When Style is a Gimmick
Finding your Voice
A LESSON FROM ANDY WARHOL
Finding your Voice
When first buying a camera, possibly the single greatest aim of every photographer is to find their own style and voice. This will be the mark that differentiates their work from the next person’s. A recognizable style is worth its weight in gold. If it is so essential and so easy to spot, why is it so hard to figure out a style and voice for your own photography?
The Missing Element
This question about style and voice has bothered me for the last few years…but not for the reasons you might expect. All over the Internet there are workshops, programs, and schools all claiming they can help you discover your own style. In my opinion, they are mostly b*llsh*t. Why? Because the people who come out of the programs don’t find what they are looking for…their own real voice or style.
My voice in art and photography came naturally over the course of twenty years. There was no rush for it to develop; as a 12 year old, style did not matter as I faithfully copied Michelangelo drawings. I was in the learning phase. As I matured, passed through university, construction, zen training, then stepped into being a small business owner with a studio, my voice evolved and the style came with it. For the most part, I never needed to articulate how it developed because it happened the same way a child learns to walk…by falling endlessly until it eventually just came naturally.
But for someone who is new to photography, regardless of age, I wanted to compress this process so it would not take twenty years. And while this article may not answer all of your questions, it will let you know what to work on and more importantly, if the people you go to for help know what they are talking about. You will be a smarter, better positioned photographer than before.
Keep this simple phrase in mind:
“Style without a point of view is just a gimmick.”
Case Study: Andy Warhol
Why should a photographer learn about Andy Warhol? He applied straightforward style to his unique point of view to become an artist who was as loved as much as he was hated. Oh, and he amassed a fortune of about $600 million by the time of his death, so the old adage that artists are starving does not apply here. Across the board, whether we love or hate Andy, he demonstrated some useful things we can apply today.
Born into an Icon
What do we know Andy Warhol for, his Campbell’s Soup Cans, Gold Marilyn, the Factory, his silkscreens, or his Polaroid portraits? He probably produced more iconic work than any other artist of the 20th century. That doesn’t mean it was all good, just iconic. Whether you think it’s good or bad, there is a lot to be learned from his process. There is an endless portfolio we could examine with Warhol, so let’s just pick one part…his portraits, and see what they offer us.
(side note: Understanding someone in retrospect is much easier than forming your own voice…that is a given, but let’s see what happens if we follow Andy’s development.)
Church with Julia
Andy Warhol grew up with the church. His mother, Julia, took him to mass and vespers almost eight hours a week. As a young child, battling with St. Vitus Dance, a disease of the nervous system, he spent years looking at the gold-leafed Saints in his orthodox church in Pennsylvania. The medieval portraiture of the saints was simple…a single figure on a gold background. Surely millions of people have looked at this style of portraiture since the 11th century. But Andy took that style, that aesthetic, and applied it to a different field of art, celebrity portraiture.
Sick from School
Andy’s disease caused him to shake uncontrollably. His mother decided to pull him out of school to avoid ridicule. At home, he spent huge tracts of time alone. One of his companions was a signed picture of Shirley Temple. That picture is still at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Over her signature, the paper is indented. Andy traced it over and over again. He repeated Shirley Temple’s signature with a loving devotion that rivalled his mother’s dedication to the church. That picture transformed itself from a photograph into an icon. This influence resurfaced years later when Andy made “Gold Marilyn”, which hangs at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York City.
If we peel back the clock of Andy’s life it becomes easier to see the thought progression:
- 1st Influence: Christian Iconostases, for their graphic simplicity and conceptual devotion.
- 2nd Influence: Shirley Temple, a demi-god of a different kind, we can look at her more like a saint in the young mind of Andy.
- Point of View: Andy viewed celebrity much in the way that Christianity looked at saints. Celebrity, in his estimation, was going to become equal in value to religious figures. And in many ways he was right.
Now before you go running off with the idea that finding your voice is some sort of mathematical formula…hold on there. There is no formula for art or photography, but there are pieces of the puzzle that are essential.
Remember, “Style without a point of view is just a gimmick.”
Your Voice and the Charlatan
If you want to develop your own voice, you might want to discover what it’s made of. Do you have a style? Do you have a point of view? Do those two components exist in your pictures? If not, maybe it is time to sit down and examine what makes you take pictures. There is not a program in the world, by any famous institution or photographer, that will gift you a style. You are going to have to figure this out for yourself. But you can work with someone throughout the process. They will keep you honest and on target if they are a good mentor.
I don’t know how many people I have met who think they have style. They say, “Sure I have style…my style is contrasty street photography.” Sorry pal, that is an aesthetic (contrasty) and a genre (street photography.)
Or another one of the favorite gimmicks that I hear about… “I use HDR to evoke memories.” HDR is a tool (and a boring one at that) and “…to evoke memories” (that is poetry speak for “remind you of stuff”) This is not a point of view. Don’t let the successes of other people mislead you. In fact, don’t follow anything I say unless you try it out for yourself.
We are all individuals, with unique points of view. In fact, the combination of heritage, experience, and individuality that you possess is impossible to duplicate. Which means, you do have a point of view even if it has not yet been translated into words or images. And probably one that could be useful to someone else on this planet. All it needs is a little reflection, a touch of coaching, and a burning desire to be heard.
It does not need to be some big, scary, intimidating force. Look at Andy Warhol. He was a slight, soft spoken guy who looked as if a rain storm might wash him away. But through his style and his point of view, he gave the macho art world of Picasso and Pollack a good square kick in the nuts. One that they are still doubled over from, fifty years later. Now time for you to step into the limelight…off you go.
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