A few days ago, I touched on the first of the thought provoking questions I am asked: “What do you like to shoot?” Today, I would like to talk a bit about the second--and more esoteric--question: “What’s your style?”
The question of style is a difficult one because describing anyone's style is, at best, subjective. However, I found that I had an even more difficult time defining my own style because I never thought my photography fell into any one instantly recognizable category. I've told people on numerous occasions that it's often easier to say what I am by describing what I'm not: I’m not a portrait photographer; I’m not a studio photographer; I’m not a wedding photographer; I’m not a stock photographer. If pressed to put a label on my work, I often say I’m a “fine-art photographer.” But even that sounded too vague…and still didn’t answer the question, “What is your style?”
After healthy does of reflection and consideration--as well as a chance viewing of a documentary--I began to formulate a response with which I am more pleased. First, the chance viewing. Late one evening, I happened to stumble upon a documentary about the founding and growth of the Second City improvisation theater. The more I watched, the more I began to think. They discussed how doing improvisational comedy was inherently different than doing scripted work. But they also discussed that it isn't just throwing out concepts and ideas willy-nilly. This got me thinking, which led to the aforementioned reflection and consideration.
As with improv, my photographic style is, in fact, structured even though it may not initially seem so. I operate under a set of guidelines, within parameters, and with an eye toward a particular result. I don't merely take my camera, swing it around, and start clicking. I look for things that are interesting and which excite my sensibilities. I then compose based upon my ever-developing preferences. I like bold colors. I like asymmetry (but not overt asymmetry). I like juxtapositions. I like visual tension. I like to take everyday items and situations and isolate them, giving them a new context with which to view them (see the post below for a more detailed explanation).
The improvisational aspect comes from the fact that when I head out to make photographs, I do not head out with any particular shots in mind. Instead, I head out with my constructs and see what fits into them. Improvisational performers may begin a scene with merely an idea or word, but they are not entering into the performance empty handed. They use improvisational ideas, guidelines, and conventions to build up the scene.
And like improvisational performances, sometimes this works for me, sometimes it doesn't. However, it's this experience and process that keeps me moving, growing, and developing. In essence, the most vital aspect of improvisational photography is that it keeps me open to possibilities. Rather than forcing a scene into my lens, I try to find a way to open my lens up (metaphorically speaking). And rather than relying upon an elaborate set-up (think of a script for a performer), I explore the environment around me for photographic nuggets (think discovering a scene through improvisation). When it's right and things are really clicking, it's an amazing feeling. But when I'm out of sync, it can lead to a very long day.
Often, it takes me a while to get warmed up, to work a scene. I look at it, play with it, explore it. I learn a bit more with each exposure. I build upon the information the scene gives me. Of course, there is always the possibility that I over-work a scene. I've returned from a photo shoot with too many exposures and too many ways of looking at a subject. As a result, the true essence gets diluted and lost. I think we've all seen an improvisational scene that goes on way too long.
An exciting aspect of approaching photography in this way is developing an openness to the happy accidents. By not looking for anything in particular, I can see so many things. I can stumble across a cowboy hat in a gutter or a giant puppet in front of a sculpture. This openness also leads to a particular rhythm in my work. A photograph of a yellow dumpster hangs naturally next to a photograph of a bowling alley sign, which hangs next to a photo of water dripping from a bamboo pipe, and so on. There's an internal rhythm that holds them all together, and the rhythm comes from the process.
Improvisation doesn't mean creating in a vacuum. It is an exploration within a framework. It is working without a road map but understanding that there are rules of the road as well as a starting point and a destination. And as I begin to layer metaphor upon metaphor, I will push away my keyboard, pick up my camera, and head out to who-knows-where.