I often talk about identifiable visual language when discussing a photographer’s body of work as being a positive attribute of a photographer’s practice. The personal approach to image- making, based upon a concentrated exploration of the medium that allows images to stand out from the crowd, to be recognised as being associated with one particular maker. There have been and there remain photographers working today who have achieved this point in their photography, and many others hoping to achieve such a visual signature.
The idea of recognition based upon an aesthetic style is an anathema to many creatives who spend their careers railing against such conformity. They can see it as standing still or an act of repetition. Of course the very act of photography is one of repetition, the repetition of pressing a button, of framing an image within a rectangle, of utilizing the same process of creation.
The process of refining a vision requires repetition aligned with personal analysis and reflection. The ability to sweat the small stuff.
To continually make work that varies little in approach, or outcome can be boring for some, but there is a method to such practice that time, and patience rewards. The idea of the photographer as a generalist capable of turning their hand to any type of work demanded reduces the role of the photographer to operator and imitator. An odd-job person armed with a kit bag rather than a tool belt. For me that is a strange ambition for a true creative.
The defining of a specialisation requires more than naming an area of practice such as portraiture, documentary, still-life, fashion, lifestyle etc, etc. Specialisation demands focus upon a destination of purpose, and that takes intense reflection on why you are making images as much as how.
The creation of a body of work that has a sense of evolution allows the viewer to connect with the work and the journey the photographer is on, it also allows the commissioner to feel comfortable when commissioning work safe in the knowledge of what they are going to receive. If this sounds strange, just think about how you feel when you buy a musician’s latest album only to find that it is not what you had expected. Do you feel cheated and disappointed? Or do you feel challenged? Either way as a commissioner you will not have received what you expected.
I often hear photographers explain that a photograph is good because it is different, in response I always ask “different from what?” That idea of creative infidelity could be a sign of insecurity within a photographer’s practice. A desire to experiment to demonstrate creative fecundity. There is no need for such an approach to prove creativity, as an acceptance of repetition within the medium provides ample opportunity to explore its possibilities. The artist can choose from a multitude of tools to express their creativity, as can the musician, but the photographer is restricted to a box, some glass and light. That restriction provides a strait-jacket of making for some, an opportunity for mastery within a structure for others. Punk was based on three chords and a good idea, sometimes I think photography would do well to remember the benefits of that simplicity.
Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com
© Grant Scott 2022
For years I’ve been challenged by this dilemma, kicking against being pigeonholed as a ‘landscape / street / portrait et al’ photographer … and beyond getting to a reasonable competency ( competition wins in regional competitions for single shots ), getting to a satisfactory body of work that I’m happy with has been always out of reach. ‘Generalist’ photographers like myself probably get a level of comfort from the fact that they are ‘shooting what they like’, and yet my shelves are filled with books of inspirational photographers who obviously have a ‘style’ that they’ve mastered.
This article has given me a lot to think about, thank you Grant.
Can’t imagine the “great idea” of punk.
Then you were obviously not there.