Pictures are exciting when they say something in a new manner, not for the sake of being different, but because the individual is different and the individual expresses himself. ~Harry Callahan
It seems there are three classes of photographers who venture to instruct others: there are those who teach technical skills and offer simple formulas for the accomplishment of aesthetic appeal; there are those who preach creativity, individuality and being different as goals in themselves; and there are those of my ilk who promote the notion that creative pursuits accomplish their highest reward not only in the making of “good” or unique images, but in elevating the life experiences of the photographer. This is not meant to suggest that any one approach is “better” than any other. They all accomplish useful, albeit different, things, which may be more or less useful to different people at different times, and one should be mindful of these differences when deciding to attend a class, talk or workshop.
Among the things separating these three approaches is the desired outcome. Those teaching the basics of photography or some other formulaic approach promote the making of “good” images, where goodness is most often measured in aesthetic appeal and technical perfection. Those promoting creativity often are focused on making original images and often assume that their students already are sufficiently skilled to make technically competent and aesthetically pleasing images. In my own teaching I wish to promote the concept of the expressive image: an image that is not just original or appealing, but which also communicates something of the mind of the photographer – their thoughts and feelings (and/or those thoughts and feelings the photographer wishes to inspire in the viewer).
An expressive image is not just aesthetically pleasing (and at times it may not even be that); it does not necessarily need to exhibit prescribed technical qualities (although it does require that the photographer possess a high degree of technical skill); and its originality is not so much a goal as a byproduct, as by its nature it is meant to express the innate uniqueness of the person who made it.
A more nuanced aspect of expressive art is its effect on the artist. One cannot express something compelling, interesting or inspiring without first having something compelling, interesting or inspiring to express. And so, in pursuit of expressive work, one also becomes motivated to seek those things that are worth expressing: meaningful experiences, complex thoughts, powerful emotions, and useful or interesting knowledge.
Discussions of creative photography often culminate in the advice to find one’s “vision,” “personal style” or a “unique look.” All suggest that there is some thing – some quality, some silver bullet; and, once found, the gates of heaven fly open and one is ushered into a kingdom of creative bliss and never has anything higher to aspire to. I think that this is a very dangerous and self-defeating myth.
The goal is not to find your vision; if you are a unique and creative person you should already have it in you, what you should find is the means of isolating and expressing it. And vision also is not something you find in complete form and have from that point onward – it’s something that evolves and changes with you, reflecting your sensibilities, thoughts, skills and maturity at a point in time. If your goal is to isolate and to express your subjective feelings in a photograph, vision is just a bad metaphor. Thoughts and emotions are only loosely tied to our sense of vision, they come from many other parts of our mind.
Personal style emerges out of personal work. The emphasis should be on the personal and not on the style. If your work is truly personal, it will also have a style that is consistent with your unique sensibilities, and if your personal outlook changes, the style should change with it. Think for example of Picasso’s drawings in his early days, then his Blue Period, then his Cubist period. They each look very different. Likewise, I believe that a unique look should not be a goal, but a byproduct. If you express your subjective thoughts and feelings, your images will be unique by virtue of you being unique.
To put it more bluntly: it is one thing to develop your technical skills so you can produce unique and visually appealing images, but I think that it is a much more worthy goal to make yourself into a unique and complex and creative person, and have your images be an expression of that uniqueness, rather than be unique in themselves.
I think that for those who seek personal growth in art, the pervasive emphasis on visual characteristics of the image is, in a sense, putting the cart before the horse: instead of trying to make you images more visually appealing solely by capturing the appeal already inherent in your subject matter or in aesthetics rooted in technique, it is much more elevating and rewarding to pursue making yourself more creative, more knowledgeable, more interesting and more expressive, and let the appeal and uniqueness of your images emerge organically out of these personal qualities, and using the visual qualities of your subject matter as a means to an expressive end. Such is the distinction, and the power, of becoming a self-expressive artist, rather than merely one who makes “good” photographs.
About the Author (Author Profile)Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.
Sites That Link to this Post
- on developing a personal style – The Camera Points Both Ways | January 29, 2016