“When I see your pictures, I know they’re yours. Any advice about finding your own style?” It’s a question I am asked quite often and it’s an interesting one. It usually comes from people starting out, wanting to develop more personal and individual art.
However, I’m fairly sure that no artist sets out to deliberately create a style. That process is an evolution, a result of the gamut of influences, experiences and taste of that person, blended with many hours of experimentation and practice.
Going back a few years, I had to make a film for a chunk of my degree course. The nature of my subject matter was far removed from my current work, but something a lecturer said stayed with me. I’d wanted to layer the reality of the meat industry against the storybook impression of Daisy the cow that everyone grows up with, so I arranged to shoot the film in a slaughter house. “Well that’s a first”, my lecturer had responded, looking very much as if he were about to help me choose a more normal subject. But his expression changed. “This could work; when you’re passionate about something, it tends to work; it could be good”. It was hard to do; more so than I’d imagined, and the beer I had in the pub at lunchtime tasted of blood. I still relive the horror; it has shaped my life. But, the film was good, and I’ve never forgotten that comment; it has resurfaced periodically, and helped me through a few quandaries.
Years later I was resuming my creative path, after all the twists and turns that comprise life. I took up again my paintbrush and my camera. My paintings were impressionistic, a style I’d always favoured. So it followed that my photographs would begin to take on that feel too. I experimented with all sorts of techniques, shallow depth of field, ICM, multiple exposures and so on, feeling my way. Often I’d pop home to Pembrokeshire to see my family and elicit some time to myself with my camera, while my then quite young, youngest son was spoilt by his Grandma. I had choices; mountains or sea. Wildflower hedges or sea. Historic monuments or….my car increasingly found itself pointing coastwards. The sea had been in my life since I was 8 weeks old; right outside our cottage window, with my father’s boats clinking away in the background. My earliest memories, some of my most joyous, and some of my saddest, involve the sea. “When you’re passionate about something, it tends to work; it could be good”. The sea gradually replaced all other subjects.
But there was more to it than that. I was involved in photographic printing for the advertising industry for many years. They worked on the premise that once they’d got a product into your brain, it was lodged there forever, even if you hadn’t particularly noticed the advert, or appear to have no recall of it. Clever, if rather furtive, but that’s life! Everything we have experienced is in there somewhere; a personalised tangle of fleeting moments and meaningful encounters. I was at the time, living through a series of bewildering crises and was drawing on reserves I never knew I had. But when I was on a beach, I felt at peace.
For a long time, it was the only chance I had, to feel that relief. I can now see that the reason my images so often have a sense of calm, despite invariably being made in quite brutal weather, was likely my subconscious making order out of chaos. The complexities of my experiences, both uppermost in my mind and deeply buried, melded with other aspects of my life. My long held love of impressionist painting was in there, plus the incomparable verses of William Wordsworth; “Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher” followed me round in clouds of speech bubbles. And of course, that good old ineffaceable affection for the sea.
To those whose ambition is to acquire their own style, I would suggest you photograph the things that you really care about, that have grounded you and have been a recurring theme in your life. See the process through; don’t leave the images hidden away on a hard drive. Print your favourites, and live with them. That’s a very effective way to learn to be self critical, and is an important stage in the process of making photographic art that these days is often left out. A painter or a sculptor end up with a tangible piece to display, and a photographer should too. It’s the best way to see your work developing, evolving and acquiring cohesion.
Enjoy the process. It’s a journey of self discovery and it may not be obvious at first, what themes and styles will surface, but give it time and, “when you’re passionate about something, it tends to work; it could be good.”
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