Many ‘experts’ in photography advise it essential to find a personal style to make work distinctive and ‘yours’. I followed this advice for many years and got nowhere. This post recommends that you tarry a little. It takes time for a style to emerge, perhaps a life-time.

Just about everything has already been photographed in just about every style! We shouldn’t imagine that we will stumble, sartori-like, onto some new way of expressing what we see. More likely, if a style is quickly adopted, then it probably amounts to copying someone-else. This will do little to develop powers of observation and expression and in fact may hinder the ability to see more widely.

But what is style? Perhaps I can start by saying what it is not. Style cannot be applied by a filter, as many app pushers would have us believe. It is not to be confused with genre or subject matter or the combination of a particular set of technical factors, such as film, lens aperture or shutter speed, point of view, method of developing and so on. Style is not merely the continuity of expression or the cohesiveness of a group of photographs.  All of these play a role or are a consequence, but are not in isolation what style is.

Let me put it this way. Style is a ‘look’ through which the subject is seen in a particular way, but it’s not simply a look. Even this way of putting it could be mis-interpreted. The look cannot be divorced from the subject, like some clothes ready to be changed for a clean set, or a filter applied thgrough software. The style of a photograph gives it sense; A photograph of a tree, say, is not simply of a tree. There is no such thing. It is of a tree in a certain way which expresses itself in a thought that we are led to have by the way it is portrayed. The look constitutes the way in which the subject is grasped.

Style conveys a thought. The point I am trying to make is that style runs much deeper than the look which a filter, say, gives to an image. In taking a photograph I often ask myself ‘what thoughts am I trying to convey?’

Although the foregoing seems obvious, I only fully appreciated it when going through my old pictures during Covid lock-down a few years ago. I noticed that many of my pictures seemed to point in a certain direction, as if trying to say the same thing but in different ways. If I was to name that direction I would use the word ‘gothic’ as a shorthand, although I realise that the term ‘gothic’ comes with a lot of pre-supposition.

Dakotan Doll, © Tony Cearns

Strangely, the more I thought about it, the more the direction of my pictures seemed to be part of a wider theme in my life. I have always been drawn to the Gothic and French Symbolism. Notwithstanding the perils of historical interpretation that reading through a gothic lens might admit, I have been drawn to Edgar Allen Poe, William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Alice Munro, Margaret Attwood. My popular musical tastes have featured Neil Young, Drive-By Truckers, Kings of Leon, Black Crowes.

Photographically, I much admire Atget, Walker Evans, William Mortenson, Kertész, Bill Brandt, Cartier-Bresson and, of course, the ante-bellum architectural photographs of Clarence Laughlin. I would argue that all of these photographers extolled a gothic disposition. Walker Evans is often described as a ‘straight’ photographer (whatever that means), but one only has to look at his Billboard pictures to get a sense of the gothic. For example,

Houses and Billboards, Atlanta 1936, © Walker Evans

And so, I have found in my own photography a predilection for the abandoned, the dispossessed or disenfranchised, the contrarian view, cemeteries and decay, a pointing towards the ‘third world of photography’, as Laughlin put it, a realm beyond documentation looking beyond an object’s physical status and commonplace meaning to reveal the symbolic suggestiveness of objects.

Elegy for the Old South – 1981 – © Clarence Laughlin

The point I am making is that I didn’t consciously select a style and impose it on how I see. It has emerged of its own accord, somehow, and only on reflection after several years have I come to recognise it and make sense of it in terms of how I see.

Abandoned farm, North Dakota, 2016 © Tony Cearns

Letting a style emerge organically from a lifetime of photography has afforded me an opportunity for self-discovery, surely one of the great things about photography? As Wynn Bullock once wrote: ‘What is important is not what you think about (objects), but how they enlarge you.’ Artificially imposing a stamp on my work might have led to some earlier success, but who’s counting? Not me. Short-term gains, perhaps, but what long-term pains?

A selection of some of my pictures:

4 thoughts on “In search of a photographic style

  1. Thank you Tony, what a wonderful post, and – as ever – so much to think about. It is also nice to see a picture of yours that has stayed with me since I first saw it, it has two (three if you enlarge the image) ionic columns on the right hand side. I’m always left wondering what building the columns are part of, but please don’t tell me, sometimes not knowing can be more thrilling than knowing.

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