About 20 years ago there was a photographer whose pictures appeared on the cover of countless national publications. For around 18 months you could hardly pick up a magazine without seeing his pictures and his signature look. He had covers, he had spreads, and he was the “it” guy. He made portraits of presidents, athletes, musicians and authors. His look was so distinctive that every time you saw his work you immediately knew it was his work. The look was distinctive because aside from the subject, every picture was essentially the same. His body of work was made with the same lighting, the same slightly-wide lens, and the same background. But after a while the look vanished—along with the magazine covers. The look had run its course and editors had tired of his schtick.
Contrast that with a photographic style. A style is something that evolves to the point that it’s inseparable from every picture you make. You don’t have to find it, because it finds you. It’s not a look, or a technique, or a particular lens, or anything contrived. It’s simply the way you see the world in two dimensions.
Styles are different than shtick. Styles endure. Styles are timeless. Styles are unique. Most importantly, styles sustain a career much longer than shtick.
Photographers who’ve had great lasting ability are the ones who didn’t rely on a shtick and whose style was distinctive. Names like Hurrell, Karsh, Adams, Cartier-Bresson, Ritts, Iooss, Lanker, Allard, Maisel, Demarchelier and Newman immediately come to mind. They all worked in photography decade after decade because their individual style never went out of favor. They built careers on a foundation of good picture sense combined with a unique way of presenting that sense to the world.
“It requires the focus to remain in demand for decades without becoming the equivalent of disco or tube tops.”
Creating a career in photography requires long-term planning and short-term adjustments. It requires the focus to remain in demand for decades without becoming the equivalent of disco or tube tops. It requires removing the expiration date from your portfolio.
With tools such as Photoshop and other imaging software, obtaining a signature look is easier than ever. But, like so many other choices in photography, relying solely on a “look” has the potential to turn your work into a commodity. There is an entire industry of imaging professionals and digital techs who can easily apply a trendy effect to your photographs. Whether it’s desaturated colors, bleach-bypass, a vintage treatment, light leaks, high-pass sharpened portraits, or any other technique, the applied effect is nothing more than a wrapper on the content that’s beneath it. And since these tools are available to everyone, the same wrapper can just as easily be applied to your competitor’s photographs.
What no one can ever reproduce is your style—the content of your work. And it’s your individual style that sets you apart from the rest of the crowd. No software will ever be able to reproduce that.
Joey Terrill is a Los Angeles-based photographer with clients that include American Express, Coca-Cola, Disney, Golf Digest, Major League Baseball, Red Bull, and Sports Illustrated. He teaches workshops and speaks at seminars including the Summit Series Workshops, WPPI, Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, UPAA Symposium, World in Focus, and Nikon School.