A photographer, as he develops, gravitates naturally towards a set of unconscious visual preferences: finding wide-angle distortions more interesting than long-lens stacked distortions; liking high midday light more than lateral early or late light; sensing the world seems more acceptable in low key rather than in the mid-tones; admiring balanced, solid, centrally weighted compositions over flat, linear compositions, and so on. These preferences are often a consequences of unconscious but influential assumptions that help the photographer to subjectively influence the look of her images. Over years, as these visual preferences are used, examined and experimented with, a language of telling is honed into what is often referred to as ‘style’. The originality of the style, or more precisely, the humanity of the style will be a result of how deeply thought about, how painfully examined the photographer has been committed to expressing truths beyond what has been handed her from education, the media and popular culture.
Usually the style will fit into one of the period’s dominant visual modes. It could be a variant of realism, romanticism, classism, expressionism or naturalism, modes which are deeply embedded in western culture and rise and fall in favour, depending on different economic, political, intellectual and aesthetic pressures. Each mode is an expression of a worldview, and at any one moment, one of the modes will be supported and promoted by those who hold power…therefore, those who control the schools and the culture.
Photographers who succumb to using the dominant mode will often be doing so unconsciously, or because to do so leads to wealth and fame, or in the least, to a steady steam of commissions. The insidious consequence of this is that ‘style’ becomes disassociated from ‘content’. Style is celebrated above meaning. Form, colour, printing methods, even the size of a print becomes the focus of the dialogue surrounding the work. Content, and in particular, social content is at first obscured and then forgotten by viewers and critics.
You see how handy this is for those who control society? It is a deviation. Galleries and books, photo-essays and exhibitions are filled with smoke and mirrors.
For a photograph to have the beauty of fully human content and meaning, there needs to be a unity of form and content. Form without meaningful content is decadent, a game of illusions at best and propaganda at worst. Content without expressive form is dull, without authority.
When I surf the Internet, looking at websites, blogs, pages celebrating this style or that photographer, I am so often struck at the technical cleverness of the images, but rarely do they touch my humanity. Often collections have taken a prosaic one-line idea and developed it into a beautifully crafted series without social or personal resonances. These pictures scavenge software and camera technology, providing what are in truth, humdrum ideas tuned into spectacle. This is the cotton candy at the county fair, which can be consumed without consequence other than finally cultivating a form of decay from too dependent a diet on too little nutrition.
We are witnessing the creation of a Zombie photographic culture, in which the political/corporate body with all its attendant critics, curators, and wealthy buyers, all without souls, feed on the rest of us.
The antithesis to this is dedication and authority, which together create a clearly committed signature. These I will discuss in a following blog.