Shawn Records (I keep referencing him. Do I sound like a broken Records?) has been blogging the past few days about personal style in relation to photography. The basic dilemma for photographers (and all artists?) is to find their voice without the voice becoming prescriptive, since art dictated by a style can seem stale and dogmatic. Finding the balance point poses a delicate challenge.
As with many topics Winogrand was in the forefront addressing this problem, claiming that if he ever looked through the viewfinder and saw something that looked like one of his photographs, he made special effort NOT to take the photo. Of course he did this enough that it became his style.
Mike Johnston addressed the issue earlier this fall at The Online Photographer, coming down firmly in support of having a strongly identifiable personal style, at least if a photographer wants to make memorable photos.
Finally Alec Soth on his late great blog put it in terms of The Sentence, a phrase whose penal conotations give an inkling into his perspective.
Records cites Mitch Epstein as an example of someone who is not stylebound. His book The City has a wide range of styles from candid color street stuff to staged black and white portraiture. I am less enamored with The City. While it's nice to have a diverse range, this book is too scattered. If he weren't Mitch Epstein surely he would be sent to a corner to re-edit and re-submit his work.
I think a better example is Lee Friedlander's Portraits. In one sense this book is all over the place. There are close ups, wide angles, indoor, outdoor, subjects all over the frame, flash, natural light, people looking at the camera, or not, celebrities, normal folks. Going from one photo to the next we have no idea what to expect. For me this is exactly why the book is successful, for it has escaped the tyranny of prescriptive style. Yet the book holds together. Every photo somehow looks like a Friedlander.
The other end of the spectrum is something like Disfarmer's Heber Springs Portraits. Talk about stylebound! He uses a minimum of backdrops, similar lighting, they're all posed. You see a Disfarmer photo and there's no doubt who took it. This strong stylistic bent kept me from appreciating the book for a long while, for I felt the style fell into the pitfall of being generic. Yet just recently in the past few months (as I've gone out to take portraits?), I've really grown to like this book. Many of these photos are just dynamite, and I think the strong style helps. Instead of blurring the subjects together, the setting and backdrops are so uniform that our attention is forced on the people and we notice how unique they are. Disfarmer is not so much trapped in his style as he is a master of it.
As with all photography there are a zillion approaches and it's up to each to find their own. My own outlook tends toward the Winogrand camp. I would like for my photographs not to follow any style, even though this is probably as impossible as not having unique handwriting. I'm scared shitless of being identified with X picture or X project. I think this is why I've been enamored with portraiture lately. I am such a novice at it that I have yet to consciously follow or avoid any style. For example here are two portraits I shot last week which have little in common, yet I think each works in its own way.
Do these two photos look like my handwriting?