Style and Related Matters
by Rob Gray
I feel at home in the bush and therefore
that is where I do my best work. I can look at and admire the
pictorial images of Harold Cazneaux or the stand-up portraits
of Paul Strand and appreciate the mastery involved in their production,
but I'm not seriously tempted to try that style myself. I have
settled on a particular style and subject matter and, for the
foreseeable future at least, I'll stick with it.
This was not always the case. In
my early years I experimented with many styles, some worked and
some didn't. This is a healthy and I believe necessary procedure,
one that will allow you to find your niche in the photographic
world, to find your own style.
So how do you create your own style?
I don't think you can deliberately create one, or if you do it
will be superficial. For example you could decide that all your
photos will have crooked horizons. This will create a recognisable
style but one that is entirely fabricated, trite and doomed to
failure. Your style must come from within and be natural and there
are two ways I can think of to achieve this.
If you are lucky you can simply analyse what subjects interest
you and the way you would like to depict them, then do it. However
it appears more usual to try many different avenues, succeeding
here and failing there, until you hit on a subject and photographic
style that seems just right for you. The majority of this experimentation
usually occurs early in your photographic career. However, you
should always be experimenting a little.
I have seen many people who, after years of photography, still
answer the question, "What sort of things do you photograph?"
with something like, "Oh everything really, close-ups, portraits,
wildlife, landscape; you name it". In my opinion a person
with such diverse areas of interest cannot be giving their best
to any one of them. Even professional commercial photographers
become known for being good at one thing or another. A top wedding
photographer is seldom hired to do an industrial shoot for a steel
mill's annual report.
For many years I photographed a plethora of subjects; commercial
and industrial, travel photographs to illustrate magazines, African
wildlife, Parisian streets, newspaper documentaries etc. At the
time I adopted those subjects and the styles that went with them
and I like to think that I was reasonably good at them. Bruce
Barnbaum states that he was initially interested in nature photography
with wider interests emerging in time. I seem to have done the
reverse, with early coverage of a vast number of subjects distilling
to a very narrow interest.
I have now settled on large format, black & white landscapes
and appear to have developed a style within that genre based on
peaceful images. So how did I achieve a style? I guess I just
followed the second approach mentioned above; I did what comes
naturally. Most viewers of my images comment on the feelings of
tranquillity and peacefulness that are evoked by them. This was
not something I consciously set out to do, it just happened.
You see what you are
I believe that "you see what you are", therefore the
only lasting and worthwhile style will be one that reflects your
personality. I also believe that "you are what you see"
and that prolonged exposure to images and situations of any kind
will change your personality and therefore your vision.
If you have an engineering background you may recognise the makings
of a positive feedback loop here. Positive feedback means that
the more you do something, the more you want to do it. Unless
positive feedback is kept under control it is a destructive force.
I create peaceful images because (I guess) I'm a fairly peaceful
person. If I follow the positive feedback path however, I will
become even more peaceful, this in turn will cause me to see even
more peaceful images which in turn will cause me to become more
The end result would be a comatose photographer and no photographs.
Some control is required and in my case the control is wildlife
and general pictorial photography.
I wouldn't presume to say that my photographic style is ground
breaking or original, but it is emerging and it is mine. This
belief was bolstered recently when a librarian I know received
a new delivery of books. While cataloguing them she noticed the
cover of one in particular. "This is the kind of photo Rob
would take", she thought. On checking inside she was proven
correct. It was in fact one of my images (Wet Round Rocks). Although
Ruth knew me, and had seen many of my photos she had not seen
this one. She just thought the style was similar to mine.
If it's new, it's good
It's common for beginner photographers to strive to create something
"new"; a style that has never been done before. The
trouble is, in "normal" wet-process photography I think
that there is probably nothing new: it's all been done. If you
are intent on doing something new, something that has never been
done, you will probably never take a photo. Of course the same
cannot be said for the new electronic imaging technologies, but
then this is not photography, it's imaging based on photography.
The quest for something new is admirable but it is more a result
of art-school teaching than of fulfilling any real need. Not that
I have anything against a new style; it's just that "new"
is often thought of as a synonym for "good" and there
is of course no connection between the two. It's this confusion
that causes the graduation exhibition of most art school students
to also be their last exhibition. When they hit the real world
and realise that, while their new, abstract, torn strips of re-photographed
artwork won brownie points and a BA, the general public find this
stuff about as attractive as a fart in an elevator.
I recently read a Robert Billington review of a landscape photography
exhibition. In the review he quoted some of the image's supporting
blurb. Let me requote:
explore the divide between conceiving of an ecological space as
an exteriorised object of sensation, utility or desire and its
possible apprehension as an interiorised systematic and personal
subject... That is, they investigate the difference between an
aesthetics of nature inbred with anthropocentric objectification
idealisation or syncretic nihilism and one steeped in an eclectic
Hmmm...maybe in another universe.
Is it any wonder that a five year reunion of art-school graduates
making a living from their art is a very lonely affair. The guest
list could probably be printed in block letters on half a thumb
nail. This is as predictable as it is sad. Art-schools tend to
ignore the commercial reality of making a living in favour of
teaching the students to be "creative" and "original".
On the verso of the photographic teaching coin we have the technical
institutions. They teach commercial photography and produce photographers
who make a living from their work but have little or no time for
their art. A five year reunion of commercial photography graduates
who still make any private art would be almost as lonely.
Surely there is a place for an institution that combines the
two, one that teaches both the art and the business of photography;
that teaches artists to make a living and pro photographers to
leave time for their art. The nearest I have encountered to this
day is embodied in the shape of a friend of mine who attended
both art school and technical college. He not only makes a living
from his photography but regularly holds exhibitions of his personal
work. This example seems to prove the point that education for
both sides of the brain is necessary.
I would like to end this article with another quote, this one
is by Bruce Barnbaum which is not only in plain English but, I
feel, actually means something:
way of seeing is a reflection of his entire life's attitude, no
matter what the subject matter may be."
You can see more of Rob's work at the following
- Rob Gray