What is style? If there is such a thing, must we find one? Or should we be talking about a signature?

Introduction

Aspiring photographers are often exhorted to find a style – the thing that will make them distinctive. I see this in the agendas of many workshops and in the pages of several how-to books.

After all, we are told, most distinguished photographers are known for one defining thing – a style (it is said). Examples apparently abound. Robert Frank and his no-nonsense ‘The Americans’, Don McCullin and gritty war photojournalism, Martin Parr and the in-your-face colour tell-it-like-it-is ‘street’ photography, Sally Mann and the innocent ‘private’ moments of her family, Sugimoto and his ethereal sea-scapes.

But are we not confusing style with something else – signature?

Susan Sontag once noted that style is a consequence of subject matter and technology rather than artistic intention. She was wrong. McCullin’s photographs of the Vietnam war, for example, certainly portray subject matter (war) and have a look that indicates his use of technology (grainy film). But his photographs do far more than this. They also express deep feelings about the nature of war. One only has to look at his head-on portraits of haunted and shell-shocked young soldiers to get this.

So what is style?

It is tempting to argue that documentary photographers are free from style, bent as they are on stories; that what drives art photography is ‘form’ and what drives documentary photography is ‘content’.

Not so (of course)!

Such a simple formula doesn’t get us very far. What is it that makes a William Eggleston or a Eugène Atget or a Walker Evans or a Bill Brandt photograph so recognisable? I don’t think you can reduce it to something very particular. For example although many of Eggleston’s images share some characteristics (simplification of colours; the use of yellows and reds; the apparent banality of the content) I would be hard-pressed to be able to define what this style is.

This is so because it is difficult to define what we mean by style. Some work-shops and how-to books equate style with form. For example you might photograph landscape by looking back at the urban (John Davies) or by singling out the historic (Godwin) or by emphasising agricultural work (Ravilious) or by showing movement (Blakemore) and so on. But I’m not sure you can separate out form from content in a meaningful way. The relationship between them is as one.

When I look at a photograph I have regard to its content (what is being said), its form (how it is being said) and the feelings it evokes. These three things together are what we call ‘style’. But it’s important to understand that these three things are not separable: all three work together as a whole, when they are working well. With knowledge of the origin of the photograph they tell us how the photograph is to be experienced. The photograph re-conceives something. If the photographer is being clear and skilful, it re-conceives her original conception.

Below some images to illustrate what I mean:

Below is a picture I took in London’s Covent Garden in 2014 which I hope shows what I mean by style. It was taken at the time of the Lingerie fashion show and near the Opera. So plenty of people in the streets were dressed up. My intention was to add to my ‘cinematic street photo’ portfolio.

The style of cinematic photographs is that they are close up to people and that they look for gestures being acted out as if in a scene to an audience. They also have depth, often by looking down a diagonal. They are difficult to capture as they appear and recede within a few seconds. Tony Ray-Jones was a master of it, as was Bill Brandt. (Both were very keen film-goers). Frequenting the right sorts of places gives you a fighting chance of getting one.

Covent Garden, in a cinematic style © Tony Cearns

Here, a picture I took at Christ Church College, Oxford, again with a cinematic style intention:

Christ Church College, Oxford.

And here, a picture I took through a glass vase in a John Lewis department store:

Through a glass vase, Liverpool, © Tony Cearns

What is common to these three pictures is the style that they share. (I don’t claim that they are good pictures – just that they share a style).

So should we find and adopt a style?

The answer is Yes and No.

Yes in that each photographic opportunity merits an approach that is intentionally taken. After all the photographer is trying to communicate an idea as clearly as possible through considering content, form and expression together. Sometimes a ‘style’ is apt for one photograph; sometimes for a series of photographs, to give some consistency of message.

But no if what is meant by style is some reductive homage to a technique that blindly follows a fad. Cases in point here are the long exposure sea-scapes that have become so popular or the very high contrast graphical street photographs popular on street photography groups.

There is nothing wrong per se with following a recipe of course. But don’t be surprised if you end up being served with the same meal each time.

Signature

We should distinguish between style and signature. As I have already said style is the working together of content, form and expression in order to make a photographic statement. Style should change with circumstance as it is part of artistic intention.

Signature however is a continuity across a whole life. It is that which holds you out as ‘you’.

It can be clearly seen in the work of Tony Ray-Jones, for example, or Bill Brandt, or Cartier-Bresson.

Ray-Jones’s photographs are often immediately identifiable. It has to do with quirkiness and a light-hearted view. Bill Brandt’s images are brooding and dark, irrespective of whether they are about social life, nudes or still-life. Cartier-Bresson’s pictures are like puzzles – they ask unanswerable questions.

Signature has more to do with a photographer’s inner self than with the circumstances that surround a particular photographic scene.

The thing that sets out the photography of Frank, McCullin, Parr and Mann is signature, not style.