In all art forms; music, writing, architecture, photography, whatever; originality and innovation are the things that produce the best works from the best artists. A lot of advice on how to improve your art focusses on technical and technological aspects; often with a cursory “develop your own style” thrown in somewhere. It’s a difficult thing to explain or teach: how do you develop your vision or style? And how do you know if you’ve found it?
Street photographer Nick Turpin has written a good blog post about this very notion. He suggests that taking lots of pictures over a long period of time and selecting the most striking images helps your vision emerge naturally. While this makes sense, I’ve always found that the best way to do something is to know how not to do it. Turpin suggests avoiding copying: “As soon as you adopt others’ strategies in the street you start to blinker your own natural vision”.
This makes sense for all art forms. There’s a fine line between influence and imitation; practice and product. It’s easy to admire work and then try to emulate it and there’s nothing wrong with it. Hunter S. Thompson copied out The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms to learn how to write – but his writing (and photographs) are him; his personality, not Fitzgerald’s or Hemingway’s.
It’s personality that interests me and it’s the factor I think most influences the artist’s vision or photographer’s eye. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky, known mostly for research into cognitive development, suggested artistic and aesthetic experiences are the result of catharsis. Catharsis being, in Vygotsky’s words: “the explosive response which culminates in the discharge of emotions”. When the photographer takes a picture, their emotions at the time show in the image – confidence, fear, tension and humour can all become apparent.
I see photographs as a window to the photographer’s mind, not just the scene they were looking at. Bruce Gilden, although controversial, is honest about this aspect of photography. In the above interview he says: “what makes a good photographer is, you photograph who you are”, adding later “I was always aggressive, I was always in your face, so, y’know, that’s what my imagery is about”.
And he’s right, his don’t-give-a-f**k New York attitude both shapes the way he works and the pictures he takes; his vision is uniquely his, because he is uniquely being himself – up close, “in your face” and ballsy. A lot of people disagree with Gilden, his ethics and his pictures. Recently, photographer Joel Meyerowitz said of Gilden: “He’s a f**king bully. I despise the work, I despise the attitude”.
Avoiding the obvious Gilden-argument, it’s interesting that the two have photographed the same place for so many years, but with such different results. Meyerowitz is much more relaxed and anticipatory, as you can see in the above video, while Gilden is intrusive and provocative. The personality differences, to me, come over when you compare a Gilden to a Meyerowitz. Yet, most importantly, you can see how their artistic vision is shaped by who they are.
Another good example of this is Saul Leiter. In this trailer for aptly titled film “In No Great Hurry” Leiter says, “I see no reason for being in a rush… many of the things people worry about are not really worth worrying about”. As you can see, he’s neither serious nor pensive like Gilden and Meyerowitz – he just likes to take pictures. If you couple his attitudes with his experiences in painting, you’re left with a unique style of photograph; something relaxed, care-free and non-invasive – much like Leiter himself.
I realize I’ve only spoken about street photographers – it’s to make my point. Gilden, Meyerowitz and Leiter are all street photographers who regularly photograph Manhattan, New York. Their visions and approaches are unique, even idiosyncratic, but reflect the differences in their personalities and experiences.
But this is the same with everyone and everyone is different. As John Free said, in a recent video, “tension; the tension is caused, usually, by fear and not having an understanding, really, of what we’re doing”. I think it’s this tension that hinders the development of a style or a vision. It could be the fear that your style isn’t good, or that your pictures look nothing like the greats. But if you look at Gilden, Meyerowitz and Leiter, they have no fear in photography; they know what they want to do and how to do it. There’s no discrepancy between what they photograph and what they think they should photograph.
There is truth in the idea that personality shapes creative and artistic preferences and some psychological research has shown this. One study looked at personality factors and preferences for different painting styles. The results showed that those more open to different and unconventional experiences preferred emotionally positive and more complex paintings. Interestingly, more neurotic individuals preferred paintings with more negative emotion.
Another study by psychologist David Rawlings supported these findings and also looked at preferences for the pleasantness of photographs. His findings showed how neurotic people disliked pleasant photographs. He reasoned that, like people with depression, neurotics prefer to engage with something similar to their state of mind, something more relatable. It’s a suggestive insight into how your personality can direct your preferences and possibly your vision.
The research also found that sex is a contributor in preference for photographs. Rawlings says that the gender differences in liking unpleasant photographs are a manifestation of the same gender differences that correlate with aggressive behaviours and violent crime rates. Presumably this is why the aggressive Gilden takes more aggressive pictures and the calmer Meyerowitz takes calmer pictures.
What I’m trying to show is that personality affects your artistic preferences and ultimately the art you make – and it relates to all art, artists and photographers. Isn’t the most pretentious art always made by the most pretentious people? If there is tension, like John Free says, and you emulate someone else’s work; are you emulating their personality?
It’s a difficult, even philosophical thing to talk about, so I’m not saying all this as someone who professes to have found their style or vision, or someone who has the answer. I’m saying this as someone who is often more interested by the photographers themselves than their actual pictures, and as someone trying to learn. But, I think it’s like every loving mother who can talk, has said: “just be yourself”. Isn’t that your style or voice?