Recently I showed a set of photographs taken for a commercial client some forty years ago. These were mostly Ektachrome colour transparencies, processed properly in Kodak approved chemistry and then stored in conditions appropriate for the extremes of sub-tropical Brisbane. They had fared well over the decades.
In the course of laying out the blog I had cause to wonder whether my photographic style had changed over the years. The assignment was to illustrate a range of bicycles and an equivalent range of riders showing diversity in age and gender. It was interesting to note that I had shot a good mix of close-up and long shots, utilising my wide and telephoto lenses. What did surprise me was the fact that the framing of the shots was not dissimilar to work that I have done recently. I guess that our craft is a moving feast, and that stylistic treatments will roll in and out of use over time so is this mere coincidence or a constant?
One would assume that a lifetime of experience, the influence of all those lecturers at conventions, and the comments of judges about my images in competitions, might result in a gradual change in style, if not technique.
Having spent vast amounts of money stocking a library with photographic books by people such as Sam Haskins, Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts, Jeanloup Sieff, and Guy Bourdin; and only replicating their influences in my private work, not my commercial output, there surely must have been other influences along the way.
A mid life crisis driven foray into academic study left me with a visual arts postgraduate degree. Probably the most life changing point in my photographic career. Good lecturers had pointed me to other genres of fine art as well as towards obscure photographic practitioners. I was reading books about photography that did NOT contain photographs, and the photographers mentioned above became slightly less relevant to me. My ability to assess, evaluate, appraise and critique became more finely honed with the discipline of academic research. These are traits that I hope stand me in good stead today.
But back to the transparencies of bicycles from the seventies. They were not of a quality that would demand an immediate assignment commission from a high flying New York advertising agency – but nor was the product from Australia’s highest selling cycle manufacturer. These were shots taken early in my career and at the time they were the distillation of self taught technique and the early results of skills passed on by practitioners of the professional Institute which I had recently joined. The years I had spent buying, and trawling through, vast quantities of magazines represented visual research, today that would take place online. I was working with a young and ambitious art director who was as keen as I was to explore a good idea using our mutual client’s products. Team work usually enhances creativity and close collaboration does tend to prevent unpleasant surprises later on in the process.
Would I approach this same assignment differently today? I would ask for more money – I deserve it! I would still shoot the same variety of images. I would be forced to pay for access to the same botanic gardens. Probably I would direct some model expressions differently, but then I am still surprised that a couple of the poses still hold up – even if the clothes indicate historic images. I would direct the models to wear helmets – but that is a bureaucratic imposition. While I feel that my skill-sets and techniques have dramatically improved over the years, my instincts tell me that when it comes to directing talent, setting a scene and then recording what takes place, nothing very much has changed. I used the best materials, and the best processing laboratory available at the time – as is evidenced by the fact that I was able to scan the results easily today. My data asset management (DAM) is good, as I can identify, date and retrieve the assignment.
Questioning one’s own style is a difficult proposition, but probably should be done on a regular basis if we are to stay ahead of the photographic pack. Revisiting work from days gone by can, at first, be excruciating with props, clothing and hairstyles immediately dating the images and shortly thereafter calling their instructive usefulness into question.
However, looking beyond this, looking a layer or two below the surface can deliver a revelation or two – so I recommend it.
This essay first appeared in f11 Magazine :: for PHOTOGRAPHERS and AFICIONADOS, p150, issue 48, October 2015.