Style. Creative voice. Call it what you like but the greatest artists have a defined and recognisable style that is uniquely theirs.
One of my favourite artists is painter Cy Twombly and I can spot his work a mile off. His use of media ranging from pencil to oil paints, all framed by acres of blank canvas, defines his aesthetic. His style is unmistakably his.
As photographers the tools which we use to create are, perhaps, less diverse, however great photographers still have a style that's so uniquely theirs that it is unfathomable that a picture should have been created by anyone but them. The aim, once you get past the desire to create pretty pictures, is to find a style and voice of your own and I am fascinated by this process.
I am a mere four years into my journey as a photographer and just over two years into my journey as a professional photographer. In that time my style and aesthetic has developed. I have moved on and I can see my work becoming more my own. I am still learning and I hope I always will be. I am, most importantly, discovering something new every time I pick up my camera. I feel different. I think differently. I am, I believe, a different person since this all started.
I wonder if this is how it is for everyone. Do other people find their style through practice or through learning from others? Is it a process that can be pushed or is it something that takes time?
I asked some other photographers how it was for them and what their creative journey looks like.
Image (c) Rossella Vanon
Rossella Vanon is a fashion photographer. Her journey has been remarkable. She started her fashion photography business around three years ago and she is regularly published and was recently shortlisted for the Framed Awards alongside household names like Tim Walker and winner Lara Jade.
Rosella believes she has a distinctive style but it took two separate interviews with magazine editors, both of whom pointed out a specific characteristic of her work, for her to realise the common thread that runs through her photography.
Rossella believes that finding your own style can be something that goes unnoticed until the outcome is achieved. She tells me that "photography is made of so many different components - the camera is only one of them. If you only take care of one component, your impact on the overall image will not be strong enough to define your style. But if you are involved and allowed to follow your taste when it comes to all the other areas as well, then you are giving birth to your vision, which will, with time, define your style.
Interestingly Rossella feels that finding her aesthetic has taken her away from work that she may have wanted to do. Whilst she loves certain publications she now realises that her style isn't a good fit for everyone and she has decided to focus her energy and attention on suitable clients.
I think this is an important lesson. Not everyone is your client and not every job is a good fit for you and your style. I look at lots of soft, romantic and ethereal photography and I think it's beautiful but I know that my work has a quirkier and, sometimes, grittier, edge. Sometimes you need to know what you're not, before you can work out what you are.
Image (c) Lisa Brown
She's one of those photographers whose work I instantly recognize. Lisa tells me that, for her, photography has been away of finding her voice generally as she has always struggled with her confidence.
Lisa feels that her style is constantly evolving and that's one of the most exciting parts of her journey as a photographer.
"I am trying to constantly immerse myself in photography and inspiration. Books, magazines, exhibitions, music, film, all of these things have an impact on me so I keep a sketch book which is full of images, quotes and ideas, full of scribbles as to why I like that image. I also keep a little notebook that I fill in after each shoot. It's got ideas, things that worked well, things I want to try at my next shoot, things I need to look out for, things I need to investigate or improve. Its my way of looking at my work, analysing it, understanding it and developing it."
Lisa, I know, suffers with creative doubt and she tells me that she's her own worst critic at times.
"With anything creative, I feel there is always a internal struggle, am I doing enough, I am pushing myself, I am growing and developing, what will people think, am i creative enough, am I doing things which have been done before, how do I turn an idea into an action, a shoot, a photograph?"
From my point of view it's so reassuring to know that I am not the only one that thinks this way.
As a freelance creative person you have the double worry of a) getting work and b) it being good enough. Whilst it's fairly safe to assume that the work we do is good enough for our clients (given that they booked us in the first place) we will often never be good enough to meet the high standards that we hold ourselves to.
Image (c) Dale Weeks
Dale Weeks is a fledgling wedding photographer who set up his business around a year ago. He became a photographer, he tells me, "following one of those clichéd moments in life where you go through a crisis and then you have to give something your full attention to get everything back on track".
Dale's approach to finding his style has been to shoot, shoot and shoot some more. "I jumped right in, taking more photographs of musicians and models and collaborating on shoots that I wanted to do. It took a lot of courage to ask someone to spend a couple of hours of their weekend being my guinea pig but the practice and experience I got was priceless. I finally feel like my voice is being heard and my style is coming together...
In fact all of the photographers I talked to feel that one of the best ways to find your own style is to keep on shooting. Practice. Try new things and work outside of your comfort zone. If you keep doing the same old things you'll churn out the same old work.
Dale did find it difficult to find people to photograph in the beginning. He tells me that "it's really hard to convince the right people to come and do a shoot when you don't have the confidence in yourself. It's a catch 22 situation. I got a lucky break or two when a couple of friends agreed to let me shoot them".
Image (c) Laura Babb
And what about me?
I think, like Lisa, I find my style to be an ever evolving thing. I look at my work now and I think it's stylistically consistent and I have ideas about where I want to take it, so that I am always shooting in a way that inspires me. Even in the last six months I have made the move from constantly shooting for evenly exposed scenes to seeing the beauty in contrast and shadow.
I have also come to the realisation that I need to just be. Sit with it. See how things develop naturally as I keep shooting, keep learning, keep being inspired by the world around me and the people I photograph.
Or, as this article so succinctly puts it, "stay on the f*cking bus".
"There are two dozen platforms, from each of which several different bus lines depart. Thereafter, for a kilometre or more, all the lines leaving from any one platform take the same route out of the city, making identical stops. "Each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer", Minkkinen says. You pick a career direction - maybe you focus on making platinum prints of nudes - and set off. Three stops later, you've got a nascent body of work. "You take those three years of work on the nude to [a gallery], and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn". Penn's bus, it turns out, was on the same route. Annoyed to have been following someone else's path, "you hop off the bus, grab a cab... and head straight back to the bus station, looking for another platform". Three years later, something similar happens. "This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others". What's the answer? "It's simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the f*cking bus".