If you become good at something, or well-known for something, what should you do next?
In writing or music the answer might be ‘do more of it’. This is the curse of the three-book or four-album deal. You become indentured to the publisher to make more copies of the same thing. But you can also become your own victim by repeating a successful formula, even despite the likelihood of diminishing returns.
As a photographer you might develop a particular look or style. If it gains approval, the temptation is to prolong that style to maintain the approval. If you were a professional the drive might be stronger, as that style might be what you are hired for. But tastes change – what about informal family group portraits shot against plain white backgrounds, for example? And what about your own creative growth? Do you want to be limited to wide-angle landscapes with a rock in the foreground?
There are artists who are recognised as having changed their work over time. Think of David Bowie as an obvious example, but you could also look at Sparks, Neil Young, Tom Waits or Alan Moore. Indeed, Alan Moore is explicit in his descriptions of the writing process, that as soon as you recognise yourself repeating a style you should stop using it and develop something else. His advice is to pick something you find difficult and try that. This is the way to grow, not from comfort and safety but from restraint and risk. If you don’t make yourself do something different, when are you likely to do anything different? Or as Kahneman, Sibony and Sunstei said, “We do not go through life imagining alternative ways of seeing what we see”. You could rephrase this as “nobody ever set out to prove themselves wrong”.
This is different to being in a creative hole. In a hole you are stuck and don’t know what to do next. Instead, here you are riding high, master of your craft and technique, but taking the conscious decision to break away and do something else. This is getting out at the top of your game, before your style becomes your handcuffs. It also hopefully avoids the diminishing returns of repeating what was a successful formula.
I did write previously on developing a style, where I wondered if I had one. There must be something, as I’ve had one of my pictures identified as mine even though it was anonymous. So perhaps I now need to break away from what was recognisable and try something else?
I’ve mentioned Alan Moore above, and he has something to say about having a recognisable style. If I may
steal quote from his book Writing for comics: “if your ambition is to be a creator, then know that creativity is an ongoing and progressive phenomenon and that stasis and stagnation is sure death to it”.
Taking that as the aim, what could I do with my own cliches?
- Simplicity – try more complex pictures or containing more elements
- Block or simple shapes – work through the full list of compositional elements
- Black and white – shoot colour instead
- Shoot some landscapes (which I currently avoid)
- Shoot some street photography
- Try shooting video rather than stills
I’ve had some words to say on most of these: I like simplicity; shoot a lot of mono; avoid landscapes and street photography. So now is my opportunity to stop doing what is comfortable and see what I can do in a less familiar genre.
Not that I’m presuming to have anything like a consistent style or to suffer with artistic angst. But it doesn’t harm to challenge yourself out of your comfort zone. I might even (one day) find what it is I’m good at or enjoy more than taking pictures of things that go fast or swim.
PS – I had a go at what I proposed. I went out and wandered around some landscape and did a bit of architectural photography. Not as bad as I’d thought. I may never take either of them up as my default, but having seen my first results I now want to improve. Give me a hand and we’ll shift this paradigm.