The Expressive Photograph

| December 3, 2015

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.

A Merging of Worlds

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

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.

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  1. on developing a personal style – The Camera Points Both Ways | January 29, 2016
  1. Dave Benson says:

    Thanks Guy… I really appreciate your distinction of three approaches. I do teach photography in a local camera store (a prescribed program) to folks who are new to DSLR cameras. They have usually just recently purchased a camera and most want to get the dial off “Auto”. I usually make it clear that 3 hours is only a flake in the snowstorm of photography. I also let them know that in the first 3 hours we are only absorbing some of the buttons and dials… and I try to inform them of the other two tracks as well. In my own personal growth, I have found that as a result of being semi-retired I have more time… and make more time for photography…. I have sensed a change from wanting to be creative, to becoming expressive thanks to connecting with other teachers, folks like yourself and my long time mentor Freeman Patterson. Makes me think, that in my own journey, it has been an evolution of technical to creative to expressive… and although it isn’t necessarily a hierarchy, I perceive the growth as upwards and onwards… Looking forward to Death Valley in February…

  2. Erin Babnik says:

    Perhaps you don’t mean to omit it, but there is of course a fourth “class” of instructors who teach all three approaches that you mention. Nonetheless, an excellent post that emphasizes the true source of creative expression as a quality that each artist possesses from the outset, one that is always there waiting to be nurtured. A wonderful article in the same vein that I like to recommend: Arno Rafael Minkkinen’s “The Helsinki Bus Station Theory: Finding Your Own Vision in Photography.” At any rate, thanks for a great contribution to the topic, Guy!

    • Guy Tal says:

      You are right, of course, Erin. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that we all touch on some combination of these approaches. The difference may be one of emphasis.

  3. Very nice article, Guy.

    I have found in my own journey a first year of learning how the camera works, for exposure and focus and having the right equipment (a good tripod and remote shutter release) to make a sharp, properly exposed image. My second year was steeped in learning the software (Lightroom and Photoshop and Nik) to process the raw image. I have also traveled to places to stand in front of more interesting stuff to make more interesting images, along with thousands of other photographers and phone-wielding tourists.

    I am finding, though, that having some solitude, to explore nature and let the feeling of the place seep into me and out of me, allows me to use whatever has become instinct about operating my camera to try to put that feeling into the capture, and later into the software processing of the raw data.

    As George Lucas once said, “To me, art is communicating emotions — that’s all.” And I as an artistic photographer am using my technical knowledge, locational knowledge, and artistic intuition and feeling to bring the emotion to to my image and hopefully to my audience.

    • Guy Tal says:

      I think you touch on an important point, Harry – making your means of expression (tools, composition, etc.) instinctive and intuitive. There is no shortcutting that, it takes time, and in a sense it’s not something you ever fully master, which is also a good thing as it indicates there’s always more to learn. But, a certain degree of it is needed in order to successfully and consistently express your “message” in a photograph. Even the best teacher can’t do that for you, they can only give you the tools (at least the ones they know of). Evolving intuition requires a lot of practice and dedication that you have to invest on your own.

  4. Guy
    I really found your article stimulating and useful. I like your approach of making myself more interesting, expressive, creative, etc. Thus, I am anticipating working with you in Death Valley in February.

  5. Steve says:

    I wonder, at what point will the expression of art through photography become too limiting for the creative person. If you continue to grow and evolve as an artist and person it seems that this could be a possibility. I can see projects migrating into the realm of paint and canvas, for instance. Also, it seems the historical artist that are most interesting to me are also those that lead interesting lives. Nice how that fits with what your were saying about “first having something compelling, interesting or inspiring to express.”

    • Guy Tal says:

      It certainly has been the case for some. Even the great Henri Cartier-Bresson ultimately abandoned photography and returned to painting toward the end of his career. There are also many examples to the contrary, of course. I doubt anyone will suggest that any one person can run out of things to photograph, but perhaps some may opt for change as a means of finding new creative challenges, learning new tools, finding new things to express that are not expressible in photography, etc. I always found proclamations of unyielding allegiance to a medium to be irrational, at best. What one has to express is far more important, in my opinion, than the means they choose to express it.

  6. Meader Gary says:

    Guy- I recently received your book from a friend, a student, in fact who has reached the stage of ‘peer’ in his photography. And I truly enjoy it. We see very nearly along the same path, though I have not and probably will not take the step to ‘go live in Walden’, if you will. The approach I take to photography is grounded known the Miksang tradition, though I’m not an approved master of it. But my early work was derivative. by that I mean, it was not my idea to go into and photograph in large format B&W the landscape before me. It was Ansel’s or Weston’s. I was merely doing my version of their idea. My work now is not inspired by anyone in particular; it is mine and feels much more authentic. It’s not a ‘style’, though when people see it they often know it’s mine. And tho my early work was quality, this is more satisfying and affirming to me. I teach advanced photography at my local Community College and try to instill some of this in my students: Some take to it, some don’t understand. I just wanted to thank you for your book “More than a Rock, and look forward to seeing more and to more seeing.