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Style and Content: The Questions of a Photographer
Some call the look of pictures ‘style’. Although that is a convenient word, the look of a photograph is made from many conscious and unconscious decisions, and from out of the entire personal history and social context of the photographer. ‘Style’ is therefore more than a passing fashion.
Each photographer has a language composed of his/her concerns with particular ideas and with subject matter. The actual arrangement of these things and how one wishes to present them is always an interpretation and rearrangement of apparent reality. This rearrangement, when consistent across many pictures, becomes know as that photographer’s ‘style’.
You will have a point of view, whether you are conscious of it or not. You will have prejudices and ideas stuck into you as a child that you accept as gospel. Out of fear or conviction, you will have absorbed your parent’s modes of behaviour. You will have many assumptions about life. You will rely upon common knowledge unless you lead a highly conscious existence in pursuit of what is often painful truth. Karl Jung, the psychoanalyst, said the processes of psychoanalysis are not to make us happy but to help us to understand. Engagement in any creativity, as making photographs, serves many of the same purposes.
An artist, if he’s unselfish and passionate, is always a living protest. Just to open his mouth is to protest: against conformism, against what is official, public, or national, what everyone else feels comfortable with, so the moment he opens his mouth, an artist is engaged, because opening his mouth is always scandalous. Pier Paolo Pasolini -filmmaker, poet.
All artists need to be in a state of permanent questioning and curiosity. Or as Sven Linguivst, the Swedish writer, asked: Is it the function of art to make mass graves banal? Is it the task of thought to make starvation uninteresting? Spiritual happiness that makes the world irrelevant will also make suffering, oppression and extermination irrelevant.
It is not just the social/political world that we are concerned with but also the inescapable questions of love, beauty and death, the endless ‘why are we here’ and ‘how can we contribute’? All of these questions are a part of what you have to say and a part of what you can use photography for. Your confusion, uncertainty, self-doubt, as well as your loves and hates, are human responses we all relate to. The more truthfully and clearly you represent even negative attitudes, the more the rest of us will gain from your struggles. The best of one’s private world, expressed eloquently, can heal wounds and provide people a sense of solidarity with others (the artists) whom one does not know but shares pain and pleasure with. The work serves as a bridge which crosses time, cultures, language and class barriers and which overcomes existential loneliness.
There are stories to tell about how we live and die, about our children and loved ones, about what we value and what we disdain, about the ambiguities of our inner lives and our sense of destiny.
Prettiness and entertainment, lets call them visual decorations, while useful in some ways, are something else. The only affecting beauty we can create emerges out of truths that are central to the lives we lead. This may seem harsh, but to my way of thinking, it is the photographer’s job to continually plumb the depths of his/her soul and the reality all around to find what is important to photograph. It is there that beauty will be found and become effective. If you tell these tales using an appropriate style and do it well, you will have an audience because you will be sharing your humanity.
A Question Of Form
Once the relationship between content (the things which concern you in the middle of the night) and subject matter (the things you choose to show your concern) becomes clear, you will begin to ask how do you make your pictures; what language (style) do you use to express the content? This will involve how you shoot the image, how you choose (edit) which images to reject and which to accept, how to print them and finally how to show them to an audience.
This is where you engage the relationship between subject, content and form. You will sense that the pictures should ‘feel’ or ‘appear’ a certain way; that what its looks like is appropriate to the content.
Many unconscious as well as conscious choices are being made. A place or situation has been chosen, a lens selected to include a fragment of the world and to exclude the rest, a composition has been decided upon as has the relationship of object’s sizes, colours, shapes, volumes, tonalities and a moment of all the moments of that day has been decided upon to release the shutter.
I believe the entire history of that photographer is represented in those ‘style’ choices; all of the unconscious choices speak loudly of a person’s life lived at a particular moment in a particular place.
For instance: are there reasons why an image should be partly out of focus or have deep focus, should it be in color or monochrome, bright and colorful or muted and of a restricted pallet, against dark, light or patterned backgrounds, outside or inside etc.? All of these decisions will affect how the image looks and what it seems to be about.
If you assume that you will not be in the room to speak about it when viewed, if you assume that it will not be in a written article or even captioned, you must ask, ‘how can a quiet picture clearly communicate my content?’
What can fairly be said is that the unconscious photographer is less inquisitive, less hungry for self-knowledge, less interested in the world than others who seek to be engaged within their own time and place, and it is the latter who have the possibility to make something of beauty.
Images: © Robert Golden