VISION, VISUAL STYLES AND CRITICS IN FINE-ART PHOTOGRAPHY

Some personal thoughts on vision, visual styles and the emergence of self-proclaimed photography experts in the digital age.

SelfPortraitR

By Joel Tjintjelaar

Copyright (c) 2016 by Joel Tjintjelaar – BWvision.com. 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations in reviews.

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/TECHNIQUE)UNFREE PRINCIPLES – ARE GIVEN: CAN’T BE LEARNED (TALENT/PERSONALITY)
ICONCEPTION OR VISION
IICOMPOSITION
IIISTYLE
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.

3 images horizontally shifted and tilted long exposure stitched panorama shot from Westminster Palace and the Big Ben, London.
Central image: no shift, no tilt. 360s exposure. Left image: maximum shift left, maximum tilt left, 360s exposure. Right image, maximum shift right, maximum tilt right, 360s exposure.
Result: this panoramic photograph with a selective plane of focus in the centre of the image.
All 3 shots taken with the 16 stops Firecrest @f/7.1 and ISO 100. Lens: 24mm TS-E.

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.” – Jackson Pollock

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.

Oxford Tire Pile #1 – The manufactured Landscape – (c) Edward Burtynsky. I think the fine-art photography of Edward Burtynsky is an example of vision, style and arriving at a statement about the world we live in. In this case a photo from his project The Manufactured Landscape in which he documents the effect of human intervention and industrialization on the natural environment in a visually arresting way.

(c) Sebastiao Salgado. Another example of an artist that I admire and who makes a statement in a beautiful visual style: Sebastiao Salgado, especially in his latest project called Genesis in which he captures beauty in a meaningful way by showing landscapes, areas and wildlife that are unspoiled and live in pristine conditions and the need for protection of this.

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.

(c) Richard Avedon. Photographer Robert Frank by Richard Avedon, one of the most celebrated portrait/fashion photographers. There are no catch lights in his eyes. Have a look at the Richard Avedon website for more examples, some even with unsharp or closed eyes.

(c) Hiroshi Sugimoto. #367 Black Sea by Japanese fine-art photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto who’s considered to be one of the great contemporary masters. His famous seascape series all have the horizon in the middle.

(c) Henri Cartier-Bresson. An iconic photograph by one of the all time masters in photography Henri Cartier-Bresson. Yet the main subject isn’t sharp and this isn’t his only photo that isn’t sharp. Not so long ago this photo has been posted on a blog/forum and most people who didn’t know the importance of this photo and photographer agreed: bad photo, it isn’t sharp…

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 condition. That’s not what happens now on social media and photography sharing sites. It’s not about saying how fantastic photos look even if they’re not, it’s about what is accepted and decent and if it’s in the right context, assessed by the relevant criteria. If you don’t like it, then good, but if you say it then know you need to state why you don’t like it. That’s what we, everyone, in normal social interactions in real life also expect. But perhaps more importantly: that kind of unfounded negativity is destructive. If you’re not an expert, then watch and listen to those who are considered to be experts. I’m not an expert either, but I will never be rude. I will never be destructive. I just walk away if I don’t like it, and try to understand why I don’t like it instead of just saying so. Creativity and authenticity need freedom to prosper.

If you want to read more on vision in fine-art photography then I can highly recommend the eBook From Basics to Fine-art that I wrote in collaboration with co-author Julia Anna Gospodarou. Or perhaps you’re looking for an (online) workshop or online portfolio review: check my workshop page.

19 replies
  1. Erik Kormelink
    Erik Kormelink says:

    Hi Joel this was a very interesting article you wrote. Exactly style and vision determine whether the photo has a story in it. And make you curious why and what the photographer likes to share with you.

    Reply
  2. Richard TerpolilliRich
    Richard TerpolilliRich says:

    Your paragraph discussing liberties of critiquing over social media really struck a nerve! I make a point to provide better feedback to creations over the media network via notifications. What I detest is people saying nothing, just get totally ignored. I’d much rather have those that are on my notifications simply tell me that my images are terrible. At least they took the time.

    Reply
    • Joel Tjintjelaar
      Joel Tjintjelaar says:

      I’m sorry to hear that Rich. Personally I don’t think that people telling that someone’s images are terrible without any argumentation at all, is very helpful. It’s not so much a matter of taking or not taking the time, what I think is more important is to think about what and how you say it. But that’s my personal view that I’ve tried to explain in this article.

  3. tonysweet600
    tonysweet600 says:

    Excellent blog post, Joel. To me, it’s very simple and most people don’t like the answer because it cannot be learned from a book or from a weekend course or from a workshop or 2 or from a private mentorship.

    Let me digress…as a professional jazz artist for 40 years (I still play), the process is, with the exception of the tools, exactly the same as creative photography. Most of us begin by emulating, as much as possible, the work of those to whom we aspire. This will unlock a few things that will more firmly put us on a creative path. And then we emulate someone else and then many others.

    Eventually, and I mean years later, a voice may begin to emerge. It’s only after years of living that we begin to know what we are doing and why. After more years, the work and technique become intrinsic, that is to say hard wired in our brains, where everything, i.e. vision, technique, and composition become second nature. At this point, there are no more rules, there’s only a visceral response to a visual stimulus. If it looks right and feels right, it is right. This to me is the end of the searching process. This is where the true beginning of personal style begins to emerge and flourish. This is when we begin to work in the moment, a process beyond thought, a process where we become immersed in the experience, where we become one with our subject.

    Reply
    • Joel Tjintjelaar
      Joel Tjintjelaar says:

      Many thanks for you extensive response Tony. I agree, some things cannot be learned from a book or workshop, unless it’s a workshop with a duration of a few years or longer, and even then… The emulation part is very essential: I think it’s the best way to learn things, especially from a technical side. There’s nothing wrong with it, as long as you’re aware that you’re emulating and that at some point you need to let it go and find your own voice. Which is the hardest part of course! I agree too with the rest of what you say: you can compare it with the state of mind the archer in Eugen Herrigel’s book, Zen in the art of archery, has. After years of practice an activity becomes effortless, an unconscious state of mind, even though the activity is quite complex.

    • mary anne chilton
      mary anne chilton says:

      I am so happy that you take the time to write these types of essays. Cerebral poetry. Beautifully written. I have learned so much from you over the past year and thank you for your willingness to share.

  4. lawguy97
    lawguy97 says:

    Joel;

    Taken to its basics, you are telling all aspiring fine art photographers to “Just be yourself”. It takes a lot of courage to overcome the free of rejection when you first start. It is much easier to become technical in assessing your work, rather than visionary. For someone of your stature to say this, and post the results of your self examination and critique, it is very encouraging. It gives us lesser mortals the courage to just be who we are, and the heck with the instant internet experts. Thanks for this blog.

    Reply
    • Joel Tjintjelaar
      Joel Tjintjelaar says:

      Thanks, I think even the most accomplished artist is always in search of his deepest and purest voice. Self critique is essential. External critique is only necessary and appropriate when you ask for it yourself.

  5. Andre Struik
    Andre Struik says:

    Heel mooi gezegd Joel. Kan me goed vinden in je verhaal. Visie is iets wat je hebt, misschien heel beperkt kan leren en is je eigen ontwikkeling in het leven. Een bepaalde stijl aannemen kunnen veel mensen maar dat zegt niet altijd iets over hoe je persoonlijk dingen beleeft. Groet, Andre.

    Reply
  6. Donald Withers
    Donald Withers says:

    Very well said Joel… This is one of the reasons I started The Inspired Photographer group on Facebook. I was tired of groups that just sent in photos without any thought to why they made them. I also was troubled by all the negative and harmful comments by people that felt the need to tear others down to feel better about their own work. The bottomline for me is, do you like it and why. It doesn’t matter what others think. I believe when you start to make photograpghs without worrying about what others might think, you become a better photographer because you start to follow your own vision, not someone else’s. Keep making beautiful images Joel….

    Reply
  7. jtjintjelaar
    jtjintjelaar says:

    A test comment – feel free to post comments now comments option has been activated.
    Joel Tjintjelaar – BWVision.com

    Reply

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