My Kingdom for a Voice
Written by Katt Janson Merilo
You shouldn’t read this article. There will be no happy endings or satisfactory resolution. It poses problems without solution, and offers you no advice whatsoever. Among the wildfire of online articles that claim to guide you safely through artistic turmoil soothed and unscathed, I am interested only in fanning the flames. The problem, you see, is that I have no voice. My photography is completely bereft of a unique style, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
This might not seem like a terrible thing; just keep shooting until I figure it out, right? At least that’s what every photography blog on the internet tells me to do. “Go out there and shoot everyday, kiddo. You’ll find your style like I found mine. Eventually.” Well, I’m tired of waiting for eventually to come. Not having a vision for my photography feels like writing a book with nothing to say. Without a point, I won’t even get started. I crave direction and with a whole store full of cameras at my disposal it’s hard not to get distracted.
In my writing I never have to think much about my voice. I realized early on that any narrative I wrote always came out with a lighthearted and optimistic tone, even when everyone died in the end. The thought that I could choose and shape my voice—or style—over time was not something that occurred to me. As I’ve traveled further down the photography rabbit hole, however, I’ve found that it isn’t quite that simple. With many different looks and styles available to me, I am able to make a choice. I usually like being able to choose (and I’m a rather choosy person) but having this much freedom is almost stifling.
Luckily though, there are as many potential mentors for me at Blue Moon as there are cameras to learn. I’ve started looking more and more at my coworkers’ work. Of everyone at the store, I probably most discuss my search for style with Jake. As many of you know, Jake recently delivered an entire lecture on his work, process, and style, which you can read here. He told me one day he was going to teach me large format and while my first thought was “great, another film type to distract me from my self-discovery”, it is a format I have ended up really enjoying. After a few months of shooting 4×5 though, most of the work I’m producing now looks suspiciously like Jake’s. Oops.
Now, Jake has style. There’s a mood his photographs capture that is hard to overlook or recreate. He occasionally dismisses this as “taking the same photograph over and over” but that isn’t the case. While I (unconsciously) mimic some key aspects of his portraiture work, my photographs will likely never be mistaken for a Jake Shivery; there’s a mysterious element in his work that I can’t quite capture. The one photograph of mine that comes the closest to his is probably my favorite piece of my own work so far, which is telling. Clearly I like Jake’s style, but it’s Jake’s, not mine.
Naturally, both respect and the desire to be an original motivate me to stay away from straight mimesis of a mentor’s work. But there’s something else that pulls me away from enrolling completely in the Jake Shivery school of photography: I want to do more than large format portraiture. It’s important that someone does it, and does it well, but I have too many interests pulling me in different directions. I’d never have the self-discipline it takes to focus on one camera, one film type, and one subject area.
Picking one thing and sticking with it has never been my forte. By the time I entered high school I’d been playing the clarinet for six years, but I was bored. I decided that what I really wanted to do was play the oboe. My director warned me that switching instruments could be detrimental to my clarinet skills, but I was determined. Soon, I added the alto sax, as well. I even added the baritone for one marching season. I had a great time with them all, but by senior year I’d lost control of the finely tuned muscles that helped make me proficient on the clarinet; I left high school a weaker clarinetist than I was when I started middle school. There go my chances of being a concert clarinetist. If I’m honest with myself, I can image something similar happening with my photography.
I know I get distracted. I know that, after a year or two or maybe even six, I’m going to want to do something different. If I focus on portraits now, I’m certain that in a few years I’ll never want to take another portrait again. And what then? Will I put all this effort into building my image and my style just to eventually and inevitably have to start all over again when I get bored?
Style takes discipline. And it’s my fear that, at the end of the day, style might be a limitation. Even the most loose and carefree of photography blogs on style, the ones that tell you to go forth and shoot anything and everything, do warn you that eventually you’ll have to choose. One day you’ll have to commit to a camera, a film type, a subject, a composition, something, or you’ll never be taken seriously as a photographer. They all sound just like my high school band director.
But there might be another way. One day at the scanner, I heard Jake walk up behind me. “Are you scanning Faulkner’s work?” he asked. I was. “You want a lesson about style, you get it from Faulkner. It doesn’t matter what camera he touches, his photographs always look like his.”
That’s certainly true. In the same way that I can spot Jake’s handiwork from several feet away, I can recognize almost anything by Faulkner with no more than a passing glance. His photographs can be so varied—taken with a wide range of cameras, film types, film sizes, and subject matter—and yet all recognizably similar, like the same refrain played in a different key. Faulkner’s approach to style is vastly different from Jake’s methodical process, and yet they are both easily recognizable. I thought Faulkner might have some insight on style that would help me shed light on my own, and so I asked him about it.
“Hey Faulkner,” I said one Saturday during whiskey basketball, “what’s your photographic voice?”
“Pee-wee Herman,” he said.
“I was not expecting that.” I wasn’t.
“I think humor is very important,” he continued. “I always like it when a photograph makes me laugh. Balance between form and content is important, but there also needs to be some element that grabs you—and humor is a good one.”
I asked him if he considers himself to have a style.
“I do… but I don’t know how to explain it to you.”
And neither do I. The adaptability of Faulkner’s style impresses me: it’s certainly less limiting than what I’d been doing, but more difficult to pin down. While I know one of his photographs when I see it, I’d be hard pressed to actually describe his style. Perhaps that underlying desire to capture the moments that make him laugh is what gives his photographs a consistent look. For him, style is less about limiting your scope and more about concentrating on a consistent thought.
When I first started thinking seriously about my style, I did it with a certain air of annoyance. Why even have a style? After all, it doesn’t necessarily seem to benefit me as an artist; the individual photographs I take are not better because they resemble other photographs I’ve already taken. From the outside looking in on the art world, style seems like a categorical tool that is helpful for those people who are not the artist. Jake takes large format portraits. Vivian Maier did street photography. That one wedding photographer you’re thinking about booking does macro detail shots, while the other one takes a lot of contrast out of her photographs in post-processing. If you want to be known for your photography, you need to make it easy for people, and that means having a style.
While the creative side of me wants to rebel against this whole idea and the underlying business aspect of art, I do understand why it has to be this way. If I want to make any kind of impact on the photography world I, too, will need to limit or concentrate my efforts in some way to make my work recognizable. And though this realization doesn’t quite help me find my style, it does help to know there’s more than one way to achieve consistency in photography. So next I suppose I’ll go out, and keep shooting until I figure it all out, or I’ll say to hell with it and just shoot what I want. If it ends up looking consistent, great. If not, well, I never really wanted to be a concert clarinetist anyway.