That elusive quest for one’s own photographic style, it’s not easy to find it looking forward, in my opinion. But there are plenty of people willing to sell you the idea that you can forge it through some kind of effort, where style is a marketable goal. If by “style” we mean a recognizable signature; a look that represents your own personal vision of the world through images, I don’t believe it’s something you can simply create.
I’m guessing most of the iconic photographers I’m drawn to never really considered developing their style as much as recognizing it after some time went by. I believe a constructed or deliberate approach can result in a recognizable look, but just as you have to let go of what you think other people expect out of your work, maybe you have to let go of what you expect in order to find your true style.
Your photography is a record of your living, for anyone who really sees. You may see and be affected by other people’s ways, you may even use them to find your own, but you will have eventually to free yourself of them. That is what Nietzsche meant when he said, ‘I have just read Schopenhauer, now I have to get rid of him.’ He knew how insidious other people’s ways could be, particularly those which have the forcefulness of profound experience, if you let them get between you and your own vision. — Paul Strand
Profound experience, is one thing, but even some young photo gurus who’ve yet to discover themselves or what life is really all about are often charismatic enough to sell you on the idea that they’ve got the answers to your photographic vision quest. My advice, learn your technique, practice by recreating work by others, then shoot what feels right to you. This process takes a few years, but at some point your style emerges. If you’re true to yourself, that style will be distinct and undeniable.
Image: My friend, Holly. Taken 20 years ago with a second-hand 35mm film camera. I couldn’t imagine developing a style back then, but I can certainly see one emerging over time as I look back. I see common threads even in my recent work. Is it especially distinct from others? I don’t know. But I feel that if it’s not, it’s probably because I haven’t completely let go of whatever it is that’s holding me back. So, I feel that letting your style shine through is about listening more to yourself than anyone else.
Check out Taking Your Portraiture to the Next Level. I think I’ve offered some good advice on this subject there.