Sometime back I wrote a post about how photographers should not spend time searching for a “style” to set themselves apart, but rather cultivate a “sensibility.” I recently posted a link to that blog post on social media in response to a friend and fellow photographer’s post on the subject of style. My linked comment got some very interesting responses, one of which came with an interesting point of view and disagreed with how I viewed the term “style” (see the comment below). So I thought it was time that I update and perhaps clarify why I still feel that style is the wrong road to pursue.
The image on the wall above I call “Four Prayers for Japan” and it was a response to the Fukushima Nuclear disaster in Japan. The image, taken with and processed all on an iPhone, is of lily pads floating on water. I chose a “negative” of the image as the base element to work with because it had a certain beauty to it, and more importantly it lent an otherworldly abstract quality that was reminiscent of a “nuclear glow” for lack of a better term. The four panels which make up the image, with the bottom two panels further divided into four iterations each gave me the title for the image. Why four prayers? I really have no idea, the image simply coalesced that way, and in many ways it feels as though it created itself. It wasn’t made with any sense of a “style” or trying to create a “look,” rather it was my sensibility that guided this image to become what it wanted to become.
Before I get into what I mean by sensibility, let me explain my take on the word “style.” The same things that motivated photographers in the analog film days to seek a “style” (or copy others) is the same as today. We simply have more and easier ways to create a style or “look.” It was there in the heady creative milieu of the commercial/ad world of the ‘80s and early ‘90s that I watched as many well-known and up and coming pro photographers were searching for the “new”, the new look, the new technique, the new “trick” that would catapult their career into lucrative ad campaigns. And believe me, there were a great many unique and interesting things being done in photography studios from coast-to-coast at that time. Some pro photographers got very well known and became successful because of their unique “style.” And because of that success, it seemed like everybody went looking for what would set them apart. Some created unique film processing techniques, some turned to old-school fine art photographic techniques and alternative films like Polaroids, and others went in search of creative ways of lighting their subjects that no one else was doing. And some just copied what others were doing.
The problem was (and is) that no “style” in itself can possibly be appropriate for every subject. Some styles simply don’t work for some things. I saw this when one photographer in particular who had come up with a lighting style of criss-crossed multi-colored gel lighting had created a body of work based on it (it literally was all he did), and he showed images that were completely wrong for that style. He didn’t allow that some subjects needed a different treatment to be successful images, rather than forcing his style on them. The second problem with styles, as I see that term, is they fall out of fashion and can become passé from over use, like the Papyrus font style 😉! A case in point was a then little known San Francisco studio photographer named Aaron Jones who came up with a truly unique way of lighting that took the ad world by storm. Soon he was shooting major ad campaigns from coast-to-coast as it seemed every client wanted the “Aaron Jones look.” It seemed overnight every pro photographer was trying to copy the style (and failing) and figure out how this guy was doing his technique and beating out the big name photographers for jobs. Aaron was secretive and wouldn’t divulge his technique. That is, until he had exhausted the market and gotten as much success as the only one doing it as he could. At that point he revealed that he had created a specialized lighting tool and exposure technique he called “The Hosemaster” which was another take on the old technique of painting with light. Since he had gotten what he could from the style in the market, he turned to manufacturing and selling his Hosemaster tool to other eager photographers for a hefty price, but by then the style went the way of Papyrus font. Photographers who bought the Hosemaster soon found out clients didn’t want that look anymore and had moved on. Hosemaster kits became the photo industry equivalent of the Thighmaster exercisor which populate thrift stores now.
I had learned very early on in my analog film days in the high-school darkroom that is was important to learn, discover, and develope as many different styles and techniques as I possibly could, so when it came to photographing a subject, any subject, I could pull from a wide variety of styles and techniques, and even combine them in unusual ways, in order to find the BEST way to render a subject, based on what it wanted to become as guided by my sensibility.
So what is this thing called Sensibility? Well according to the dictionary, it means this:
Number 3 comes closest to how I look at the word, but still misses the mark.I believe it means more, or rather how I view it in the creative process is somewhat deeper.
In its essence, I would say sensibility is how you see the world. It is what guides you to choose a certain style for an image, and then refine that choice further, to “sculpt” a photographic image into what it wants to become. There is a sort of collaboration between you and the image you are creating whereby the image in progress “speaks” to you about the direction the process is going in. If you have a well developed sensibility, you will be able to respond to the way the image is coming along, adapt and adjust your choices and apply differing styles and techniques as the collaboration comes into view.
Sensibility sits above and informs, develops, and creates styles that it uses for the collaborative process to take place. It is a deep, thoughtful, intuitive way of seeing that is unique to you, and constantly mutable and even able to contradict itself. Where a style by its nature is a set, unchangeable thing. If it does change, it acquires a new name and it becomes a new style, a variant. Think of Picasso’s “Cubism” style which changed into “Analytical Cubism” and finally “Synthetic Cubism.” These are not my terms, but Art Critics and Curators who designated these different styles. Yet above them all and informing and developing the different styles was the creative sensibility of Picasso and Georges Braque. Their way of seeing the world changed the world of Art, and as their (and others) sensibilities changed, so did the styles of art they created. A great way of seeing how this process of sensibility versus style unfolds is to watch the brilliant series “Genius: Picasso” from Nat Geo.
I’ll finish with a final anecdote on what I think is the quintessence of sensibility. This comes from the beautiful and remarkable documentary film on photographer Dorothea Lange by her granddaughter, called “American Masters-Dorothea Lange: Grab A Hunk Of Lightning.” Her granddaughter narrating recalls as a little girl eagerly going up to Dorothea on the beach where they had a cabin, and holding out her hand with stones and shells she asked her to “Look.” Dorothea responds, “ I see them, but do you see them?” The little girl laughs and says matter- of-factly, “Yes, I see them,” to which Dorothea replies sternly, “But do you SEE them?” and snaps a photo. Her granddaughter says she looked back at her palm, and from then on she apprehended the world differently. That is the Art Of Sensibility.