The Persistence Of Style
It is only an auctioneer who can equally and impartially admire all schools of art.
In my previous essay I talked about art movements and paradigms and I explained how an art movement is different from a paradigm. In this essay I talk about personal styles and to avoid confusion it is important that I start by talking about how a personal style differ from art movements.
Differences Between Artistic Movements and Personal Styles
The difference between movement and style is that a movement is general while a style is personal. A movement is a global phenomenon that addresses a large number of artists. A style is the interpretation of the tenets of a movement by a specific artist. Artists decide to embrace or follow a movement because they like this movement. However, each artist within this movement interprets the tenets to that movement according to their individual sensibility and their personal aesthetic preferences.
Movement and style are two different things. Two artists can follow the same movement while each using a different style. The movement embraced by an artist defines the general artistic approach followed by this artist. The style used by a specific artist defines the personal approach, and the aesthetic taste and preferences, of this specific artist. In other words, Movement defines the dominant characteristics of an artist’s work, while Style defines the details of their work. Within a given movement we find many artists working in different styles. This is a normal aspect of art. What each of these artists are doing is interpret the paradigm of that movement according to their personal aesthetic sensibility.
Using a personal style does not mean creating a new type of representation every time. To make a comparison with scientific research, the goal of creating a personal style is not to write a research thesis or make a scientific discovery. The goal of a personal style is to find a way to create something that does not imitate the pre-existing works created within a specific art movement. This is how style works. A personal style is the personal interpretation of the tenets of an existing artistic movement. It is the tenets of this movement expressed in the voice of a specific artist.
An artistic movement on the other hand is the creation of a completely new way of seeing. It is the establishment of new tenets that redefine how the subjects of a work of art are to be represented. To sum up my point, an artistic movement is the rethinking of how a subject is represented. An artistic style is the interpretation of that movement by a specific artist.
For example, two different artists may follow the photographic tenets established by the f.64 photographic movement. This movement is characterized by not manipulating the subject, rendering it in a realistic fashion and creating sharp images. Ansel Adams, one of the founders of this movement, created black and white images of the grand landscape. That was his style. Elliott Porter, another artist following this movement, decided to create color images depicting details of the landscape. That was his style. Both Adams and Porter followed the same movement but each applied their own style to it.
The possibility of following a movement while imparting your own style to it is called artistic freedom. It is easy to believe that the second artist in my example is not following the same movement as Adams because he is using color instead of black and white and doing close ups instead of capturing the grand landscape. Fact is, both Porter and Adams are following the tenets of the f64 movement. However, a clear understanding of the differences between style and movement is necessary in order to recognize this fact and not confuse these two different aspects of art.
Because a style is used by a single artist it usually ends when that artist’s career ends. It is possible for the followers of a movement to adopt the style of a specific artist wholeheartedly. However, most artists change the style of those who influenced them by adapting the style of the previous artist to their own aesthetic taste, keeping some aspects of the original style and adding their own touch to it. By doing so they depart from creating a literal copy of a specific style. This approach means that a style has a shorter lifespan than a movement, unless that movement is created and adopted by a single artist, in which case the style of this artist and the movement they created, being one and the same, inevitably end at the same time. However, this situation is uncommon, most movements having several followers, each with their own individual style.
If we look at the history of American landscape representations, most of the subjects depicted by f64 artists had been photographed or painted before. However, these subjects had never been painted or photographed according to the tenets of the f.64 movement. It was not the subject that was new. It was how the subject was represented that was new. For example, Yosemite was painted as a romantic, mysterious location in an imaginatively unrealistic manner by Bierstadt and the Grand Canyon in a similar way by Thomas Moran and William Henry Holmes.
Theirs were works of fiction that triggered the imagination but that did not match reality. When visiting the locations depicted by Bierstadt, Holmes and Moran, one struggles to match paintings and landscape. Later came Pictorialism, and photographers represented the same landscapes using photography instead of painting. While Pictorialist photography can be seen as being part of romantic painting the photographic medium made Pictorialism a different movement than Romanticism even though their tenets were comparable.
It was f.64 that changed how the landscape was to be depicted by introducing new tenets that dictated that photographic representations had to be sharp (as opposed to soft focus or artistically blurred), devoid of posed subjects (such as veiled muses posed in the landscape), free of artificial effects (such as darkroom coloring), and printed on glossy paper (as opposed to heavily textured papers). f.64 was not just a new take on Pictorialism. It was a new way of seeing and representing the subject. It was not a new personal style. It was a new artistic movement.
No matter how creative the photographer might be, the connection between photograph and reality is so strong as to require extreme measures to be altered. The painter, on the other hand, deals with a far less direct connection between image and reality. Having no pre-constructed ‘capture’ the way the photographer does, he is free to represent the landscape any way he wants
How To Recognize a Style and Associate It With a Movement
Facture alone can often recognize painting styles. The way a subject is represented, the facture as it is called in art, is often enough to find out who created the work. On one end of the facture spectrum, we have the use of a bold gestural style, with large, easily identified brushstrokes and the subject rendered in its general appearance only with few or no details. At the other end of this spectrum, we have the use of a polished style in which brushstrokes are nearly invisible and the subject is rendered with extreme details.
Photography styles are not easily recognized on the basis of facture alone because much of facture in photography is created by the camera. So much so that the style of a beginning photographer is that of his camera, at least until a personal touch is added by the photographer. This personal touch, which is a major aspect of what creates a photographic style, consists of the combination of elements specific to photography: the use of a particular type of light, soft and flat at one end of the possibility spectrum, or harsh and contrasty at the other. A specific choice of subject matter, be it people, landscapes, architecture and so on. The use of color or black and white. While some work in both, most photographers prefer one over the other and become known as color or black and white photographers. Finally, a specific style of processing, with more or less work done in the chemical or digital darkroom.
Style Belongs To The Originator
If a movement has several practitioners, then each practitioner with a style identifiable as their own, a style visibly different from that of other practitioners, owns that style. It is theirs and while it can be copied by others that style should be referred to as that of the original practitioner.
Traditionally a style is named after the artist who created it. The name of the artist and the name of the style are identical and synonymous. One means the other and vice versa. When one hears the name of the artist one thinks of his style automatically, unless one is unfamiliar with art in which case neither mean anything at all. To hear Bernard Buffet is to think of his style. To see a painting in that style is to think of Bernard Buffet. Style and artist are inextricably linked. No one else can claim ownership to that style without being called a copycat.
A style is as personal as the artist who created it. When an artist’s style is immediately recognizable it is possible to identify their work on stylistic grounds alone. This is sufficient to name the artist.
When Style Happens
With painting, style happens when paint is placed upon the canvas. The creation of the image and the style in which the image is rendered take place at the same time because the painter creates both the image and the style.
With photography the camera creates the image and the photographer modifies this image afterwards to give it his own style. For this reason, photography is a two-step process when it comes to style implementation. First take the image with the camera and second modify this image in the chemical or digital darkroom.
Because the camera captures whatever is in front of the lens in a factual documentary manner it is fair to say that in photography style happens in the darkroom. The idea that the same scene photographed by different photographers will result in the creation of vastly different images is only true in regards to composition. Certainly, the composition will be different because the choice of lens and framing is up to each photographer. However, the choice of colors, light, weather etc. is defined by nature and is the same for all photographers present.
For me composition is not enough to define style. I believe that style is first and foremost defined by processing. For this reason, style ‘happens’ when the image is processed. This was the case with chemical processing and this continues to be the case with digital processing. The difference between chemical and digital is that we can implement more processing changes with digital and this gives digital photographers a larger range of stylistic possibilities.
How long does the influence of those who came before last with their followers? As long as the followers last, which is pretty much one generation. After one generation the lack of direct contact with the originator of the style causes their influence to drop significantly. In turn this causes artists to move away from the style that influenced them originally and find new influences in more recent styles. In other words, the style of the artists who belong to the current generation take precedence, while the style of those who belong to previous generations fades away and is eventually forgotten. This means that the influence of those who came before us is temporary. It comes and goes with each generation.
Followers of a past style can of course create their own following when their own style grows in popularity. However, they have to move forward themselves and continue making their style relevant to the current generation of artists. Otherwise, if their style is similar to those who came before them, they will be ignored.
Styles must change and styles do change, whether we like it or not and whether we want it or not. When the style of those who came before stop being of interest, that style stops being used and their designs stop being copied (I will talk about the concept of design in the next essay). They fall into obsolescence. What was once hot is now cold. What was desirable is no longer wanted. The old makes room for the new. The new takes over and the old vanishes.
Styles evolve. A specific style changes because the originator of this style changes. Artists rarely use a single style during their career. While most become known for a specific style, it is rarely the one they started with. Most artists find their way by adopting the style of a previous artist, the style of one who came before them. They may try their hand using the style of one or several previous artists. Some stay there, continuing with this approach their entire career. Others, a minority, goes on to create their own style. Interestingly, this style is rarely a variation of the previous style. Most of the time it is a complete departure, a renunciation of the previous style.
A style also changes when new practitioners come upon the scene and adopt the approach of a previous artist. Those who came before had different tools and used different techniques. They had different ideas about what they wanted to do with their work than I do today for example. Their goals and the means they used to reach these goals were different. They thought about photography differently than I do. In short, they followed a different paradigm (see my previous essay Paradigm Shift). No matter how much I like their work I must acknowledge that my goals, my tools, my approach and my ideas about photography are different from theirs. I must acknowledge that I follow a different paradigm, one that did not exist when those that came before me created their photographs.
Therefore, to try to do what they did and expect comparable results is delusional. I cannot and I will not. Not because I don’t want to but because things have changed. The world is different. Photography is different. I am different. I am not those who came before. I am not them. I am me. They came before me, in the past. My photography takes place today, in the present.
Would they have done what I do? Would they have used the tools, the cameras, the software I have at my disposal if it had been available to them? Who knows? The question is often asked and the answers vary according to who answers the question. Unfortunately, the answer, whether it is yes or no, is an attempt to legitimize the actions of the responder rather than a realistic inquiry into the practices of those who came before. Who knows what they would have done? Who knows if they would have found the possibilities available today exciting or even interesting? Times have changed. Any projection of their approach into today’s reality misses the point: I cannot think like them. I cannot adopt their paradigm to the extent that they did.
The past is sealed. The history of past artists is written. What I know for sure is that they did what they did with the means that they had. What they would have done with the means I have today is certainly open to conjecture. It may be fun to think about it, just like it is entertaining to think about what would have happened if Christopher Columbus had GPS positioning instead of having to rely on the position of the stars to set the course of his vessels. However, entertainment is as far as it goes. Any other approach is not to be taken seriously. I am not those who came before me and I never will be, so I cannot answer these questions for them. I can only answer them for myself. To think I can answer for them is simply delusional.
Stylistic changes by adopters of a previous style move imperceptibly in the short term and noticeably over the long run. Eventually, the original style is only present in spirit. It is no longer visible in the work of the adopters.
History and Style
History remembers things for reasons other than reality. Most people know Van Gogh for the work he did in Provence. That work covers a span of two years and took place a year before his death. The rest of his life is unknown to most people and yet that is what made him who he was. The end was the conclusion of his prior experiences. These experiences shaped his work and yet they are ignored by most.
Sometimes artists become famous for reasons out of their control. Leica and other camera companies made several street and reportage photographers famous by using their images in advertising campaigns or by releasing cameras named after them. These photographers were far less famous in their day and a large part of the audience who knows their name and their work today would have remained unaware of their existence if they had not been exposed to these marketing campaigns.
History gets mixed with marketing. Often, we are mesmerized by how the artist is remembered more than by who the artist really was. Of course, who an artist really was is inaccessible to us, either because they are dead or because we have no access to their world. Still, what the media, advertising and history books remember about them is partial at best and inaccurate at worst. Yet that is what we come to know unless we dig a little deeper and are willing to learn about less enticing aspects of their lives.
Style follows trends just like fashion does. The reason why people create art may not change. In a nutshell artists create art to express themselves and share their vision of beauty. However, their reason for adopting a particular style varies because it is sometimes influenced by the desire to follow trends rather than follow personal inspiration. Artists that follow that approach are motivated primarily by the desire to create work that fits into the contemporary art scene and that can be marketed successfully. Expressing themselves and being true to their personal artistic convictions are of secondary importance if they are important at all. Eventually the desire to create sellable work takes over all other artistic concerns.
History remembers styles for reasons other than art alone. Styles popular in their day do not necessarily make it to history books. For example, history is fickle and disdainful of popular affection for a particular style. Because a style is popular in its day is no guarantee that this artist will make it to the history books or will be remembered as significant in the historical context.
A style has lasting value because it has a long-term impact not just on current generations but on the future generations. Eventually a style lasts in part because of quantity: how many practitioners use this specific style and how many followers embrace this style. However, what makes the most difference in the long run is quality. The quality of a style is measured by looking at how relevant this style is to current generations. A style dies when it is no longer meaningful to current generations. A style continues to thrive because it manages to hold our interest and long after the original artist has passed.
About Alain Briot
I create fine art photographs, teach workshops with Natalie and offer Mastery Tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing, business and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold. All 4 books are available in eBook format on our website. Free samplers are available so you can see the quality of these books for yourself.
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