I met some friends recently who are also keen photographers. One had scored well in a competition with a wildlife image and she said to me grinning “I’m not surprised it did well – it’s a Jo Knight picture”. In other words it looked like something I would have shot.
The one thing successful artists have in common is a unique style. When you see a Monet you know it’s a Monet, and equally when I see a Brooke Shaden photo I know it’s a Brooke Shaden photo. It’s difficult to say exactly how you know, you just know. I’m sure you can technically break down a Monet into its component parts such as brush strokes and tonal range, but on the whole it’s an over-all feel that you can’t quite put your finger on but is nevertheless apparent.
Successful photographers don’t set out to create a style. It’s not a forced part of the creative process but develops naturally as part of their vision. When you pour your heart and soul into creating something it will inevitably contain a part of who you are. What makes you authentically you.
Despite the advantages of having a unique style which sets you apart, many up-and-coming artists feel pressure to conform. To fit in and be like everyone else. I remember submitting my images for the DPAGB distinction and one of the critiques of my pictures was that they were too colourful. Slightly over-saturated. And when I tried to explain that that was how I experienced life, ie in glorious technicolour, I was told that I wasn’t making pictures for myself I was making them for my audience and the judges! Which wasn’t true. I create because I love to create – the fact that anyone likes my photographs is just the icing on the cake.
I’ve been told not to sit my portrait models face on to the camera, and also been frequently told that my images are of similar subject matter and I should broaden my horizons and not get “stuck in a rut”. Would we have told Lowry not to paint so many working class match-stick people and to have a go at still life instead? (actually, we probably would but I hope he would have ignored us!).
I follow one photographer on social media and that is all. The reason being that when I view other people’s images, especially those I greatly admire, I find myself subconsciously trying to emulate either their style or subject matter and I lose myself in the process. While I can find inspiration in other people’s pictures, they actually muddy my own creative waters and can make it more difficult to create not less. I have to trust my own vision and follow my own unique path, creating images which are anchored in my own experience and not based on someone else’s viewpoint.
Being authentic isn’t necessarily easy, however – IIRC Van Gogh only sold 1 painting during his lifetime and died in poverty! There are those who aren’t going to “get it” and you will be criticized for not conforming, or not being technically perfect, or encouraged to change things up. But if your images are your passion and every one contains a little bit of who you authentically are you’ve created successfully and that’s all you can really ask of yourself.
Critics say that nothing is original anymore, it’s all been done before, but it’s categorically not true. No-one sees the world in exactly the same way you do, or has had exactly the same experiences as you, or shares your unique outlook. Like Lowry, my heritage is northern and working class but I have none of his experience of industry, and although I’m a composite, self-portrait artist my images don’t reflect Brooke’s dark and often tortured view of the world.
We are all unique and it is the sharing of my individual experiences and views through my art which makes my images authentically mine, and the sharing of your individual experiences and views through your art which makes your images authentically yours. It takes courage to bare your soul and put something of yourself ‘out there’, but you will never be lost following your own path particularly if the steps are taken with joy and passion.