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Vision, Visual Styles and Critics in fine-art photography

Introduction

I haven’t been very active on social media and here on my website for the last six months. Part of my existence as a professional photographer/educator consists not only of actually taking photographs but also of evaluating the work that I try to create and photography in general. Every two years or so I try to take some time off and immerse myself in what I’m doing and what I’m trying to achieve with my photography and what part photography in general plays in my life and vice versa.

What follows are my thoughts on vision, visual styles and the emergence of photography in this digital age, the role it plays in society and the many self-proclaimed experts that come with this.

Four Leading Principles In The Creation Of Art

Around 25 years ago I read this essay, based on a lecture given by one of my favourite Dutch writers, Gerard Reve. The essay I’m referring to in this article was part of a book called “Becoming a writer yourself” or in the original Dutch language “Zelf Schrijver worden” and it dealt about what it takes to become a good writer among other very interesting topics related to art. Unfortunately there’s no English translation of this book that I would highly recommend. Many of the things he described in that essay are applicable to any kind of art form, whether this is writing, painting, music or fine-art photography: the principles he outlined remain the same. Mr. Reve said the following: the art of writing is based on 4 major principles.

Four Leading Principles In Art

PrincipleFree Principles – Can Be Learned (Tools/Techniques)Unfree Principles – Are Given: Can’t Be Learned (Talent/Personality)
I Conception Or Vision
IIComposition 
III Style
IVUse Of Words (Tools) 

The first three principles can be applied to photography without any change. The fourth principle can be translated as: use of camera and software techniques and your workflow. Basically your tools. What Mr. Reve said on the four principles is highly interesting and have formed my thoughts on arts till this very day. He said that principle 1 and 3 are ‘unfree’ and can’t be learned or acquired in any way, at most only refined, and principles 2 and 4 are “free” principles, more technical principles, and can be learned. He described conception or vision as a ‘given thing’ that you have or don’t have. A talent. The way you experience yourself, life and the world you live in. If you don’t have it, you can try working on composition (principle 2) and master your tools (principle 4) but you will never have this talent, this vision. Your work will always lack something. The practical consequence of having or not having vision/talent is that your work doesn’t have the ability to move people and to speak to people. Style, that other unfree principle, is directly determined by principle 1, your vision. Style is the way we express ourselves, the visual language we choose, the way we walk, talk, think, sleep, dance, eat, speak and the way we express ourselves in words, in sounds or in pictures, it’s our timing, our internal rhythm, it’s everything that characterises us. Just like you would recognise someone from a distance by the way he walks or his posture. That’s style, visual style. It belongs to you or not. If you try to mimic another person’s style, it won’t look natural, it doesn’t suit you, it simply looks off and artificial. Furthermore Gerard Reve postulates that a specific style requires a specific use of words. Translated to photography: you need a specific type of lens, filter, software and technique to support your style.

Visual Style Is Not Equal To Vision

Over the years my tutorials were more focused on technique, in-camera and in post-processing, the composition and tools part in the 4 Principles table. I’ve been discussing Vision and Style much less. Time to delve into that a bit deeper because the over emphasis on technique, and absolutely not only on my website, might induce the notion that that’s all art is about. Very wrong!

So vision and style, both are elusive principles. And both are closely linked and one is determined by the other and none can be learned. Your style not only has to suit your vision, style is a predetermined result of vision. Composition and tools, can be learned and will support your vision and style. 

What is vision? Do I have one? I will spare you the details of all the thoughts and mental struggle I have gone through when trying to answer those questions and get straight to the point: A visual style is the result of a vision like earlier postulated but vision is often confused with visual style. When people talk about vision then in most cases they’re actually talking about a visual style and just few people are really talking about vision. I did that too, hence in retrospect,

Vision needs a connection with the world we live in… it should convey a feeling. A comment. A statement.

I didn’t talk about vision, just about visual style. A vision is highly personal and can’t be copied, it’s an attitude, a belief, a feeling, a way of thinking that can be translated into a visual style but can never be copied. More importantly, I think: a vision, the way we are, you, me, any human, needs a connection with the world we live in to make it a meaningful vision and not just a hollow aesthetic creation. It should convey a feeling. A comment. A statement. Trying to copy a vision is like trying to be someone else. Who would want to be someone else?
A visual style on the other hand can always be copied, no matter how complex the original vision that resulted in the visual style. Vision is a seed, the soil it grows in is its meaningful connection, the flower that grows from the seed is its predestined result, its form of expression: the visual style.

“It doesn’t make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.”

Vision begs questions like: What am I? Who am I? Where do I come from? What do I want, what do I feel? What moves me and what do I want to change? What is my place in this life and this world? What do I want to express to feel alive? The honest answers to those form your vision. The artistic expression derived from that notion will have a visual style that shows its origin and its meaning: The seed and the soil it grows in. Your vision: your uniqueness as a human being and your connection with the world you live in. If it doesn’t show, then you’ve (sub)consciously replicated a visual style. You can try and replicate the flower and manufacture a plastic flower: it will look the same but it won’t feel the same. And that’s what I’ve been doing lately. Finding the seed that I have in me and fertile soil to plant it in. 

A Few Examples

A few well known names from the world of fine-art photography who exemplify the photographer with a clear vision resulting in a beautiful visual style that also reflects their meaningful connection with the world we live in and conveys a statement, are Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado and Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky who are included in the photos below. I can highly recommend watching one of Burtynsky’s talks on TED talk: the manufactured landscape or the shorter photographing the oil landscape or Salgado’s intriguing documentary video ‘Salt of the Earth’ to learn more on my view on how vision and visual style can not only be beautiful but also be meaningful statements.

Critics And The Dominance Of Principles II And IV In The Digitally Connected Age: Technical Principles

This leads me to the following notion, not so much on what vision and visual styles are, but more what the consequence of the aforementioned is in the globally connected digital world we live in today. A world with as many photographers and cameras as there are people (or at least getting close to that very soon). A world in which the photograph, sent across the Internet on social media, blogs and photo sharing sites, has become our fastest and preferred way of communicating: an instant photo world. A world where everyone seems to be an expert or critic, just from the mere fact such person has taken photographs and is familiar with the technical rules of photography which can be found in tons of popular tutorials on tons of blogs on the Internet. But the problem is that there’s a very blurred line between photography as a way of instant communication on one hand, photography as a more serious hobby somewhere in the middle and photography as an art-form on the other extreme side of the landscape.  Photography as an art-form requires more than just the technical ability, which is good enough for the serious hobby photographer, too much already for the instant snapper, but just one relatively small part of the four principles in fine-art photography. These blurred lines in combination with the domination of technical how-to guides and tutorials, have led to situations where the same set of criteria are used across all forms of photography by people who are only familiar with the technical rules and are either instant snappers or hobbyists. Granted, there are more pressing issues in this world, but that doesn’t mean that everything less important should be subject to anarchy and annoying memes. For example: why does everything in a photo needs to be sharp? Why is it always the first filter and key criterion? Why should a portrait always have catch lights in the eyes? Why should the eyes always be visible and sharp? What’s this pre-occupation with the rule of thirds? As if this is the only compositional rule? Or what about leading lines, no horizon in the middle, expose to the right, dynamic range, full tonal coverage (yes I too talk about this in my tutorials) and so on? I could post a whole gallery of photos here from renowned artists like Henri-Cartier Bresson, Ansel Adams, Steichen, Stieglitz, Michael Kenna and many more that will show that photos are not sharp, don’t have catch lights in the eyes, have horizons in the middle, use the rule of plenty instead of thirds, are not properly exposed and don’t have details in the shadows but yet are considered masterpieces. But I will suffice with just a few examples below.

Why are all these photos considered masterpieces by photographic masters? Because all those technical aspects are just one principle out of the 4 I’ve postulated (with the help of Gerard Reve) in this article. And they aren’t even the most important. No, vision and style are, and with that, statements are. And that’s what all those great photographs have in common: they say something, they have an authentic visual style and vision. Aspiring fine-art photographers with the best of intentions, passionate about what they want to create and say, are dominated by this horde of technical experts that look over your shoulder as soon as you post a photograph on the Internet and who will just judge any photographer by just one set of merely technical rules from one principle: the technical principle. What’s more: why do people think that by being connected over the Internet they can just say anything like: I don’t like this photo. Without even stating why, without even saying what is not to like, without being even close to constructive? It is rude. And it’s destructive: it kills all authenticity and creativity. What would you say if I met your wife and say: hey, I don’t like how your wife looks. You would think I’m rude and it doesn’t help you in any way. If on the other hand, a physician would say: your wife doesn’t look healthy because of this and that, then you’re more likely to accept this because it’s in the right context, from the right person, using the right criteria. And that knowledge might help your wife’s health cond