7.21.2010

Style is substance and vice versa.

Dr. John Clarke, Annie Laurie Howard Regents Professor in Fine Arts, Ph.D.   Former Chairmen of the UT Austin College of Art History.  Photographed for the University of Texas at Austin.  Two lights.  One point of view.

While one can overlay faux styles onto any project there is a richness of style conferred to an image that has its own substance, its own reason for existence.   If the image exists only to show off the skills of the creator and the effervescence of the "style of the minute" the viewer can generally sense, on some level, that the image is more like a trick or a gimmick instead of the heartfelt representation of the object photographed.

On a confluent vein,  I took my son along on a photo assignment this afternoon and on the way home we were discussing what we'd seen and done.  I was tasked with taking a portrait of a doctor on his ranch here in central Texas and then interviewing him in order to write the ad copy.  I asked the doctor, who is a second generation surgeon,  why he followed his father into the practice of medicine.  He responded that he had always wanted to be just like his father.  I know his father and it's a wonderful goal.

On the way home I asked Ben what he thought of the interview.  He said that it was interesting but that he hoped I wasn't expecting him to follow my example and become a photographer.  I assured him (with a great sense of relief on my part) that his being a photographer was not something I was pushing for.  As the conversation continued Ben asked me why I became a photographer.

I expected him to think that I loved making and sharing photographs.  Or that I loved problem solving or playing with fine pieces of equipment.  But the truth is that I'm drawn to the experiences and privileged points of view that life gives image makers in its pageant procession.  The camera is a passport into a wildly rich assortment of experiential episodes.  It gives me the license to be present and aware in a way that other professions don't.

What a glorious and charming way for an avowed fiction writer to assemble the raw materials for books and stories.  I realized this when I realized that I didn't really care if the images came out perfectly as long as the clients liked them and kept inviting me back.  And then I realized that when I stopped caring about perfection the images got better and better.  And once I gave up thinking about anything but the subject, and my reactions to the subject,  my pictures became an extension of my style and became my art.

Photography is the messy intersection of art and physics.  For it to become art it must be informed by a creator's unique point of view--about the subject.  That's the magic stuff.  Something to think about.

Where does style come from? How do I get some?

Shot in 1993 with a Canon EOS-1 and the first version of the 
85mm 1.1.2 L lens.  Paris, France.  Agfapan 400.


There's two ways to look at style. One is tied to the idea of fashion and what is fashionable.  This idea rewards constant changes of approach in order to incorporate the lighting of the day, the subject matter of the moment and the presentation of the minute.  Just last year many photographers rushed to make images that made liberal use of the "clarity" slider in PhotoShop, along with multiple backlights and a healthy dose of dynamic range manipulation via the shadow and highlight sliders that showed up, en masse, in most image processing programs.

The other way to look at style is to perceive it as the leitmotif of the long term arc of an artist.  How do they routinely like to approach and display subjects.  And what are the pervasive consistencies over time.  We like artists who can innovate while staying true to their basic nature.  That's what makes them powerful.

In time, given the number of monkeys typing and the vast spending power of the marketplace, people in the first camp will, within weeks of the birth of a new style, be able to buy a canned filter set that will allow them to make work that superficially looks like the work of the latest "wunderkind". (When did we go German?????).  Take a shot, dump it in PS, hit the art filter button and sit back while the little magic squirrels on the wheels take control and make your work look like everyone else's.  Indeed, we can see this all over the share sites right now.  And there's a huge number of self-promotion videos in which today's acknowledged instant photo celebrities show you have to look like them...

It's not so easy in the second camp.  It requires shooting and shooting and looking and shooting.  And watching the natural evolution of a style that is demonstrably both yours and long term at the same time.  And it may be nothing like what you expected when you started.  There is value to playing scales and learning method but it's all just filling time if all you ever do is sit around playing the opening measures of "Stairway to Heaven" for the rest of your life.

Nabokov became rich and well known by writing like Nabokov.  None of the rest of a generation of Nabokov imitators made it out of the gates.  The style that counts is the style that comes over years and decades, not the one you can get out of can.

I'm still working on mine.  But it's one of those miserable Zen things.  If you focus on style it eludes you.  It only works when you forget to work on style and just respond to the things you attract to the front of your camera......

A rare portrait of me by Ellis Vener, Monday.

A rare look at a crusty blogger.  ©2010 Ellis Vener.   In my front yard....

I've known photographer and writer, Ellis Vener, for......decades.  We were in school at the same time at UT and we intersected at the Ark Cooperative Darkroom pretty regularly.  Ellis moved to Atlanta from Houston a while ago and he's doing well with both his commercial photography business (http://www.ellisvener.com)  and as a writer and equipment reviewer for Professional Photographer Magazine.

He's in Austin this week and dropped by my studio to pick up a tripod.  He does these incredibly complex image assemblages (far beyond a typical stitched panorama....) and he needed some stout sticks.  I lent him the big, black Berlebach tripod.  Like a consummate pro, he brought his own tripod head.....

As is our habit, we sat around the studio and swapped stories about outrageous bids, even more outrageous clients and equipment nerd stuff.  When the conversation slowed down Ellis announced that he was sporting some new technology and wanted to try it out on me.  Here's the technospeek about the technique used to do the portrait, above:  http://www.fredmiranda.com/forum/topic/919822

The new TTL Pocket Wizards have the capability of giving your Canon camera's FP flash sync at much higher shutter speeds than before.  Interestingly enough, it's a technique that rewards flashes with fairly long burn times.  We hauled out the Profoto 600b with a head and a small Elinchrom shoot thru, umbrella modifier and headed toward the stone wall the runs along the street at the front of the property.  Goal:  Get portrait with cool, out of focus sky.

After some playing around Ellis added a backlight from a Canon 580 EX2, also equipped with one of the Pocket Wizard TTL transceivers.  We found that solid, Texas live oaks can block radio signals but we eventually get everything worked out.

Ellis was shooting with a Canon 1D mk4 (a camera I am very interested in) and the new 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens.  Fun to watch another photographer at work from the point of view of the subject.  However, as it was close to 100(f) in the shade we quickly headed back into the cool, dark cave that is the studio.

See the shirt?  It's one of the Ex Officio technical shirts doing its job and keeping me from sweating.  Now if I could only figure out why Ellis PhotoShopped my hair gray........ (humor intended.  Signal provided for the painfully serious....).

This is a great way to try out product.  I don't have to invest anything till I see how it works, what the tradeoffs are and how I might be able to use it.  Another fun topic of conversation was the Paul Buff, Einstein monolights.  Ellis showed me some great footage he'd done using the 10 fps of his Canon 1dmk4 along with the fast recycle of the Einstein.  Cobbled together from hundreds of jpegs into a Quicktime movie-----it was an eye opener and presages yet another paradigm shift.

Say what you will about Paul Buff but he is single-handedly keeping an entire industry on its toes.......

On the calendar today,  Young Ben will be pressed into service as an assistant for another Dr. shoot out on a ranch.  I have high hopes for something as fun as the Dr. feeding the baby deer shot I showed a week or so ago.  We'll see how the boy does as a videographer and general assist.