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Style and Related Matters
by Rob Gray

I feel at home in the bush and therefore that is where I do my best work. I can look at and admire the pictorial images of Harold Cazneaux or the stand-up portraits of Paul Strand and appreciate the mastery involved in their production, but I'm not seriously tempted to try that style myself. I have settled on a particular style and subject matter and, for the foreseeable future at least, I'll stick with it.

This was not always the case. In my early years I experimented with many styles, some worked and some didn't. This is a healthy and I believe necessary procedure, one that will allow you to find your niche in the photographic world, to find your own style.

So how do you create your own style?
I don't think you can deliberately create one, or if you do it will be superficial. For example you could decide that all your photos will have crooked horizons. This will create a recognisable style but one that is entirely fabricated, trite and doomed to failure. Your style must come from within and be natural and there are two ways I can think of to achieve this.

If you are lucky you can simply analyse what subjects interest you and the way you would like to depict them, then do it. However it appears more usual to try many different avenues, succeeding here and failing there, until you hit on a subject and photographic style that seems just right for you. The majority of this experimentation usually occurs early in your photographic career. However, you should always be experimenting a little.

I have seen many people who, after years of photography, still answer the question, "What sort of things do you photograph?" with something like, "Oh everything really, close-ups, portraits, wildlife, landscape; you name it". In my opinion a person with such diverse areas of interest cannot be giving their best to any one of them. Even professional commercial photographers become known for being good at one thing or another. A top wedding photographer is seldom hired to do an industrial shoot for a steel mill's annual report.

For many years I photographed a plethora of subjects; commercial and industrial, travel photographs to illustrate magazines, African wildlife, Parisian streets, newspaper documentaries etc. At the time I adopted those subjects and the styles that went with them and I like to think that I was reasonably good at them. Bruce Barnbaum states that he was initially interested in nature photography with wider interests emerging in time. I seem to have done the reverse, with early coverage of a vast number of subjects distilling to a very narrow interest.

I have now settled on large format, black & white landscapes and appear to have developed a style within that genre based on peaceful images. So how did I achieve a style? I guess I just followed the second approach mentioned above; I did what comes naturally. Most viewers of my images comment on the feelings of tranquillity and peacefulness that are evoked by them. This was not something I consciously set out to do, it just happened.

You see what you are
I believe that "you see what you are", therefore the only lasting and worthwhile style will be one that reflects your personality. I also believe that "you are what you see" and that prolonged exposure to images and situations of any kind will change your personality and therefore your vision.

If you have an engineering background you may recognise the makings of a positive feedback loop here. Positive feedback means that the more you do something, the more you want to do it. Unless positive feedback is kept under control it is a destructive force. I create peaceful images because (I guess) I'm a fairly peaceful person. If I follow the positive feedback path however, I will become even more peaceful, this in turn will cause me to see even more peaceful images which in turn will cause me to become more peaceful...

The end result would be a comatose photographer and no photographs. Some control is required and in my case the control is wildlife and general pictorial photography.

I wouldn't presume to say that my photographic style is ground breaking or original, but it is emerging and it is mine. This belief was bolstered recently when a librarian I know received a new delivery of books. While cataloguing them she noticed the cover of one in particular. "This is the kind of photo Rob would take", she thought. On checking inside she was proven correct. It was in fact one of my images (Wet Round Rocks). Although Ruth knew me, and had seen many of my photos she had not seen this one. She just thought the style was similar to mine.

If it's new, it's good
It's common for beginner photographers to strive to create something "new"; a style that has never been done before. The trouble is, in "normal" wet-process photography I think that there is probably nothing new: it's all been done. If you are intent on doing something new, something that has never been done, you will probably never take a photo. Of course the same cannot be said for the new electronic imaging technologies, but then this is not photography, it's imaging based on photography.

The quest for something new is admirable but it is more a result of art-school teaching than of fulfilling any real need. Not that I have anything against a new style; it's just that "new" is often thought of as a synonym for "good" and there is of course no connection between the two. It's this confusion that causes the graduation exhibition of most art school students to also be their last exhibition. When they hit the real world and realise that, while their new, abstract, torn strips of re-photographed artwork won brownie points and a BA, the general public find this stuff about as attractive as a fart in an elevator.

I recently read a Robert Billington review of a landscape photography exhibition. In the review he quoted some of the image's supporting blurb. Let me requote:

"...[they] explore the divide between conceiving of an ecological space as an exteriorised object of sensation, utility or desire and its possible apprehension as an interiorised systematic and personal subject... That is, they investigate the difference between an aesthetics of nature inbred with anthropocentric objectification idealisation or syncretic nihilism and one steeped in an eclectic biocentric essentialism..."

Hmmm...maybe in another universe. Is it any wonder that a five year reunion of art-school graduates making a living from their art is a very lonely affair. The guest list could probably be printed in block letters on half a thumb nail. This is as predictable as it is sad. Art-schools tend to ignore the commercial reality of making a living in favour of teaching the students to be "creative" and "original".

On the verso of the photographic teaching coin we have the technical institutions. They teach commercial photography and produce photographers who make a living from their work but have little or no time for their art. A five year reunion of commercial photography graduates who still make any private art would be almost as lonely.

Surely there is a place for an institution that combines the two, one that teaches both the art and the business of photography; that teaches artists to make a living and pro photographers to leave time for their art. The nearest I have encountered to this day is embodied in the shape of a friend of mine who attended both art school and technical college. He not only makes a living from his photography but regularly holds exhibitions of his personal work. This example seems to prove the point that education for both sides of the brain is necessary.

I would like to end this article with another quote, this one is by Bruce Barnbaum which is not only in plain English but, I feel, actually means something:

"A photographer's way of seeing is a reflection of his entire life's attitude, no matter what the subject matter may be."

You can see more of Rob's work at the following websites:
Profotos - Rob Gray

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