Style is Transitory, Language Permanent

I often hear photographers use the word ‘style’ when describing their work. The ‘style’ of their work, the ‘style of their images and the ‘style’ they prefer. The issue with this use of the word ‘style’ and basing your understanding of your work on that word is that as we all know ‘style’ is as transitory and fleeting as fashion. It describes surface and not intention, aesthetic and not context. It reduces the work to ‘look’ and not ‘meaning’.

The worst aspects of ‘style’ relating to photography are deeply embedded in post-production techniques and Photoshop plug-ins. The choice to de-saturate, sharpen and remove a photographic image from uniform of reality is one based upon a ‘style-choice’ just as cross-processing, vaseline on the lens, shooting through gauze and retaining film frames were in the analogue past.

It would not be difficult for me to name photographers who had placed their work too firmly into the ‘style of the moment’ only to find tastes move on without them, and their clients move on to the next new look. Such a situation results in the photographer having to dismiss all of their previous work as they frantically chase the latest photographic fashion aesthetic.

How many times have you looked at work from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s and commented that the work looks dated? And at the same tie how often have you looked at work created during those decades that feels as fresh and important today as it did when it was created? I suggest that the work that now appears dated was very much ‘of-its-time’ reflecting the styles and fashions of photography, whereas the work that today feels contemporary and current was not within the visual vocabulary of the time in which it was made.

It was different, challenging and personal, with the photographer unwilling to conform to photographic conventions of the time either in the form of subject or approach. Such work is often derided in its time and often reviewed and understood only years later. The photographer in these cases is playing with the language of the medium, seeking expression by swimming against the tide, not with it.

Every time I hear a photographer use the word ‘style’ to describe their work I feel the same way I do when people use the word ‘arty’ to describe something they don’t understand. I feel the need to question why they chose to describe what they are looking at in that way, could they have delved beneath the surface for some greater meaning. The more important question of course is “does the work encourage that?” If not then what is the photographer creating?

It reminds me of the unattributed damming statement directed at the work of the artist Mark Rothko “It’s just gallery wallpaper!”

Of course Rothko was working at a much deeper personal relationship to his medium than that of creating wallpaper or mobile phone screen savers but the comment raises the reality of work not fitting a recognised understanding and being reduced to nothing more than decoration. ‘Rothko’ has now become a ‘style’, a shorthand for abstract expressionism but in its time of creation to see it as such, would be to dismiss the passion and seriousness of the artist. I could have used Jackson Pollock to make the same point.

I therefore suggest you avoid the word ‘style’ when discussing your work, avoid the latest aesthetic photography fashions and concentrate on taking your own path based on a desire to tell stories that are important to you in the way in which they feel most important to you. A process through which a visual language will develop.

© Grant Scott 2020

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.



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