Why Style Matters
How do you see the world? Does your vision feel unique and what can that mean to someone else? These are questions every artist and photographer wrestles with on a daily basis because without meaning, art is nothing more than decoration. But some days it’s better to forget the outside world and immerse yourself in a project. It can be a calming escape from your own doubts, insecurities, and anxieties of the work at hand. Sitting here at the 8th floor pool in Bangkok, I am happy to be outside of my own mental space, reflecting on the work I saw in New York City just before I left. Danny Lyon’s recent opening at Edwynn Houk Gallery featured an image I had not seen before. It is a bird’s eye view of two men playing dominos. From the description, we could be talking about any number of “Domino player” shots that come out of places like Cuba or Central America. The quaint pictures old men smoking endless cigars make for great postcards, but Danny is not into making postcards. His work and points of view are political, experience based, and rooted in a well read history.
Undermining Cultural Assumptions
In 1967, Danny set out to photograph the failing prison system in Texas. Overcrowded and unable to successfully reform people, he wanted to look inside the prison walls to see what happened on a daily basis. A population of criminals might not seem like a dream job, but Danny uncovered a self-governing humanity, which no one expected. He told me that he even got on better with the prisoners than the Warden. The American prison system has been a point of interest since the founding of the country. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote “Democracy in America” as a pretense for studying how a new country would deal with its criminal population. Coming from France as he did, the alternatives were extreme. The infamous French penal colonies in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean were abysmal institutions; their only successes were the literature they inspired. The famous fictional accounts of Alexandre Dumas “The Count of Monte Cristo” might have seemed like pure fiction until you read Henri Charrière’s real life account titled “Pappillion.”
How to treat a subject
Before we set out to photograph a series, we need to know how we want to treat the image. This could be a matter of deciding whether it will be color or black and white, or will they be smooth low grain or ultra textured high grain. What drives these decisions? For the photographer looking for their signature style, these are some of the very questions that get glossed over. Opportunities missed or questions never asked, the way you handle an image from start to finish matters. And what point of view can we impart on a subject? Should we make swirling, in your face pictures, or calm, rational images whose cleanliness speaks to an almost surgical accuracy? One of the things that stood out for me about the picture Danny made was that he used his point of view, or more precisely his angle of view, to undermine the assumptions people hold about prisoners. We expect prisoners to be unfit for society; that’s exactly why they are locked up, right? So going into a prison to take calm and rational pictures would seem like a false truth. But Danny held a different view of these men. He did not see them as rabid savages unfit for life outside of concrete walls. And that point changed the way he photographed them.
Do the opposite of what people expect
I’m sure that Danny could have focused on more dramatic scenes within the Texas prison series. Surely there were fights and screaming and all the things we would expect to come along with a prison population. What I admire in this work is how he prefers to show a duality of the prisoners. To look at this image through the lens of a Zen Buddhist, we understand the idea that good and evil are not separate entities. Zen Buddhists believe that opposites, like good and evil, are two sides of the same coin. They co-exist and each brings the other one into being. They cannot be divorced from one another, because like all things in the universe, they are interconnected. In this image Danny decided or possibly recognized after the fact that the prisoners, who have negative cultural associations, played dominos in a sea of rational harmony. How did he do this, or more importantly how can you do this? He took a subject who often represents all that is wrong with the world and photographed it in a way in which we cannot help but admire the serenity of the moment. The picture successfully undermines all of the assumptions about prisoners, without ever interfering with the scene. It shows us, the viewers, that the worlds of good and evil or right and wrong are not separate ideas but rather, they even share a table of dominos.
Adding a stylistic touch
When it comes to style, I find that many photographers are confused. Pressed to distinguish between a gimmick or a stylistic decision, they are not sure which way to go. Style is about taking a basic visual element and shifting it slightly to emphasize a specific quality that echoes the nature of the image. Gimmick is applying the same shift with either no rhyme or reason or applying it uniformly without an understanding of the subject. Let me give you two examples to make this more clear. First style…Caravaggio. In the latter part of his career, Caravaggio was on the run from Rome to Naples, then Malta and Sicily. Leaving behind the beautiful smooth brush strokes of his early career he adopts a rougher, looser stroke that reflects the brutality of his scenes, which also echo his life. The way in which the brush touches the canvas matters. It informs us of the nature of the subject and reflects the approach of the artist. This is style. Now as a counterpoint, we can look at the gimmick of fashion photographer Terry Richardson. Whether he is shooting President Obama or Lady Gaga, everything is the same. The background is a white wall, with a heavy, head on flash that tells us nothing about the subject, pays no mind to who they might be, and simply looks like every other shot he has done. This is a gimmick, or as some people might say, “his look.” But just because you find a look does not mean it’s any good. Unless there is some mental underpinning to what we do, as I mentioned before, art is simply decoration. What I get from Danny’s image, its composition and clarity, is an insight to his approach. The image is thoughtful, sympathetic, and unexpected, very much what I have found in Danny as a writer, photographer, and person (though don’t tell him I told you, we would not want to tarnish his New York exterior.)
When you pick up a camera the options are limitless. The worlds of spectacular and lackluster are very close to one another. Anyone who has taken a shot they love knows that the shot before and the shot after were failures. As photographers, we swim in a visual world where things can go either way in the fraction of a second. But when we anticipate and understand how our decisions can impact an image, that awareness lets us become more than observers. We become authors. If you have a chance to visit Danny’s show at Edwynn Houk Gallery (745 5th Ave #407, New York), I highly recommend it. Take a few moments, in the silence of the gallery to look at this picture. Take in the many dimensions it holds. It is a picture of relaxed beauty that never turns itself over to the sentimental. Almost forty years later, it is a reminder that the complexities of life are no different now then they have ever been throughout history. And as artists, we are invited to examine how the universal qualities of human existence change in their expression, but always retain their connection to the past.