Many people think vision and style are the same. They’re not. What’s the difference? Vision is what you have to say; style is how you say it.
Confusing one for the other or focusing on one and not the other can be disastrous.
Just because your images look different doesn’t mean you’ve said anything or said it well. No matter how dazzling something may look, when style becomes a substitute for vision ultimately the viewer leaves unsatisfied – though they don’t always know why. If you confuse style for vision it confuses your viewers. And when you use a style that’s inappropriate for your vision it distorts the way your work is seen and it’s likely that you’ll be misunderstood.
You don’t have to make your images look different to say meaningful things and say them in your own authentic way. Sometimes less is more. Less style, more vision. Stronger styles make the viewer work harder to see past the surface of an image and find the deeper meaning within it. Strong styles work only if they complement a vision – then both become stronger.
Vision and style are related. Hopefully, vision drives style. Vision gives style meaning and purpose. When style reflects purpose it deepens the whole experience, making statements more deeply felt. Style can create meaningful connections between the subject and the way an image looks and even between multiple images. Subtle shifts in style throughout a body of work and even an artist’s lifetime have the potential to communicate even more meaning.
Style is easy to identify because all you need to do is make formal statements about what you see. You simply describe how the things in an image look. When describing style you focus less on the things you see and more on how they look. You state what your eyes actually see, the visual building blocks of an image not the content those elements are used to represent. To do this well, you need to learn a little vocabulary to formally describe images in ways that others will understand, but there’s an added benefit, learning that vocabulary will help you look more carefully and see more things and relationships between them. Line, shape, volume, color, texture, scale, range, and compositional patterns are the fundamentals; you can make finer distinctions in each of these categories. Some aspects of style describe relationships that are visible between multiple images such as the number of images used, their sequence, its pace and rhythm. Style can be extended to anything you do in a particular way, not your actual practice (she used a camera) but the way you practice it (she always moved in close). The ways you do things communicate your attitudes and so imbues what you make with meaning.
Vision is harder to identify than style. This is where you move from taking pictures of things and start making pictures about things.
It’s part plot; your subject, events that happen to it, actions it takes, reactions, and consequences.
It’s part theme. The theme is the big (or main) idea and subthemes are smaller (or subordinate) related ideas. It’s what the work says about a subject. It’s the overall message and the underlying messages. This is the least literal often least visible aspect of work and it’s often where the most soul can be found.
It’s part you … the patterns you see and create, your relationship to your subject and the images you create of and possibly about it, all the associations and connections you make between it and other things, the things you choose to show and not to show, your emotional reactions to things and events and even their appearances, the reasons why you care and why we should care.
If the style of your images is appropriate it will help us see your vision … in a very particular meaningful way.
You don’t have to figure out your vision or your style before you start making meaningful images. Whether you start with no idea or a good idea, it’s likely that you won’t know the full meaning of your work until you make it. An essential part of the process of creating images is figuring things out. Show your process, not all of it, just the interesting parts, the ones you decide are meaningful. What you finally make doesn’t have to be perfect, finished, or even fully resolved; you just have to do it well enough to create a compelling experience. And to do that, you have to figure out a few things, perhaps only the most important things, about your vision (what you have to say) and style (how you say it). Then make more images and figure out a little more. Keep repeating this process enough times and you’ll find your way, your vision and your style, If you hold nothing back and give it everything you’ve got, you will be amazed by what you discover.
Read more in my Creativity resources.
Learn more in my Creativity workshops.
Shortly after the opening of my new exhibition Land Within Land, Scott David Gordon recently interviewed me for his podcast Austin Talks. He picked up on many of the ideas I shared during my gallery talks … and ran with them.
As he said, “If you are looking for a technical discussion on Photoshop and cameras to choose this is not the one. We had a fairly philosophical conversation about many subjects including defining a mission in life, being present, nature, spirit of place, creativity, play, and how to find your own way as an artist and a human. I love how thoughtful and specific he is with his words and wisdom. It’s no wonder he is a sought-after lecturer and teacher.”
I hope you enjoy our conversation!
Find out more about Scott David Gordon here.
Listen to more Austin Talks here.
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Most successful artists define a consistent palette for their life’s work, for periods during their careers, or for individual bodies of work. It’s one of the primary things that creates an easily recognizable signature style. This is as true for black and white photographers as it is color photographers.
You can precisely describe black and white palettes by identifying the overall lightness or key (high – light, medium, low – dark) and the amount of contrast (high, medium, low, none) held in three ranges of tones – shadows (zones 0-3), midtones (zones 4-7), and highlights (zones 8-10). Put more broadly, the dominant range of tone is identified first and then each range of tone can be described as expanded or compressed; a range of tone that does not exist in an image could be described as fully compressed.
The image highlighted is an outlier. While the rest of the images are shot aerially looking down, it’s shot at ground level looking up. It won’t fit with the rest of the images until more images like it are completed to balance the set within the set.
Outliers. They’re the images that don’t fit neatly in a body of work. Outliers test the code of a style or body of work.
Widely divergent outliers, if they’re good but not great, often indicate a failure to move beyond conventional to more personal ways of seeing. If they’re great, they may represent a valuable new area for discovery or even a breakthrough.
Moderately divergent outliers may be just what you need to advance a body of work by providing one or more valuable variations on a theme, adding new energy and content into the mix. This is particularly true if just one thing is changed from the characteristics of the larger set (angle of view, range, duration, etc), as what changes calls attention to itself and questions are asked about how this change expands our understanding of the subject or artist’s intent.
If outliers are included for the wrong reasons (like you can’t put the image aside for now or find another context for it), they often disrupt the tone and continuity of a collection of images. This weakens the overall effect. This is the jack-of-all-trades master of none syndrome.
If outliers are included for the right reasons (they display a different but related theme or way of seeing the same subject and provide new avenues for going deeper with your subject and your relationship to it), they strengthen both other specific images within a set and the group as a whole as well.
On occasion one (rarely more) outlier can work within a body of work, when presented as a prelude (before), turning point (middle) or after thought (end), to suggest other as yet not fully resolved dimensions within a body of work. Use this strategy carefully, as outliers draw a lot of attention to themselves.
Pay attention to outliers. They’re your worst enemies. They’re your best friends.
See more images in this series on Google+.
Read more about Bodies Of Work and Developing Personal Projects here.
Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.