Inside this issue
Personal style comes from within
I am a seventies child and like my friends say if you missed the 70's you have missed everything even though I have lived only one year into that decade. My relation with photography started at child age when I destroyed all the cameras that my grandfather had laying around and later in a more mature approach I took ownership of my dad's Nikon and started exploring. It was love at first sight and a beautiful journey has started which brought me to a small village in the mountain range of Pindos, Greece, where I live and work as a landscape photographer creating art and teaching workshops.
Have you ever looked at a social platform and realised that all the popular images follow a certain pattern? Did all the images you have searched from a popular place all looked the same? Do you have the feeling that technique is elevated in a form of art while content is not really important anymore?
All these thoughts have been going through my mind the last couple of years and then some, yet the more I discuss them with people I meet who practice landscape photography the more I am convinced that photographers don’t really care anymore with a few exceptions of course.
Recognition nowadays is everything even if it is ephemeral. The root of the problem is that no one cares about personal style. Everyone thinks they have it and they have a very superficial justification why they are correct into thinking they do, failing to realise that scouting different locations, encountering impressive light, or using complex techniques doesn’t necessarily make them unique.
In this superficial understanding of photography as an art most of the photographers are completely ignorant to the fact that the simplest thing they can do to achieve uniqueness and an identifiable personal style is to stop thinking and start expressing their real emotions while using photography as an instinctive response to the stimuli that the landscape is providing. But let us take things from the beginning.
The first step is to identify the roots of the problem. In my opinion, and it is my own personal opinion, there are three main problems that have the landscape photography niche going into a vicious circle of repeatability. The first one is social networking with social being a right on abuse of the word when it comes to expressing opinions or trying to be creative. Ego networking is a more suitable work to express the current situation where everyone is interested in sticking their neck higher than everyone else instead of doing or learning something meaningful.
I understand I am running the risk of sounding rude or unpleasant to some, after all, who am I to define what is meaningful and what is not but, judging from the results and the number of interesting images produced I am fairly confident and I stand by my aforementioned remark. What photographers and viewers, in general, need to understand is that trends are industry driven because there is money to be made out of us. I use the term industry as a very wide field and can be applied from a camera manufacturer to a photographer or Youtuber who has perfected a certain technique and use social networks to sell their product.
This being in the form of a workshop, a filter set, a digital filter set or an online course, it doesn't matter. Is this a bad thing? No! Should you mind? No! Why do I mind then? Well because in most cases it is something superficial and void of meaning marketed as something special when essentially you are buying products to create images reaching for the low hanging fruits. But again, why do I mind so much and the most honest answer I can give you is because I care.
In my workshop years, I have seen people joining, driven by trends only wanting that trophy shot that will theoretically bring them thousands of likes and followers. It saddens me because in most cases they are crippling their own potential focusing only on something that they could achieve if they were just a bit more dedicated, which brings me to my second point. Dedication.
While social networks funnel chewed out food to the masses, people are easy to accept it because they lack dedication. It is a tricky thing dedication and our moral self will be quick to reason that we have it even though essentially not a lot do. Does tripods in line waiting for the exact same moment in time paint a familiar picture? You think it is dedication to spend money and time to visit a foreign place or organise a trip in the backcountry with friends? Real dedication is to go beyond that line of tripods.
To separate yourself from the herd and look for something different, something true only to you and not to everybody around you. Dedication is to resist the urge of taking yet another “epic” shot just because the sky colours were great, but if you do it needs dedication to keep it in your files just as a souvenir and a reminiscence of a nice sunset or sunrise somewhere. Dedication is to be surrounded by beauty and cliché shots and manage to only focus on your heartbeat trying to find this unique connection with the landscape that will force you to lift your camera and capture that moment in time that only you have recognised because it resonated only with you.
It is dedication to just step back and look while everybody else is hurrying to get the shot. To take your time to really experience the place you found yourself in and not try to analyse it into lines and forms like a fine-tuned robot. It takes dedication to not mind being the odd one out, and you will be, but you are not alone. Most importantly though it takes dedication to always be honest.
Hence the third problem, dishonesty. Primarily to yourself and by extension to everybody else. Again, our moral self will be quick to reason with any of our doubts or external confrontation by advocating that we are just following our passion. Travelling to beautiful places, showing the beauty of the world around us, or even better because it makes us happy, who can argue with that? Well, we can. Are we? Is it really our passion? Are we that common like everybody else or that shallow to find happiness is other people’s visions? Before you roll your eyes in dismay at your screen take a deep breath, give an honest answer to yourself and then feel free to extend fingers at me. I don’t mind.
I have answered my questions a long time ago, I know who I am and why I do this. Do you? In a superficial level, the above answers are honest and I know it. I am not calling anybody a liar especially if you are just starting with photography, but as time progresses and you find yourself in a loop repeating the same techniques albeit in different locations or telling the same trivial tips to your customers are you really happy? Is this the full width of your passion? Do you get loads of likes and follows because you know how to construct beautiful images? I understand it. Does this bring you loads of customers? I understand this as well but has any of your images made you cry? Mine haven’t unfortunately, not yet. Apart from the time I saw the last picture on my remote before my camera went over a cliff’s edge. I sort of cried then but it is another emotion I am talking about. I am talking about that gut feeling you get when reading a poem or listening to a song and your eyes swelled with tears. Not because it was sad or beautiful but because you felt a connection.
Why does landscape photography have to be different or photography in general? Why settle for blunt and boring while you can achieve anything if only you let yourself free of all the useless clutter that accumulated in your mind and start being honest with yourself about your photography.
You don’t need to think how to make a scene beautiful you know it when you see it even if it isn’t beautiful by internet and social network standards. Furthermore, landscape doesn’t need to be beautiful in order to provoke an emotional response from a viewer. The landscape is as is. It has its nice, its wow, its epic and its dull moments, it doesn’t matter. Who you are and how you express your real you is the key to becoming a true artist and not just a copycat of random beautiful images?
The key thing we all need to remember is that personal style comes from within and not from tutorials and videos about leading lines and great light. Doing extreme things or searching for hidden places not yet discovered around the world won’t fulfil that gap in your heart if you have any. It is this instinctive emotional response, this fleeting moment where we see fragments of ourselves through the landscape, which we need to learn to recognise and respond to without going into the process of thinking. Thinking is like the vacuum cleaner that wakes you up from a beautiful or naughty dream. When you start to think about how are you going to compose this shot or how the light might affect this scene in a different time of the day, the moment is gone. Imagine seeing a person you are attracted to walking into the room, you don’t think about it, you just know. It is the same with photography, you just feel it and you know it before you start to think about it.
It cannot be taught. It can be seen in practice and how to open up your receptors to the stimuli can be learned but since everyone is different everyone will react differently to the landscape and this will make you unique no matter what because there is only one you. It will also lift a heavy burden from you, the disappointment when things don’t come together as landscape photographers are forced to think. You might come back empty handed this is true and very common but you won’t be disappointed because you will have stopped living your life through the lens hoping for an alignment of the planets in order to get that perfect shot and there won’t be any expectations. If it happens it happens. If not, it will another time no matter where I am. You don’t see yourself only when you are at exotic places you see yourself everywhere providing that you are really looking and this increases your chances for a meaningful image because everything depends on you. I don’t think I have enough words to describe how liberating it is to photograph without expectations. To just take your camera and your preferred lens and go out with only this and try to be you. The real you. Not the person the world thinks you are, not even the person you think you are. It is difficult I know, and it is a lifelong commitment but once you taste the first rewards it will be very difficult to go back into the mainstream mentality. The emotional and psychological uplifting, the mental elevation you will feel when you find that true connection with your subject is far superior to the ephemeral appraisal of a well-constructed image that will be forgotten in the oblivion most photographers live in today.