Any experienced photographer will be aware of the importance of an identifiable personal visual language in their work. A visual language that allows images to be immediately recognised as the work of just one photographer. This is not easy to achieve, it requires dedication and commitment but it also demands courage. The pioneers of photography chose to step to one side of the accepted path in making work that was true to themselves and to their vision.
When there were fewer photographers this was easier to do. The environment was less competitive and it was difficult to see the work of others outside of personal meetings, small circulation magazines, limited print run books and exclusive exhibitions. Today, the environment is more competitive and ways of sharing your images are multiple if less lucrative. Such a tsunami of images being created and shown produces an issue for the photographer hoping to be noticed. When everyone else is creating photographs why should anyone look at yours?
This in turn leads many to believe that the answer to this question is to look at those receiving multiple ‘likes’ and believe that they must be doing something ‘right’. Therefore by imitating their work they too will receive a similar amount of validation. Such imagery could be based upon a repetition of subject matter, approach, aesthetic or ‘god help us all’ a particular camera, lens or post production technique.
The problem with all of this of course is that it does not connect in anyway with a personal visual language. It is based in a desire to make images that are liked. A quick fix, with a rapid come down. A ‘jump around’ approach based on the latest fashion or style.
Those photographers whom are best remembered stayed true to their vision. Their images did not change from decade to decade in aesthetic. They may have evolved as all good creative practice does but through repetition they had found their own way of seeing.
What is interesting to me is how many of these photographers have been forgotten, or discarded as being irrelevant in a contemporary landscape. For example a Bill Brandt image is as powerful and valuable today as it ever was but when was the last time you saw a young photographer using his work as a starting point for their own exploration of the medium? When was the last time you saw a young photographer wishing to stand out look to the work of Eugene Smith or Ernst Haas or Horst P. Horst or George Hurrell or Sarah Moon or Eve Arnold or Jane Bown or Lillian Bassman? You get the picture!
If work created today is based on what everyone else is doing today it will all look the same. I have written about this before https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2020/07/13/when-everything-looks-the-same-thats-a-problem/. However, and I am not talking about slavish imitation here, when I suggest that photographers should look to work that has been forgotten for inspiration to potentially stand out from the crowd. This takes some work, some research but it is both rewarding and essential to personal growth.
Such research may take you to photographers, but it may just as easily and importantly take you towards artists, writers and musicians. If you only listen to Harry Styles, you are going to sound like Harry Styles and there is no point in that. It is the same with photography. If you only look at Instagram you will make images that look like the images you see on Instagram and there is no point in doing that either.
A Bill Brandt image is instantly recognisable to anyone who has spent anytime looking at the history of the medium. As is an Avedon portrait, a Paolo Roversi fashion image, a Saul Leiter street scene, a William Klein, a Diane Arbus, an Eggleston, you get the picture! These photographers stayed true to an approach throughout their careers. As Roversi once told me, “It is important to stay out of the river and stay on the bank watching it flow by.” They did not feel the need to jump on the latest fashion wagon floating by. Now it is your responsibility to learn from this approach and seek out the roads less trodden and the photographers less known. They are were you will find the true secret to success. Whatever success is…
Images: Bill Brandt, Tate, London.
Dr. 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, 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. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
Scott’s next book Condé Nast Have Left The Building: Six Decades of Vogue House will be published by Orphans Publishing in the Spring of 2024.
© Grant Scott 2023