Creating a Personal Style or Finding Identity?
“Identity cannot be found or fabricated but emerges from within when one has the courage to let go.”
| Doug Cooper
The Importance of Finding Identity
Who are you? Who are you as an artist? Many artists, including photographers, push hard to finding their own recognizable „style“. In this blog article, I look at the importance of owning a style and mirror it with the concept of identity. In the end, I’ll give some recommendations on how to find your identity and let the style find you.
What is style?
In his book on “Art History and Its Methods. A Critical Anthology” Eric Fernie characterizes style as a “[…] distinctive manner which permits the grouping of works into related categories.” Style is a unique language being consistently used by the artist over a specific time frame. Through style crafted work can immediately being affiliated to the artist. As such, style is a medium to create a positioning in a market. Style works like a stamp on crafted work that helps an audience to recognize the artist behind the work. Through consistent usage the artist will be recognized for this specific style. This increases his awareness in the market in the long run.
Often, an individual style of an artist can be grouped into a general style used by a set of artists or cultural groups at specific periods in time or locations. For example, Thomas Cole found the Hudson River School and other painters such as Asher Durand, or later Frederic Edwin Church or Albert Bierstadt joined this movement. They all focussed on discovery and exploration of the American landscape, in which human beings and nature coexist peacefully. The painters favoured atmospheric drawings with a precise look for details. Albert Bierstadt’s drawing “Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains” California from 1868 might be classified to the Hudson River School (2nd generation), but additionally with the detailed, atmospheric capture of the clouds the painting identifies it clearly as Bierstadt’s work.
In photography, especially in times of social media many have learned that certain type of photographs work better than others, i.e. saturated, colourful images of vista landscapes. Style in this understanding serves the purpose of being more successful in terms of receiving more likes.
I would therefore describe individual style as a medium to express individuality through which work can be assigned to the artist. The latter is from my point of view the only purpose style should serve.
How to create a style?
Classical art theory created the concept of aesthetics, but did not develop a coherent concept of style in the art. Style deals with the organisation, characteristics and visualisation of forms, shapes and space. Depending on the style, the visual appearance of work might be accurate and precise representing reality or it might deviate from reality expressing individual perception.
In photography, there is a plethora of tools artists use to create a style. Style may start with previsualization, the process through which art is created, the hardware being used to create it, the timing and location chosen, the subject selection, the perspective, composition and light situation to bring the subject into perspective, the editing process through which certain colors, tones and contrast are being used or not used to lead the viewers eye into the frame. Some photographers may use filters or presets as shortcuts to implement a similar perception. However, does this create a style? It certainly does, but is it artistic? For sure, filters, presets or even a similar editing process will quickly lead to an outcome that may look similar to other outcomes with little effort. But is it artistic to press a few buttons quickly changing the look of an image up until a look pleases the photographers eye?
In this short section, my emphasis was on the non-existence of a unique agreement on the concept of style. However, I do believe that style is an artistic instrument purposely and consciously used to express intent.
What is identity?
I‘d like to argue that what many photographers search is not style. Style is just a consequence of something else. This something else I’d call “identity”. What is identity, or to be more precise what is “your identity” and how can you find it?
Many, especially professional photographers do photograph also with the purpose to earn money. As such, they may function well. They know all the technical details of creating outstanding images, they are well represented in the online world, communicate well with their followers, have created a target market with clients they are talking to and are more or less successfully selling their prints, books or workshops. However, many I met are not happy. They function well, but do not live and run easily into a burnout. They strive for comfort, orientation, security, but it is identity that is missing. Through identity we find the source, sense and motivation for our living.
Identity and finding identity is not a question of fine art photography but whether you are happy as a person with the craft you create. Finding identity means discovering the balance between the outer- and the inner world.
In sum, identity create one’s sense of self through our experiences, values and memories. In addition, all the relationships we experienced or still cultivate through different social roles we played as a child, friend, partner or parent form our identity. Also our religious beliefs, moral attitudes or political opinions influence our daily choices through which we confirm our identity. What if we discover a discrepancy between who we are, who we sought to be and who we want to be? Most likely, we’d feel unhappy. However, identifying the discrepancy might be the catalyst for change.
How to find our identity?
Discovering ourselves is challenging, because we are often afraid of what we may discover. It demands courage, strength, and trust to ask elementary questions to recognize who we really are. It requires courage to cope with external barriers to stand in for who you really are. It also requires a certain level of trust that this finally is good for us. If identity is formed throughout our life, as a manifestation of our social roles, relationships, experiences, values or memories, we may quickly run into a very complex maze.
Art and especially photography is very popular these days, because it serves as a medium for many individuals who lost themselves and recognize that through their photographic process they are able to re-find themselves. Photographic therapy supports individuals to re-connect with their identity.
What are our tasks to form our identity? Well, we may want to find out our core interest and passion, pair it with a potential and skills to be further developed, stand-in for your purpose in life and practise the potential and purpose. One problem in an artist’s life is that society expects us to start professional and is not willed to accept a path towards professionalism. However, identity never develops over night. The artistic path to ourself is always a journey that leads forward the further we go. Are you ready to follow your path?
We expect from artists that they ask themselves the question who they are. Only if your artistic way matches your personality, you may be able to create true art that comes from your heart. You may also serve your purpose better and create a meaningful and joyful life in the art.
Some recommendations on finding identity
0. Mediate daily.
1. Stop creating your style. Don’t worry about it anymore. It often leads to frustration and blocks your artistic endeavours.
2. Stop listening to too many others or watching other’s craftwork. This too, is often very disappointing.
3. Instead, focus on what triggers your senses. Remember when you picked up your camera the first and the last time. What caught your attention? As I argued in my blog post on “Return to the Landscapes You Were Triggered By” you should listen to your triggers, go back and start discovering your inspirations.
4. Once you found your trigger, focus on your idea, subject or project. Make baby steps every day in this direction.
5. Make it til you make it. Following Chase Jarvis’ recommendation from his book “Creative Calling” the daily baby step practises from the recommendation before lead to perfection over time. Create through practise, don’t consume YouTube videos and tutorials. It is not necessary to create perfect art, but the craft we create today should be technically better than what we created yesterday.
6. Give details attention. For each of my photographs, I invest a lot of time working on the details as if it were printed in a large format. The eye on the details sharpens your overall perception as well (but don’t get lost in them at first).
7. Do what your imagination and heart are telling you. Let yourself be guided by that, not by what work potentially receives the highest attention.
8. Review your own work from the past. Are there similar ideas you captured in the past? If you find similar patterns, what do they tell you about you? As I wrote in my blog post “The One Single Question We Need to Answer”, I deeply believe that our own work tells us important things about ourselves.
In sum, I believe that these days it is less important to own a style, but to mirror your outer world with your concept of identity. If you follow along this truthful path, style will automatically come with time and find you.
Enjoy the discovery!
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
| George Bernard Shaw
Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, 1868 (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC).
Chase Jarvis, Creative Calling. Establish a Daily Practice, Infuse Your World with Meaning, and Succeed in Work + Life, Harper Business, 2019.
Eric Fernie, Art History and its Methods: A critical anthology. London: Phaidon, 1995, p. 361.