Desperately seeking (authentic) photographic voice!
July 4, 2016
Just like at the glorious heart-racing beginning of a love affair, everything can be shiny, new and exciting when you first get serious about photography. It’s easy to get sucked in by the novelty of it, and by the satisfaction of having the results of engagement with the chosen one reflected back. Just like the beginning of love, the world appears to expand and you open yourself up to it and try everything. Joy comes from new experiences.
And then, after the passion subsides a little, maybe there is sober second thought. How much of what you did with shiny glowing eyes was in fact you? And how much was just done for the rush; thoroughly enjoyable at the time, but no more you than the ridiculous shoes you wore because she liked them? What is authentic and lasting? And what is ephemeral and frothy, like foamed cucumber mousse – delicious but ultimately empty?
You can look at the portfolio of many photographers and see the first stage of development at play. Not that there aren’t any good photos in the collection but, perhaps from a perspective elevated by experience, it seems strangely unsatisfying and incoherent as a whole. You don’t get any insight into the person behind the lens, other than that they are prolific, have wide ranging tastes, sometimes hit a home run, but often produce work that is curiously deficient or without impact.
Equally, there are photographers whose work you can identify at a glance, and where the body of work swells up like a giant focused wave. You may like it or not, but undeniably there is a passion evident and a clear sense of the voice of that person. Some examples (both well known and less discovered) that I am familiar with in my field of people photography and that evoke that reaction in me might be Candice Zugich (The Blissful Maven http://www.theblissfulmaven.com), Brook Shaden (http://www.brookeshaden.com), Amanda Diaz (http://amandadiaz.com/) Julie Laurin (http://julielaurin.com/) and Chiara Fersini (Himitsuana photography http://www.himitsuhana.com).
Why does it matter?
There is certainly an argument for consistency of voice if you are doing photography for money. In a market brimming over with competition, there is little appeal in a “we specialize in everything” approach. How do you distinguish yourself from others, and give the market a clear indication of what you offer if your work is all over the map. “Jack of all trades, master of none” comes to mind. Consistency is not the same as authenticity, though, and I will return to this theme later
If you are doing photography primarily for the joy of it, though, why care about voice? It’s true that many seem to be happy just grazing a smorgasbord of ideas and approaches, or simply like the geeky part of photography with its never-ending search for technical perfection. But if you do photography to express yourself, focusing on what moves you or resonates with you is critical for satisfaction once the honeymoon period ends.
Speaking for myself, I have a great need to clarify my voice, as I see photography as a way to express myself creatively. I don’t have the mechanical dexterity to paint or sculpt, nor the patience either to create in these mediums. I want to grow and express myself better through photography, to create art that moves people. I see authenticity of voice as a homing beacon, helping me to focus energy on something that matters to me and will reflect me. Off topic, I can still produce workmanlike images. They do not move me, and aren’t what I want to communicate.
What do I mean by “authentic voice”?
I’m not sure if there’s an official definition, nor one that is simple and indisputable, of “authentic voice”. What I mean by it is that the work you produce speaks of inner parts of you, is recognizable, relates to the audience you are after – and that in producing the work, you feel totally engaged and proud to show it. The work you produce is in your language and tells your story in some way.
The true test of authenticity is an internal one. However, from an external perspective, where people see this voice and it resonates with them, they will connect with it in more than a cursory fashion. It will speak to them.
Of course, a challenge is that there is no magic test, no buzzer that goes off to tell you that your work is aligned. There will be many false starts where you think you are being authentic, but later see it was just a staging post. But getting positive signals on the journey are perhaps why we can stand the process. If we always thought of work as we do in reflection later on its failings, what would drive us to continue?
It’s not just a photography issue
Being married to a working artist I have an extended engagement in the world of art in general. Far from being a “photography” issue, the need for authentic voice is a common theme across artists. Some of the mechanisms for evoking that voice in portfolios are obviously different. The need to focus to sell, and to be authentic to deliver work that engages – those are common.
Does it mean numbing consistency?
Perhaps one of the most insidious beliefs regarding authentic voice and focus is that some interpret that to mean doing the same thing time and time again. People are not static: they evolve. So should anything that is authentic. Doing the same thing forever is a facile mockery of “voice”. I see a number of photographers that follow this, to me, vacuous path. Presumably the thinking is that is it works (and sells), don’t change it. But as you evolve, it becomes more a reflection of the past and not of who you are becoming. How can you not die a little inside as time goes on if you keep on that path?
You can see evolution in photographers even though there is an authenticity to their work. New series open up new insights. As an example, take a look at Julie Laurin’s work over time (http://julielaurin.com/). It is the same with good painters, both contemporary and past. You can still see it’s “them” even as their subject matter and style changes over time.
Inauthenticity and the plague of presets and actions
Just as there are no shortcuts to enlightenment (I am reminded of the week long self realization tours that sprung up after the success of “Eat, Pray, Love”), there are no shortcuts to finding voice. Some, however, see only the surface of “voice” reflected in consistency. I am sure the success of Lightroom preset packages and Photoshop actions tie somewhat to this quick fix mentality. I see so many photographers flock to use the popular packages like VSCO and LXC, mostly as is, with little judgment. Yes, their photos have consistency. The consistency is with the creators of the presets more than, maybe, their own voice.
I have nothing against presets as such – indeed I use many as the starting point for interpreting my images. But as a starting point only, and to reflect what I feel the image should be saying. Not as a simple solution that fits all concepts and images.
Copying others that you like (another common path for new photographers) is also not a quick fix for finding your voice. You might be inspired by them, but copying style, wardrobe, processing makes you an inferior clone, rather than reflecting your own vision. Some experienced and respected photographers (e.g. Cole Thompson) even go so far as saying never look at the work of others, as it clouds your own vision. That’s an extreme stance, but better to absorb the feelings that work inspires, and try to understand why and what it means for what you want to say, than to blindly emulate the surface representation.
Getting to authentic voice
Just as there are no shortcuts, neither, I think, are there formulaic ways to grow into your voice. The process, and the speed with which you progress, will vary depending on you, and the drive you have to grow.
I’m about to return to a retreat that I attended last year to reflect on my path. I look at my photography and see evolution and sparks of me coming out, but I also recognize that there is often a veil and sometimes I end up doing work that really does not resonate. It’s hard to focus, especially in what I do which involves the interaction with other people (models, MUAs) and their needs and desires, and given my natural tendency to appease.
I am developing ideas for overall strategies to develop voice, and after the retreat, I will maybe share my evolving perspectives in another blog entry. But as an introduction to that, the next thing to follow this will, perhaps, be a description of my journey to date on this path.
For now, I’d be interested to know what you think …