Skip navigation

Daily Archives: September 22nd, 2010

When I began making photographs in 1977 in an art photography class at the small college I was attending, the art majors all talked about the importance of defining a “style”, a unique look to their pictures.  As an alien in this world (I was a physics major), it made little sense to me why one should go about defining a style (physic majors didn’t really bother about such things—just keeping up with the work load and not flunking out was hard enough) let alone how.   Besides, most of my effort was spent learning the rudiments of the craft, at the start how to avoid the worst mistakes, then later how to control the process, and trying to imitate photographs in magazines.    I must admit that I did not know why some photographs published in books were thought to be better than mine—I was especially appalled at the scratches and cracked emulsions of Atget—hell, I could do better than that.  Of course, most of my photographs from that period have, over the years, found their proper place in the world, in the trash can.

8-5732 Canwell Glacial River, August 2010

I’m not sure when I first became aware of how powerful the viewpoint of a single photographer could be—maybe it was first from books,  Robert Frank’s Americans, or Walker Evans Message from the Interior.  I do know that seeing the Robert Adams “New West” show at the Philadelphia Museum in 1982 was transformative.  Those pictures were so simple, so obvious, so clean—a style so transparent it seems not to be a style at all (I think that was how Szarkowski described Walker Evans, but it seems even more true of Robert Adams).    So I began imitating Adams, photographing the landscape as I thought he would have, had he lived in Pennsylvania rather than in Colorado.    But I soon discovered that imitation is not as easy as it looks—pictures fail in many ways—but sometimes the failures are instructive.   East coast light is different than Colorado light—I think that was when I started paying attention to Atget’s use of morning light—and trying to use it, pointing my lens into the sun, using the glow.  But mostly I just kept making photographs.

Now I’ve been making photographs for 33 years, and I haven’t thought about developing a style for a long time.  But a few weeks ago I had a discussion with another photographer about how Lee Friedlander’s work is so distinctive—you can pick out one of his pictures out of a book—you just know it’s a Friedlander.  Then we pulled a box of my photographs off the shelf, and started looking through them, pictures from this summer, Alaskan Landscapes.   And halfway through the box, like some kind of epiphany, hey, these are my pictures.  These are pictures I made, and in making them, I made many decisions—what camera to use, where to go to look for photographs, where to stop the car, where to set up the tripod, how to frame the picture, when to trip the shutter—and in printing, how big to make the print, what settings to use on the printer, what paper.  And in looking at them I suddenly realized that I make different decisions than any other photographer I know—in subject, in framing, in presentation…

8-5740 Tundra, Petersville Road, September 2010

I own these pictures. So is this my “style”?  Damned if I know.  I’m still just trying to do my work…