Style & Vision; How You Find it
Big Dunes, Outside Death Valley NP

Big Dunes, Outside Death Valley NP

When I look back over all the years I've studied photography, the most frustrating and elusive parts to learn have been "style" and "vision." They are foreign concepts to most of us, not something you hear your boss saying, "I just want you to develop your own style and vision around entering these budget numbers in Excel." I know I've never asked an employee this. Most of us spend our time at university and careers learning how we ought to do something. Makes sense, you are a scientist and the scientific method is rather specific. But, as artists, style and vision is the ultimate thing we want to develop. 

Countless mentors have heard me, and others, ask; "How do I develop my style?" And countless mentors just scratch their heads and say, "it just happens, be patient." That is one way, a very true way, to work towards what yours will be. Let's talk about what style is. 

A style is a way of doing something or a distinctive look. Ansel Adams and Ed Weston both have similar yet different styles. Both produced B&W images, of different subjects, shot in different ways to create their own styles that many can easily recognize. Your style develops - continually - over time with your own body of work. The things you photograph, the way you put that similar bend to processing, and the way you decided to photograph next all contribute to your style. 

Your style is more than something that develops, it's part developing and part discovering. The discovering part is a simple realization that most never reach. Let me explain it with a favorite quote from Anais Nin:

We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.
— Anais Nin

Nin was quite the Buddhist and probably didn't realize it. The short explanation is, we all go through life with different experiences. Good childhood, bad childhood, great relationships, bad relationships, always cut off on the freeway, always takes time for yourself to go to an art museum. Point is, we all may grow up in the same neighborhood as the other kids on the block but what we experienced differently shapes how we see the world. Two people experiencing the same event may have a different view of the event based on emotional reaction, which will wire the brain differently. Bottom-line, each of us wears glasses built up of a multiple of lenses by which we see the world. Yup, we all see the world differently. Even two people who grew up together and are experiencing the same thing. 

The biggest key to developing a style is realizing that you see the world in a special and unique way. After realizing we see differently, you realize you have something unique to show in your photography, paintings, pottery, whatever. Your style may be as simple as a certain way you process your images, like a certain coloring style. Or it may be as complex as what you photograph so as to express certain emotions or concepts, such as poverty.

Vision is the application of your realized style. The how and what you want to photograph as seen through your now realized lens. 

Now, this is all easier said than done. It isn't easy to realize we all see the world differently. Since we can not know the consciousness of another, just recognize it, psychology and culture seek to help us fit in by telling us we are all alike. Art is a wonderful way to self-realization and expression but it does take time. Exciting and frustrating slogs in the mud.

Ways to help discover your style:

  • Read about Buddhist concepts - it's ok if your Faith falls elsewhere, Buddhism won't tread on that and is additive to other Faith concepts. Buddhists are light years ahead in understanding the separation of self and ego. The concepts of grasping to our beliefs as if they are who we are will be very helpful.
  • Read about how to cultivate a more open mind.
  • Seek opportunity for travel and cultural things, such as art museums.
  • Go to movies, and notice how the film was shot.
  • Practice creativity - give yourself permission to create.

I'll leave you with a great story by Leonard Woolf, as seen on Austin Kleon's blog. BTW, Austin wrote a great series of books you should read. A story of perspective.

I will end… with a little scene that took place in the last months of peace. They were the most terrible months of my life, for, helplessly and hopelessly, one watched the inevitable approach of war. One of the most horrible things at that time was to listen on the wireless to the speeches of Hitler—the savage and insane ravings of a vindictive underdog who suddenly saw himself to be all-powerful. We were in Rodmell during the late summer of 1939, and I used to listen to those ranting, raving speeches. One afternoon I was planting in the orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers… Suddenly I heard Virginia’s voice calling to me from the sitting room window: “Hitler is making a speech.” I shouted back, “I shan’t come. I’m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.” Last March, twenty-one years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the apple-tree in the orchard.
— Leonard Woolf