What is photographic style – Jerome Arfouche

Posted on by Bellamy

What is photographic style
The latest piece from Jerome Arfouche, this time talking about photographic style and how to define yours. Please comment and share your thoughts.

Today I would like to talk about style. It is my objective this year, as I gradually mastered my camera and abstracted away from technicalities, to develop my own visual style and I would like to share what I have so far on the
topic.

Let’s start with generalities, what is style ? A stylish person is generally someone who stands out from the crowd, someone who you can recognize and identify right away because of how they look. So style is a form of identity, or rather an expression of identity. Some people for example feel very comfortable in the spotlight, they like to be noticed and are outwardly driven towards people, so to show that, or maybe as a result of that they dress a little more daringly, brighter colors, unconventional look, accessories etc.
Same for photography which is another form of expression. Through photographs we show others how we look at the world, and how we look at the world is a part of who we are.
When I first started shooting I was very often frustrated with the results and I didn’t know why, now I understand that it is because I feel it’s as if those photographs didn’t somehow belong to me, it’s as if they were made by someone else, they felt foreign even to me, the person who made them !
We can identify the author of some photographs immediately without needing a caption, think of Bruce Gilden’s infamous flash-in-your-face style, or Steve McCurry’s very unique colors, others we have to pause and think, who could it possibly be ? You have to make your photographs leave no doubt to your viewers as to who made them.

“Saul Leiter’s unmistakable style is all about subtlety, soft colors and distance”

So the first step in getting to identify your style is to try to make your photographs more like yourself. Who are you really, what do you like, what don’t you like? How do you see the world in general, do you like to connect with people, are you a bit more withdrawn, are you a pessimist, an optimist? Are you passionate or more rational? Do you like cheerful bright colors or dark moody black and whites? Today with social media I feel there is some sort of pressure to shoot like each other and to regroup in communities, which is fun in a way because we learn a lot that way, but ultimately you have to shoot what you like. who cares really if that still life picture you liked so much got no comments on flickr?
Of course people have to somehow connect with what you are saying, maybe few people are going to connect with your abstract urban experimentation but the idea is not to suppress what feels natural for you to shoot, it will always find a way back into your photographs anyway :)

Next item I want to talk about is consistency, technical and aesthetic consistency.
Photography is a very technical art, so mastering your technique is very important, but at one point as you get better and better, you have to abstract away from technique and use it to serve you share your vision, rather than make your vision dependent on your tools. Think about this, if you switched cameras for a month, would your pictures look any different as a result ?
Choose fewer tools and master them completely. Experiment and branch out, but ultimately settle on a few formulas that work for you. Very often I see streams of photographers who mix digital, 35mm and medium format (in an easily distinguishable way, if you are good your shots will have a similar feeling), 10 types of lenses, different techniques etc. What this tells me is that this person doesn’t really know what he/she is doing. Again we all pass through this I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-shooting phase and experimentation is important in helping you understand what you want and like to do, but it is important to progress and move past these stages. Two years ago I sold all my cameras and lenses, bought one body and one 35mm lens, for 2 years I’ve been shooting the same focal length, the same medium, the same camera. And only now am I starting to understand properly how to get my tools to work for me like I want. Once you get used to the field of view on your lens, you will know how your picture will look like before taking it, you will know what will be in and out of frame before putting the camera to your eye. You will know what your camera can and cannot do, this will free your mind to focus on what’s important.

“Bruce Gilden mastered his flash in many ways before he was able to produce any consistent work with it”

Aesthetic consistency is, well, consistency in how things look. Again, if you like both color and BW, separate your work. Choose one post-processing method and stick to it, whether in development or in photoshop. Think of Paolo Pellegrin’s dark and gritty looking pictures for example. For him to get that look, he has to consistently develop his work in the same way every time, otherwise every picture will look different and he will have no visual coherence to speak of. We as photographers are also editors, and being able to sort out what doesn’t fit in further reinforces our photographic vision and style. You have a color series shot in the subway, what is that odd BW portrait doing in the middle of it ? Choose your frames, your compositions. Often some patterns will give you a framework, a skeleton for you to work on. Choice of subject will also greatly determine your style, is there a recurrent theme to your photographs ?

“Diane Arbus was fascinated with strange looking individuals, whom she called “freaks”"

This brings me to repetition. Consistency is not repetition, consistency is coherence. Try not to repeat yourself, fix yourself a goal of not shooting more than 2-3 times the same scene, or maybe the same type of scene, for example the type where a random walking person comes in your frame in front of a nondescript urban background. Shoot this and move on. Don’t copy others, or rather, if you feel inspired by someone, copy them but add your own twist to it, improvise on it like a jazzman improvises on famous themes composed by others.

Consistency, coherence, repetition. There is also originality. We are all different, we each do and see things no one else sees, why should your photography look like a million other photographs ? Photography after all is, if you don’t like the word art, a creative form of expression, so be creative then. See what others do and do it better, or differently. See what most people are doing and don’t do it, you will stand out (or forever remain in darkness, no guarantees!). Try to see the things that few people have done before. A simple example, website or blog names. Do we really need yet another “the world through my lens” blog, or a variation on the word pixel like “pixel light color photography” ? Be aware of what’s out there already before you jump in the waters.
Identify your influences, you will better understand what motivates you. Very often we are attracted, interested or moved by certain things or people before we are rationally aware as to why and this unconscious interest is a very direct and uninhibited link into yourself

“Paolo Pellegrin’s work is often dark, blurry with tilted framing or exaggerated drama”

Wait. The most important thing to note is that it takes a lot of time for a certain style to emerge from your photograph, so you need to shoot often and be patient. You also need to let your photographs “decant” or mature before you edit through them. For example, it can take me anywhere between one to six weeks between the time I shoot and develop my pictures. What this gives me is some sort of objectivity with regards to my own photographs, I often forget what I’ve shot so I almost rediscover them anew and that will help remove the indecisiveness as to whether or not I feel a picture belongs to my “style” or not. Style or not

These were some of my notes about style, I’m just starting to apply these principles to myself so I don’t pretend to be an expert on the topic but I thought I’d share it with everyone.
Jerome Arfouche

Learn more about Jerome:
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website

8 Responses to What is photographic style – Jerome Arfouche

Joseph Camosy February 8, 2012 at 4:30 am

You don’t see what’s out there. You see who you are. And this has everything to do with style.

Why something looks appealing or interesting and thus compels your attention has to do with the concept from depth psychology, known as projection. There is something inside of you that you are not fully aware of yourself, and so it is projected out there. You see it out there in the world. This can be a positive or a negative thing. A simple way of putting this is to say that what compels you to go for certain images is your own subjectivity.

Now, what kinds of “images” are swirling unknown in your subconscious which then get projected out into the world as beauty and ugliness? Look at your photographs. When you are most freely shooting what interests you, you are photographing projections of your own inner images which carry a “charge” for you. You are in effect creating a kind of photogram of your own psyche which you can then look at with your eyes.

Yet, for many people, what’s in there is pretty trite and stereotypical – not very imaginative. Why? Because in our mass society, our imaginations have been dominated by mass media, mass products, mass art, mass culture, and mass thinking. That’s also why, when you see the photography of a truly independent thinker whose imagination and style is unique – their photos look so different.

So in my opinion, this is what style is. It is the kinds of images, their attributes and representations that you create, once you have found your own voice, your own unique subjectivity, and which bear the mark of the unique individuality of that voice.

Reply
    Jerome February 9, 2012 at 3:02 am

    Joseph, thank you very much for this outstanding insight, like I mentioned above this is far from complete and as I continue to think about this, remarks such as yours are a solid step in the right direction

    Reply
Andephotographic February 9, 2012 at 5:13 am

I don’t know if I have ‘a style’ or not.

I think that technically speaking I do. I know what I want my images to look like in terms of contrast, tonality etc. Sometimes though I create an image which falls outwith what I am ideally aiming for but I still like it and I am almost surprised at myself for doing so.

I don’t know if that translates into a style of image which is indicative of me though, nor do I necessarily feel I should be working in such a way, not yet at least.

I like to shoot unfamiliar things sometimes, or with a camera I don’t usually use, just to make a change. I think that if I go and shoot a project on something really different I might bring something from that experience back to my more usual type of photography.

Reply

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