Audience, Purpose, Style

Audience, Purpose, Style

The holy grail for many photographers is to be able to develop a distinctive Style. But the idea of a “style” seems elusive and perhaps a little too abstract for most people to comprehend.

What does it mean to have a style?

Morning bathers on the ghats in Varanasi, India.

Let’s look at this word as it pertains to, say, fashion and writing.

In the world of fashion, a “style” is a particular look; the way in which this look is created through an assembly of accoutrements and accessories, and which says something about the person wearing them. 

In writing, “style” pertains to the way words can be used together to form a means of expression unique to the writer. The same applies to artists. We have all heard the phrase “in the style of” when it comes to art.

In photography, we tend to get bogged down by this thing called the camera, and all its complicated technicalities, that we forget that it is only a tool and that we have, in our control, a whole range of decisions that can be assembled to express a particular pictorial style.

And if we are going to be making decisions as to how we put together a picture, then it’s important to consider AUDIENCE and PURPOSE as well, and how these connect with our mission to develop our own STYLE.

Black and white photo of morning bathers in Kolkata, India.

In thinking about AUDIENCE, we ask ourselves who we’re producing the images for — the end of line consumer of the photographs we make. It need not be commercial (eg. a specific customer, or for a particular job); it could be wholly personal — you’re making pictures for yourself. That’s  you as audience.

There should also be a PURPOSE for your picture making. It doesn’t need to be a mechanical or banal purpose (again, taking pictures for a job or a customer); in fact, the best images tend to be created when the purposes are a lot more personal and driven from the heart (or the imagination). You could be taking photographs for your own enjoyment and joy. Or you could be making photographs to tell a particular story or to share a thought or idea about the subject.

Audience and Purpose provide the framework of why we do it and who we’re doing it for. They influence the Style you develop: the actual decisions you make as you take the photo, and the decisions you make when you work on the photo (either in the analog or digital darkroom). 
Your style is the the way you put your images together that is unique to the way you see the world and the way you represent it. You’re drawing from a whole range of elements and options to create images, guided by your sense of Purpose and awareness of an Audience for your images. You are making deliberate but creative decisions to do with angle, exposure, composition, lighting and more, and you’re making these decisions in a way that is uniquely you.

Ocean view at inflatable rescue boat.

Now, it doesn’t mean that no one else can mimic your style (there’s a long history of homaging in the art world, so style-copying is not new) and there’s perhaps something quite flattering in someone else “copying” your style (what is it that they say is the sincerest form of flattery?). But — let’s face it — you can never develop your own style if you’re just mimicking someone else’s, because you’re not making any decisions when it comes to the putting together of the final image.

And I can’t emphasise this enough — you don’t “grow” as a photographer if you emulate the works of others. You may learn how to be a good counterfeiter, which may give you an impressive grasp of the most technical aspects of photography, but the facsimile images aren’t yours. Not truly. Not where it counts.

As the great cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, said:

“If you imitate me… you don’t live the life I’ve had. So why would you bother? If you imitate me… then you’ll just be making another of the 10,000 people wanting to make films… But if you learn in your own way, if you are true to yourself, maybe. It will take a while. It took me ten years before I felt, ‘Okay, I feel I know what I’m doing.’ But if you don’t take the journey… you’re just A-B-C-D in the line-up. Why would they choose you over someone else, unless you have a certain vision, attitude, panache?”

Audience. Purpose. Style. The act of photography is deliberate, conscious, expressive and unique to you.

The worst thing you can do is to press the shutter button without having thought things through first, without  having made deliberate (or instinctive) decisions about the way you want to create the image. Without giving the opportunity to be your personal expression.

So, here is your challenge for 2021 (in the words of Mission Impossible, “should you choose to accept it”) — embrace Audience and Purpose in your photography and use this to develop your Style. It’s not some ephemeral, arty “thing” that floats around in the stratosphere and is accessed only by the inspired Illuminati… Style is awareness, decisive, personal, expressive and completely do-able!

Fremantle Sunset
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