Style and Influences

Learning from others to improve my photography

Sometimes I find myself preoccupied with considerations about photographic style, and whether I need to have “a style” at all. I recall one of my favorite photographers, Thomas Heaton, saying something like “why limit yourself to one kind of photography, especially if you enjoy taking different kinds of images?”

But I can’t help but feel that I should develop a particular voice or perspective in my photography; choose a distinctive path that might resonate more strongly with viewers. Maybe that’s putting the cart before the horse. How can I identify and emphasize the characteristics or qualities that make my photos clearly mine? What kinds of characteristics or qualities do I want in my photos?

Guy Tal, photographic artist and prolific essayist, recommends treading with caution here. He suggests that once you have chosen or achieved a style, you’re dead in the water as an artist. You’re telling yourself you have nowhere left to go, and nothing left to say if you can’t study the work of others, and allow your own art to change and evolve. It runs quite contrary to the spirit of creating art to create an artificial ending to your own story.

I used to resist being “influenced” too much by other artists. That’s an understandable position given the insane deluge of high quality images available online. The sheer volume and the ease of scrolling through hundreds of technically perfect images is desensitizing. What starts as inspiration quickly turns uglier. Sometimes I felt I had no original thoughts of my own, and that my work would never stand out. As the saying goes, “comparison is the thief of joy.”

In fact, there are great benefits of viewing the work of others. Whether it’s photography or some other art form; in a gallery, on the street, or, yes, online; taking in outside stimuli leads to everything from simple appreciation to genuine inspiration. The exchange of ideas is always happening in a thousand different ways. I’ve been conscious about being more open to this, and I’d like to share a few artists that have been inspiring me in the past year or two.

Adrian Vila

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What I like about Adrian’s photographs is their very purposeful stylistic choices. These are, primarily, the use of black and white; a square compositional frame; and an embrace of “flaws” (e.g. grain, imperfect focus, under- or over-exposure in certain parts of the image). Combined with the skill of the photographer, these choices lend the photographs a sense of timelessness and drama.

Way back in graduate school, I learned the value that constraints bring to a project. They help you control scope and challenge you to find solutions within a set of parameters. By adhering to their stylistic choices, Adrian can focus on compositions that fit with their requirements.

Looking at their images makes me think a lot about how black and white photography forces a more careful consideration of light, tone and contrast. Right now, I always photograph in color. But thanks to Adrian, I’m much more likely to key in on certain qualities and think to myself “This will make a great black and white image.”

Something I like to keep in mind, though, is that Adrian still makes other kinds of photos – snapshots, panoramas, color, film. It’s just that they’ve created a style that works well for them, and in which they want to present their best work.

Christopher Long

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Here’s another artist who works primarily in a square format. I’m drawn to paintings that have kind of chunky brush strokes – the kind where you can really see the texture, thickness and dimension of the paint itself. Christopher’s sweeping skies feel big even on a 6″ x 6″ canvas. This is in part due to their confidence in placing the land or water elements quite low in the frame. That technique is really interesting to me, as someone who can be a little too reliant on the rule of thirds.

I also love their use of color. The most dramatic and interesting sky colors in photography are often rare and always fleeting. Choosing your color palette alongside your composition must be freeing, yet I can also see how it would introduce an entire host of other decisions to make.

Paul Bailey

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I’d like to say Paul uses unconventional compositions for landscapes, however I’m sure they probably just seem unconventional to me. But they definitely like to play with devoting large sections of the frame to either land, sky or water, leaving a smaller space for the rest of the image than you’d think would work. The paintings feel minimal or abstract with surprising color accents. I really enjoy the abstraction of landscape elements and clouds into lines, blocks and angles. They’re also just as likely to paint in a vertical format as a horizontal one, which I appreciate – some of my own photos I like most have a vertical composition.

I don’t have anything approaching a photographic memory. So I think sometimes the impression or feeling of a scene gets a strong response from me, because it’s kind of how my own memory works. That’s something I’d like to work into my photographs for sure.