Several years back, I wrote an article titled “What Every Aspiring Photographer Should Know.”  One of the points in that article was this:

Never apologize for your own sense of beauty.  Nobody can tell you what you should love.  Do what you do brazenly and unapologetically.  You cannot build your sense of aesthetics on a consensus.

While people tend to nod in agreement when they read that, I’m not sure many people really know what to do with it.

I am convinced the “art by consensus” problem is more rampant today than it’s ever been.  There are lots of contributing factors, but one is far and away the leader:  the Internet.  It’s a wonderful tool for learning, communication, and entertainment, and I rarely go a day without it.  The trouble is that it’s led to the homogenization of the arts.  It’s just so easy to look at what everyone else is doing and mimic it.  It’s particularly dangerous for new photographers who have not yet found their artistic voice.  Looking at site after site of portrait photography somehow drives home the point that “this is what portrait photography is, and this is how you’re supposed to do it.”  For professional photographers who rely on their work for income, it also sends the message that “this is what clients want, and therefore you must do it.”

To compound that problem, we have ubiquitous props, actions, backgrounds, all things that are universal.  Anyone who wants them can have them.  And it’s so very easy to want it when you see it on every other photographer’s site.

Unless you are an exceptionally strong-willed and self-aware artist, it’s very difficult to avoid becoming one of the herd.  But it is possible, and I would propose that as artists, it is our responsibility.

So how do we even begin?  Here are some thoughts.

Seek other influences.

Rather than looking at your peers’ sites, look at paintings, sculptures, movies, drawings, anything in the visual arts.  Look at photography if you must, but nothing in the modern portrait genre; it’s too similar and can lead to inadvertent copying.  Make your brain work.  Figure out what speaks to you and what doesn’t, then ask yourself why.  Look at a piece long enough to identify what you appreciate about it, and work with that.

I love Rocky Schenck’s work.  I had already started playing with heavy filtration and fuzzy focus when I came across his work.  It immediately spoke to me.  It is so atmospheric and conveys such intimacy, like a close, personal memory.  It’s both nostalgic and also timeless, and it makes me feel that the photographer is both a dreamy and well grounded.  He makes every scene feel special.  While I had already been playing with similar techniques, his images gave me more of an understanding of what I was trying to convey.  I took those principles and applied them to my own work in a more conscious way.  It opened my mind up and helped me push further into my own voice.

Have at least one personal project at all times.

And I don’t mean photographing your own family.  Think about what moves you as a person, something deeply important to you, and start there.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a positive or a negative thing; the subject matter, as long is it moves you, is unimportant.  If you can’t think of anything, you can start by picking an emotion (contentment, worry, longing, etc) and find as many creative ways to convey that emotion as you can.

The importance of personal projects is that they give you the opportunity to experiment without fearing failure.  Try crazy things.  I’ve shot through plastic bags, sunglasses, and my infamous sh!t filter, I’ve oil painted onto photographs, I’ve torn up prints and taped them back together, drawn on and burned negatives, and toned prints with coffee, tea, wine, whatever was on hand.  Invent new ways to “fail”.  You’ll have a lot of fun, and in the process you’ll get a much clearer picture (no pun intended) of what moves you, and how to communicate it.

Now, there are two “rules” to make this work.  First, do not google search experiments other people have done.  Come up with your own ideas.  And second, do NOT post your experimental images for critique!  Don’t do it.  It defeats the purpose.  Remember, you are on a quest to be unique and fearless as an artist; you cannot do that with one eye on the critics.

This image was a total one-off.  It’s a paper inter-negative transfer, a long darkroom process involving modifying and interpreting an image via pencil shadings on the back of the print.  This image was shot in flat light in broad daylight, and then turned into a night scene.  All of the dress detail and much of the foliage were drawn in, and the lighting was modified by hand.  Blue toner completed the mood.  No Photoshop was involved.

Talk to or read about artists who have a very distinctive style, or who were instrumental in shaping his or her art form.

It’s inspiring and encouraging reading about how other artists stuck to their own sense of beauty, when others didn’t “get” it.  Not sure where to start?  The Impressionists, whose work was laughed at by “proper” painters of the time, are great role models.  They stayed true to their vision, and it changed the art world.

Here are a few more suggestions:

  1. Zosia Zija is a Polish photographer who has a very distinct look and feel to her work.  She is a master of the imperfect, allowing all sorts of “distractions” into her scenes, and still making a strong statement.
  2. Dima Zverev (particularly his art personal galleries) is a modern Russian photographer with a knack for perfect timing.  He can photograph anything from cows to people to children playing in a fountain, and still maintain his signature style.
  3. Irving Penn, a renegade in his time for using stark grey or white backgrounds and extreme minimalism.
  4. Richard Avedon, whose early work went entirely against the standard of posed and static fashion work.  He was the first to emphasize his subjects’ personalities in his works.
  5. Sarah Moon, whose work is best found by googling “Sarah Moon photography.”  She is an excellent example of a photographer whose personal work (complete with sandpapered negatives and chemical spills) translates directly into, for example, the cover of Vogue magazine.  Her color work is particularly beautifully strange; you’d never mistake her work for anyone else’s.
  6. Jill Tracy, and her cult classic video to the song, The Fine Art of Poisoning.  Yes, it’s creepy, but talk about having a distinctive and recognizable style!
  7. The movie Amelie.  The whole movie is a feast of visual art, and is, in my opinion, a rare example of emotive cinematography.

Learn to apply all of this to your client work.

Erase the line between your “art” and your “work”.  Do it as slowly as you need as long as you’re always pushing toward that goal.  Do not be afraid of standing out.  If you’re wondering why I chose to list mostly photographers above, it’s because each and every one of those photographers have client and personal works that are nearly interchangeable.  They’re great examples of artists who have remained true to their vision, and have attracted clients who appreciate their work.

When you do decide to put your work out there for public comment, be very careful whom you listen to.  Art is supposed to be subjective; that means not everyone will like or understand it.  I would far rather have ten people who adore and understand my work, than a hundred who think it’s nice.  It’s easy to get wrapped up in how many comments your images receive online, but you cannot judge your work that way.  (If you’re shooting images specifically according to what gets you the most comments, it’s time to take a break from posting images.)

You might be thinking that this all sounds intimidating.  Well, it certainly can be at first.  It can be overwhelming, but once you get started, it gets a lot easier, and becomes a way of life.  Remember that you are an artist, not a picture taker, and enjoy the journey.

Photography tutorial by CJ Nicolai.