The Art Of Sensibility

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. 
 

Processed with VSCOcam with s5 preset 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. 


Comments

Trace(non-registered)
Thank you for your thoughtful comment, David! I think your last two sentences encompass exactly what I’m talking about. That mysterious collaboration is between one’s sensibility, which comes from everything that influences how one sees the world: the music one listens to, the books read, the visuals one sees, the language and ideas that surround one and especially speak to one’s soul or spirit, those are what make up sensibility, and for one with an open mind and heart to the mystery, that sensibility can be constantly in flux. One problem I see with many photographers is their unwillingness to see things today differently than they did yesterday. They get stuck in and cling to a “style” as if that is the only thing that defines them and their work. Perhaps that is how Harry Callahan feels about his work. No “growth” is antithetical to creative .
I look at the Beatles and how they were constantly innovating and creating new music based on their collective sensibilities. “Sgt. Pepper” was not like anything before it, and came like a shockwave to the music world. They started the psychedelic genre that so many tried to copy and keep going, clinging to the keeping the “style” , while the Beatles moved on and created new music that was nothing like Pepper. Every record after was a true Beatles record, but they were informed by who they were at the time and how they saw their world. Unlike Coldplay (sorry if you’re a fan) who seem to keep recording the same album over and over again. I stopped buying Coldplay after their third album sounded exactly like their first two (which I liked.) Some folks get hung up on and stuck on a “style” and don’t realize how limiting that is. I could give many examples in many genres of the arts, but you get the picture.

Harry Callahan may well have summed up your perspective, but for me, the Ernst Haas quote I have on my home page really speaks the shared truth of a kindred artist. My view as a photographer is to let the subject speak to me about how it wants to be made manifest. It’s my task to “listen” (visually) and have a wide ranging skill set and openness to creative improvisation to bring that about. It really is a mysterious collaborative dialogue. Cheers!
David Reinfeld(non-registered)
I think style exists on a level deeper than your definition of style or sensibility. An alternative view is from art critics and curators with a perspective about a period of art- modern, renaissance, and the like. Which then breaks down to categorical aesthetics- pointelism, etc. Usually the artists are the bottom of the chain. Personally I don’t follow the historical view of style. I’m more concerned with what is helpful for my art, and does knowing help me in some way to keep moving. And by the way, if has nothing to do with moving forward or growing. For me, it’s about openness and collaboration to see what is hidden in plain sight. Harry Callahan summed it up for me. He was once asked by a reporter after one of his shows at MOMA how did he grow as an artist. His answer was clear and short- I have not grown at all (ignoring technical learning). He continued saying he’s always tried as hard as he could. Emphasis on “try”, as it seems to be a dirty word for the “do” crowd. You might conclude his thoughts validate growing but they do not. It is about openness and tapping into something internal from who knows where. The mystery resides in the collaboration.
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