Musings on Photography

Style

Posted in process, technique by Paul Butzi on January 1, 2008

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Colin’s post on Photostream got me thinking about style. Or maybe we’re discussing Style, not style. Who’s got it, how important it is, how you get it, how important it is to have one (or maybe two, or three…)

Style is a dangerous word. Paul’s rule: beware of holding discussions about words with too many meanings (22 in that definition at dictionary.com, four of which are verbs (three transitive, one intransitive)).

It’s worth going to that link, and reading the definitions. They’re all sort of aligned, but still all over the map. And, I suspect, we let all those other meanings overlap the meaning we’re really discussing. Maybe that’s good, maybe that’s bad, but if we’re to think things through clearly, we need to be alert to the possibility that different participants in the discussion are talking about different things. [note the discussion in the comments on Colin’s post, all of which seem to center around ‘exactly what do we mean when we’re talking about “style”?].’

So when I’m talking about style here, what I’m discussing is ‘style’ meaning:

a particular, distinctive, or characteristic mode or form of construction or execution in any art or work: Her painting is beginning to show a personal style.

One of the things that I think is interesting is that this sort of style is a byproduct and not a goal. In my email to Colin, I wrote that I thought the quest for style was like a game called “Doggie Zen” I play with my dog. I take a treat, and hold it in my closed fist. The dog, of course, tries to get the treat – poking at my fist with his muzzle, pawing at it, doing tricks. And the game is this: the way to get the treat is for the dog to back off and sit. As soon as he stops trying to get the treat, he gets the treat.

And style is like that. If you’re working toward having a style as I’ve defined it above, I think you won’t get there. I think style is the result of a sort of refinement in the way you photograph things. It’s not the visual appearance of your photos – that’s some interaction between your developed style and the subject matter. The visual appearance is going to change when you change subjects – and I think it’s sensible that it does.

So how do you get a style? The answer, I think, is to make a lot of photographs of things about which you care.

4 Responses

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  1. julie said, on January 2, 2008 at 6:06 am

    Whether it’s a by-product or a conscious effort, I suspect that if we are shooting purely for ourselves, style and whether we have our own or not would be far less of an issue than when we are trying to sell our stuff in one respect or another, even if it’s only to a group of fellow enthusiasts. It’s something that the consumers of photography are interested in, rather than the producers – we just got dragged into it to give us something to describe ourselves to them with.

    Love the doggie zen story… Spot on!

  2. Gordon McGregor said, on January 2, 2008 at 8:26 am

    I think style develops as a by-product of honesty. From a photographic standpoint, that honesty means shooting what you are interested in and in a way that you want to show it.

    Not copying someone else’s view of the world. Not trying to emulate a photograph you’ve seen before or shooting what you think people will like or will sell.

    Just being honest to yourself and shooting the way you want to see it.

    I don’t particularly think it is easy but much like doggie zen, style will find you when you stop trying to have a style.

    It also helps to shoot a lot and throw a lot away.

  3. Photon Wrangler said, on January 2, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    This is the best definition of style I’ve encountered. Separating superficial appearance aspects from the style is an important distinction that resonates greatly with me.

    I really like the way Gordon put it – “honesty” – as it puts an interesting slant on things.

    Now that I know how to develop a style, I’ll stop pursuing one. That way I just may develop one some day. 🙂

  4. […] photographers in a post on his Photostream blog. Paul Butzi also added his take on the subject in this post on his Photo Musings blog. These two posts are definitely worth checking […]


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