Feb 112015
 

When Style is a Gimmick

Finding your Voice

A LESSON FROM ANDY WARHOL

 

This is what many regard as the first step in photography.  Tools are essential, but best to choose wisely and move on quickly.  © Adam Marelli

This is what many regard as the first step in photography. Tools are essential, but best to choose wisely and move on quickly. © Adam Marelli

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?

This is how Andy Warhol saw himself, a bit of humor and a touch of absurdity.

This is how Andy Warhol saw himself, a bit of humor and a touch of absurdity.

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.

Style without Point of view equals Gimmick.  © Adam Marelli

Style without Point of View equals Gimmick. © Adam Marelli

Keep this simple phrase in mind:

“Style without a point of view is just a gimmick.”

Andy Warhol in his factory.  © Phaidon Press

Andy Warhol in his factory. © Phaidon Press

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.

32 Campbell's Soup Cans © Andy Warhol

32 Campbell’s Soup Cans © Andy Warhol

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.)

Saint Paul by Lippo Memmi

Saint Paul by Lippo Memmi

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.

Andy Warhol's signed photography of Shirlie Temple

Andy Warhol’s signed photography of Shirlie Temple

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.

Gold Marilyn by Andy Warhol

Gold Marilyn by Andy Warhol

Gold Marilyn

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.
Style and Point of View equal your voice.

Style and Point of View equal your voice.

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.

Style without Point of view equals Gimmick.  © Adam Marelli

Style without Point of View equals Gimmick. © Adam Marelli

Remember, “Style without a point of view is just a gimmick.”

One of the many millions of HDR pictures on the internet.

One of the many millions of HDR pictures on the internet.

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.)

This is what happens when landscapes are tackled by talented, trained artists.  The effect is stunning and makes HDR look like the worst plastic surgery gone wrong. Indian Spear Fishing by Albert Bierstadt

This is what happens when landscapes are tackled by talented, trained artists. The effect is stunning and makes HDR look like the worst plastic surgery gone wrong. Indian Spear Fishing by Albert Bierstadt

And Beirstadt's success as a landscape painter was not a fluke.  Its not as if he got it right once and could never do it again.  This is one of the many advantages of mixing talent, ambition, and training.  The Rocky Mountain Landers Peak by Albert Beirstadt

And Bierstadt’s success as a landscape painter was not a fluke. It’s not as if he got it right once and could never do it again. This is one of the many advantages of mixing talent, ambition, and training. The Rocky Mountain Landers Peak by Albert Bierstadt

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.

Andy Warhol as a young boy...they art world had no idea what hit them.

Andy Warhol as a young boy…the art world had no idea what hit it.

Conclusion

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.

If you would like the next article delivered to your inbox, we added a subscribe feature on the left side bar…sign up, so you don’t miss a thing.

Sign up to get the next article in your inbox. (on the upper left of the page)

Sign up to get the next article in your inbox. (on the upper left of the page)

AM_LOGO-Lightroom-Small

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  13 Responses to “When Style is a Gimmick”

  1. Wonderful article. I’ve known style/voice is something I’ve needed to focus on for a while, and this will give me a push to do it. So, I suppose “stuff I see walking around that I think looks cool, converted to black and white” doesn’t count as a style ;) .

    • Haha Justin,

      Glad the article gave you a push to move beyond the “stuff I see walking around that I think looks cool, converted to black and white”

      At the root of it all, lie our interests, so you are well into step 1. Now time to follow up.

      Best-AM

  2. Excellent post. I have been a photographer for almost 50 years and a studio owner for 32 of those. In that time, I went from emulating photographers I admired to giving my clients what they wanted to finally, after walking away from photography for a while, taking the photographs I want to take the way I see them. For me, that meant resurrecting my medium format cameras, loading up on black and white film and getting on the road to nostalgia.

    Today, I have customers instead of clients, but sales are good and the personal satisfaction I get when I see my photographs hung someplace makes the time, the work and the learning all worthwhile. Thank you for sharing.

    • Geezer G,

      Sounds like you have run the full gamut…from emulation to finding your own voice. Thank you for sharing the account and I wish you the best with your medium format and some film.

      It should be a delightful way to explore your unique view of the world.

      Best-AM

  3. Adam, thank you for such a marvelous post. Lots of insightful issues to dig in for an student like me. Its is just two days that I was studying still life art (cause would like to think about a little project on mercatti) and came across a “list” of the 20 most infuential “still life paintings” in History of Art.…Warhol’s Campbells soup can was on the list and for me was so interesting. Today your post has given more keys to understand. Thank you!!!

    • Teresa,

      Pleased to hear that the post coincided with your studies. It is excellent that you are making the connection between still life paintings and the market as a subject matter.

      Warhol was more of a Supermarket guy, I suppose, though we probably lean more towards Cezanne and Picasso at the farmer’s market.

      Best-AM

  4. Probably One of the things that get people to copy famous trends that they want to be heard as fast and soon as possible. I haven’t thought of finding my style of shooting as I’m too concerned about ending with decent results, but I guess no one can be better than yourself in your own style, However, there are some pinpoints that I think can help finding my unique voice such as: “relying as much as possible on natural light , minimizing post processing…” Or maybe I’m looking in the wrong place.

    Thank you Adam for sharing the knowledge!
    English is not my first language. sorry for any mistakes.

  5. Warhol’s soup cans never did anything for me. But his Coke bottles! Now that is a different can of worms!

  6. Thanks for articulating what I’ve been struggling with since I began to photograph. It’s provided a significant amount of clarity in terms of how I view and approach it.

    There’s a lot of noise and superficial distraction on the internet in terms of photography writing, and the focus you put into this piece shows that you care about the photographic process as a powerful, expressive tool. It’s becoming more and more difficult to find meaningful content that goes beyond the articles that consist of: “what’s in my bag”, “10 presets you need”, “improve your social media following”…

    Keep up the great work!

  7. Really great stuff, Adam. I love the way you talk about this kind of thing.

    I tend to think of “style” as nothing more than a set of photographic choices that one makes the same way across multiple pictures. The result is that the pictures tend to look a bit like one another.

    What you describe as “point of view” I think of just as “idea” but I think we mean roughly the same thing. A style supports an idea. A collection of photos that are stylistically related, and which expound the same idea or a set of related ideas, is a portfolio that means something, that says something. The style holds it together, so the idea can get through.

    Something I find currently interesting is that the “voice” needn’t be the same portfolio to portfolio. I do think that a single body of work needs a clear voice, or it’s nothing. But you can find something new to say, and a new way to say things, in another body of work. Cindy Sherman’s various portfolios, to my untrained eye, look like they could have been done by different people, while within each body of work the voice has the clarity of a thrown knife. Like her work or not, she’s can “speak” clearly.

    • Dear Andrew,

      I think we are on the same page. The semantics of the words are not important. Whether we call it an “idea” or a “point of view” the thrust is that…a picture needs a photographer who has something more than a shutter finger in order for a picture to add up.

      Sherman is a good example. Her aesthetic is nothing I gravitated towards, but that is irrelevant. If we look at what her work is “doing” it starts to come together, as you noted.

      Look forward to seeing how you incorporate it in your own pics.

      Best-AM

Add Comment Register



 Leave a Reply

(required)

(required)

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>