to one's work. Brooks Jensen is also an advocate of this approach. It definitely makes sense to me, but I admit that I have a really hard time committing to certain projects and following through until completion.

And I wonder how developing a photographic style, as we're talking about here, mingles with working in projects. I suppose there wouldn't be an issue as long as the project fits into the parameters of the style. For example, Michael Kenna might do a series of landscapes in a particular location as a project. But if he chose to shoot a series of color portraits, he'd be stepping way outside of his defined style. In this sense the style limits (perhaps this is a good thing) the range of subject matter available to the artist.

At this point that kind of limitation doesn't appeal to me, because I'm interested in so many different subjects. Maybe it's exactly what I need to pull out of the "endless wheel spinning", though. Or maybe I just haven't come across that subject matter or style that I can dedicate myself to.

"If you choose door number one, then you must answer the question, "what story are you trying to tell?". Once you've answered that question, then you'll pick the technical and creative style elements that are necessary to tell your story."

This is very helpful, Huw. It really clarified what this question is about for me. I DO want to use pictures to tell a story, and I'm not satisfied with an incoherent collection of snapshots, no matter how interesting from an aesthetic or technical perspective.

Perhaps something to add (for me, at least) is that once that decision is made about what story will be told, there is simultaneously a decision made about what stories WILL NOT be told. Making a clear choice and committing to it means that whatever falls outside of that path will have to be let go of... at least for a time.

Otherwise I will end up "digging many shallow wells", and never reaching water.

Of all the arts, photography is the one in which it is easiest to become technically proficient. Because of this, it tends to attract a large number of people who wish to become artists, who would like to think of themselves as people of vision, but who simply don't have the ability or the personality -- or the vision or the obsession.

I think ALL really good photographers/artists are in some measure obsessed, that obsession (with something) is a necessary component in successful art. And it's not enough to be obsessed with the idea of yourself as an artist -- you have to be obsessed with something outside, a subject matter, and then pursue that relentlessly.

But how many photographers really feel like that? You can't fake it. You can't hope to find an obsession. Obsession, I suspect, is a mind quality, something you find (or get stuck with) when you're much too young to know that it'll make you a photographer or a painter or a terrorist.

And most photographers seem almost wistful to me -- if I get a D3, could I be great? If I get that 400mm f2.8, could I be great? If I go off to the Sierra Nevada, could I be great? If I get into RIT, will I be great? Well, no.

Serious art doesn't need any of that: Meatyard did it around the house, Arbus found most of her subjects within a few miles of Manhattan, Adams spent years and years trekking the same territory and never quit. They didn't so much choose their obsession, as get chosen by it. The camera was simply the tool they chose to express it.


As an after-thought, who's the greatest photographer ever to graduate from RIT?

I'm not buying this.

First, a judgment is being made by looking at a website, which in my case is a sampling of various projects that I've done, some of which can be picked up again if the right situation arrives. If I could devote all my waking hours to a particular project and travel wherever I wanted, then it would be easier to flesh out any given project than it is now. Secondly, a website may also serve as a document that shows where you've been, which means there may be some work that is no longer current. You wouldn't necessarily create more images in the same vein, but the ones you got were pretty good, thank you very much. Third, you have no way of knowing if there are ten or twenty or fifty more presentable images that support the few that you see on a website that might convince you that there is really more of a commitment to particular approach to photography than meets the eye. The notion that a hodge podge must by definition include only cliche shots is illogical.

Huw is making a good point above: A lot of - and perhaps most - writers, musicians, designers, illustrators, layouters are making a living precisely by not having a distinctive style. They're craftspeople working to spec, not artists pursuing their muse. But of course, ask craftspeople about their work and more often than not they find practicing and perfecting their craft deeply satisfying. Photography is no different.

I have a nagging question arising from this whole discussion on style: must one only have a single style for it to be considered such? If one takes pictures of a few (say 3 or 4) sorts of subjects, each presented in their own style does that preclude one from being identified with a style or can the artist be identified with each of these styles as pertinent to the particular subject?
I'm really thinking here of extended bodies of work, rather than discrete projects (which, I think, are slightly different in this context).


As with Player, William Strunk Jr. came immediately to mind when I saw the header on your essay.

E.B. White -in his introduction to William Strunk Jr.'s wonderful book "The Elements of Style"- wrote that " 'The Elements of Style', when I re-examined it in 1957, seemed to me to contain rich deposits of gold."

As does your weblog.

I also believe that you carry on many of his assertions in both your style of writing and your impatience with the photographic equivalent of "the vague, the tame, the colorless, the irresolute."


As the exterior light has been unfavourable lately and keeping me from another project I decided to attend to a burr under my saddle (which may be an Australianism, but I'm sure you'll understand) and try to make a still life a la Josef Sudek.

I can't imagine that the many aquainted with this master's work would miss the stylistic source, if indeed I had been successful in emulating it, but the exercise had the underlying purpose of gaining a deeper analysis of Sudek's style, and to understand that he HAD a style.

I'm reminded of the classic art student armed with sketch book, copying the old masters in the gallery, and this in some ways was similarly a relief for me from the self imposed demands and difficulties required to formulate my own style.

Damn, it isn't easy!

Poor mad Ezra Pound rings ever in my ears: "Make it new!"

regards - Ross

Is 'style' more important than 'content'?

Mr. John Camp, very thoughtful and interesting post. I frequent various music related forums like "The Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum," and "Korg Studios," as well as live interactions, and I'm always struck by the differences I perceive between musicians and photographers. It seems to me that there is a greater percentage of artists among the ranks of musicians than there are among photographers. And I never really connected your truth that photography is technically easier to master, but seeing from both sides of the fence, I would have to agree whole-heartedly. In fact, you could be a functioning photographer with no training at all, albeit not a very good one, but a photographer none-the-less. Music, on the other hand, requires so much training and practice to just play the simplest song. And I believe that this has the effect of separating the diletante from the "real deal."

I also believe that it's possible to be a photographic artist with no training at all, beyond releasing the shutter, since the photographic artist either has vision or doesn't, and all the training in the world, technical, or otherwise, is not going to instill passion and vision. Music requires so much effort just to bring the artist within without.

Very good read Mike,

Again, I feel that these past 3 articles about "Style" extremely helpful at this point in my photographic work. Kenna is a good example for sure. I do wonder though what he shoots that we don't get to see? ;-)

Thanks as always.

PS I still think Callahan moves beautifully in both B&W and color as well as a couple signatures.

Great essay, Mike.

However, for a long time I`ve been thinking a bit differently about certain aspects of what you call “strong” and “weak” styles. You obviously describe a real phenomenon here: some people change style all the time, perhaps because they have so little “to say”.

But then there are those, and nobody could say that they are not “real” artists, who change style several times during their career. Let`s use musicians and composers as examples. Bob Dylan is a striking example of someone who early found his “style”, and stuck to it, regardless of the changes and modifications (the transition from accoustic to electric is a good example of the technical aspects of his style; it didn`t, i believe, change his style, it only modified it).

But then you have a guy like Paul McCartney. You may prefer Dylan or John Lennon, but after 30-40 years, nobody can deny that songs like “Penny Lane”, “Helter Skelter”, “Yesterday”, and “Maybe I`m Amazed” are made by a great artist. They are somehow “strong” songs, but it is really hard to find the connection between them. It is related to another issue too: that of “genre” – but where is the common stylistic dominator here? I could go on, mentioning “When I`m sixty four”, “Birthday”, “Lady Madonna”, “Mother Nature`s Son”, “Band on the Run” etc, but I think it`s obvious that one of the strengths of McCartney, is (or was, and especially during his best years, let`s say from 1965 to -70, or perhaps -73) his ability to change, and still make strong songs. This also applies to the Beatles as a group, (as well as, say Zappa, Radiohead), while the strength of the Stones (and a lot of other bands: Kinks, Springsten, U2) is their singular style: their best stuff is done THIS way (the way the Stones does it), and not in different ways.
You could also apply this to Arvo Pärt, in stark contrast to, say Strawinsky, in classical music.

Or, among novelists: James Joyce. One of the main strengths in “Ulysses”, is the way he changes style (as well as genre) in every chapter, as if he changed from a normal lens in chapter one, to a macro lens in chapter two, wide angle in chapter tree, and a monster tele in the fourth chapter...
On the other hand, you have the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, with his long, repetitious sentences and his monomaniacal obsessions; or the short, rythmically abrupt sentences of the no less monomaniacal French novelist Louis Ferdinand Cèline – as well as the great novelist from the same period: Marcel Proust: one style, one vision, trough 4000 pages.

And who is the “strongest” painter: Pollock or Picasso?

You may prefer the artist with an identifiable style, or the one who goes through several stylistical transformations – among writers, composers, painters, or photographers. But it`s hard to claim, beyond subjective taste, that the latter by necessity is artistically “weaker”.

A lot of thoughts rushing through my mind now, which i like, which is a reason that i enjoy this blog so much. So i could give my 2 cents in many directions.
But the pulled parallels between photography and writing drew my attention at most, because i contemplated on this topic some months ago. I think there is much confusion about the photography topic because of the very nature of the camera as an instrument. I deliberately avoid calling it artistic, because it can be used in many ways. The camera is much easier to master than the pencil and paper combo - at least it seems so to many of us just entering the arena. Although it may sound simplified i think it comes down to wheter having an intented expression or not. You have to have one for filling the empty sheet of paper, but you can always crop out some 2d-rep of 4d-reality by pressing the shutter ... and call that art.
Now, no one would doubt that you can write anything from essays, poems, lyrics, short stories, prose, diaries etc. depending on what you want to say, but at least you have to have something to say. It needs not to be art necessarily. It can be just for fun. But so much confusion about photos here, where i think it is really similar ... poto essay, landscape, street, snapshots etc. The only difference, imagine you could fill the blank sheet with random words by wanking your newest Pelikan. This is what most think is photography.
That's not said the tool doesn't matter of course. If i have something to say, and may it be for my own delightment purely, it does indeed matter if i write with crappy plasticy pen or a Pelikan that feels good in my hand.
What about style? I think style will come, if you experiment, but not forget: on the basis of intended expression. I have no style yet, after being 2 years "more seriously" involved, but i hope for the future. One thing i regard as perilous to improvement is to restrict the immature ambition to narrow constraints, like only shoot projects, or choose only one technique. How could i, missing the knowledge and experience of that many possibilities?

And of course you have to be concious about differences between writing for a newspaper, being a ghostwriter, i.e. writing on assignment, or trying art. But i think that even the combiniation of both is possible. At least for some of us.

Sorry for spamming, but i just came across the last reply from Paul Norheim and i feel in good hands here and that he aerates the whole thing in a very appealing way.

Briefly i get the impression that one tends to be too stubborn with photography at all. That would be with the music-equivalent in mind, that you only be an artist if you have a persistent and recognizable signature like Led Zeppelin. Honestly i love them, but i get sick when i hear them an hour en suite. Or you must be serious like classic music (which i also love), or you must look weird like dodecaphonic or atonal sounds, or you must be loud like punk... this could go on for a while.

Sometimes i feel that it wouldn't be allowed by some to make a jam session.

I didn't know Mozart, but i doubt he worried much about style - he just got it. This brings me to the point, that if are too worried about it, you miss it anyway.

However, keep on rocking!

Hello Mike,

Now that I see my comment in a pull quote, I wish I'd been less fuzzy and more specific. Frankly, I'm not sure I have the words, but, for the record, I was referring to photos like "Zander at 14", the shot of your sister-in-law through a doorway, even the waxing moon. I think it has to do with the darker, more subdued palette (compared to the norm), especially rich in deep greens and/or browns, that you have somehow managed to coax onto my monitor. I suspect it is a combination of time of day, place, equipment and post processing, but it all works together.

As I was writing the above, my background brain coined the term "Wisconsin twilight". Sorry, and I hope I haven't just killed a nice style with a cheesy name, but it kinda works for me. Hope you keep it up.

robert e

Player, I think you're conflating the difficulty of mastering a musical instrument with difficulty of being a musician (i.e. making music).

In fact, music is no different from photography, writing, design or illustration - given simple tools anybody can be a bad one with very little training. Yes, mastering the piano takes years - but so does mastering a view camera (from loading film to producing prints) or sculpture in marble. With a pocket camera or ordinary clay anyone can start expressing themselves quickly and easily (if not well). And as the last couple of decades or so has amply shown, with a sequencer program (that removes the need to manually manipulate instruments), people can indeed produce mediocre - but original - new tunes with no need for extensive musical training.

As a photographic example of artists who have several different styles, perhaps Bill Brandt. If you look at the small sample of his work at http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/citi/search?artist=Bill+Brandt&keyword=&search=search you can see two quite distinct styles, with no obvious connection to my (untrained) eye.

About style:
I believe this amorphous concept we like to call 'style' is nothing but a syptom of our personality. It's an unconscious expression of who we are and therefore (again, IMHO) any conscious attempt to develop a premeditated style must inevitably result in a) fake image of one's character (which can, in milder cases, be called acting); b) failure and return to one's true character or c) by will, adapting one's character to match the new chosen style. The last is, of course, the hardest and most rare.
I believe it's futile to try to consciously develop a style. Remain yourself, do what you love, be honest and sincere, and the style will come to you.

I think it was Mark Twain who once remarked that a great writer is not the one who imitates no-one, but the one whom no-one can imitate. That's what the true style is about (as you rightly pointed out, describing how you can recognize a newton or a sander).

I guess my point is, the less we worry about our style the better it will turn out.

PS - English is not my mother language so please feel free to edit this comment.

PPS - It's a great blog. I hope you'll be around forever.

I have mixed emotions in discussing a photographer’s work with regard to “style.” To some extent at least, it is subject matter preference. I’m thinking, for example, of Franz Lanting, the National Geographic photographer. Franz is essentially a wildlife photographer. He works very hard to get an interesting/appealing/technically good photograph of whatever animal or animals he is studying at the time. He goes to great lengths—heat (the tropics), cold (Antarctica), biting insects, nearby dangers (lions), and just general working conditions to get a good photograph. He does have a talent for seeing patterns—of birds in the sky, shadows, plants, etc that I suppose could be considered style, but it is only one aspect of his work and certainly doesn’t apply to all his photographs.

In my own case, I would describe myself as an amateur travel photographer. My objective is to obtain technically good, representative and also interesting and appealing photographs of places I visit. You could argue that’s the “mishmash” mode, but I really don’t think it is. I am trying to help my relatives and close friends get a picture of the country I visited. I do have something of the Michael Kenna in me, because I like “clean” photographs, and Adobe makes that relatively easy. I’m not a historian, so I have no qualms about removing a stop sign among a bunch of flowers, eliminating distracting row boats in a river scene, or removing a trash can from an idyllic vista.

Something that seemed to resonate for me in this is that style is as much about what you don't show, as what you do.

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