The Expressive Photograph

Note: this article originally appeared on the blog in December, 2015. I am reposting this edited version at the request of a reader.

Pictures are exciting when they say something in a new manner, not for the sake of being different, but because the individual is different and the individual expresses himself. ~Harry Callahan

Teachers of photography seem to me to fall into three distinct classes—there are those who teach technical skills and offer simple formulas aimed primarily at aesthetic appeal; there are those who preach the values of creativity, individuality, and originality; and there are those of my ilk who touch on all of the above but  whose primary interest is to promote the notion that creative pursuits accomplish their highest reward not in the making of pleasing, unique, or original photographs, but in elevating the life experiences of the photographer. This is not meant to suggest that any one approach is better than any other. They all accomplish useful, albeit different, things, which may be more or less useful to different people at different times; and one should be mindful of these differences in approach when deciding to attend a class, talk, or workshop.

Among the things separating the three approaches is their desired outcome. Those teaching the basics of photography or some other formulaic approaches, promote the making of “good” photographs, where goodness is most often measured in aesthetic appeal and technical perfection. Those promoting creativity, often focus on making original photographs, and often assume that students already possess sufficient technical skill to capture and process these photographs. In my teaching, I wish to promote the concept of expressive photographs—photographs that are not just original or appealing in themselves, but that also communicate some subjective thoughts and feelings from the mind of the photographer.

An expressive photograph is not just aesthetically pleasing (and at times it may not even be that); it does not necessarily need to exhibit prescribed technical qualities (although it does require that the photographer possess a degree of technical skill sufficient to accomplish whatever qualities are desirable); and its originality is not so much a goal as a byproduct, as by its nature, an expressive photograph is meant to express the uniqueness of the person who made it.

This brings me to the effects that making expressive photographs has on the life and mind of the photographer. One cannot express something compelling, interesting, or inspiring without first having something compelling, interesting, or inspiring to express. Also, one cannot create a self-expressive photograph if the things expressed in the photograph are not of the self (i.e., unique and original, at least to a substantial degree). And so, in pursuit of expressive work, one also becomes motivated to seek those things that are worth expressing: meaningful experiences, complex thoughts, powerful emotions, creative epiphanies, and useful or interesting knowledge.

Discussions of creative photography often culminate in the advice to find one’s “vision,” “personal style,” or some unique look. All suggest that there is some thing—some quality, some silver bullet, that, once found, will usher the photographer into a realm of mastery and creative bliss. I think that this is a very dangerous and self-defeating myth.

If you are a unique and creative person, you should already have some personal vision within you. Instead of chasing after some elusive, contrived, or assumed vision that may be out there for one to find, it is likely more productive to distill, articulate, and find the means to express a vision one already has (and that may be obscured by a clutter of distractions, influences, and judgments).

Vision is not something you find once, in complete and obvious form that lends itself readily to making photographs, and then have it from that point onward. Vision evolves and changes with you, reflecting your sensibilities, thoughts, skills, knowledge, and maturity at a point in time. This is part of the reason I believe that, if your goal is to isolate and to express your subjective feelings in a photograph, vision is a bad metaphor for what you should be seeking. Thoughts and emotions do not originate in vision, but the other way around: thoughts and emotions lead to vision.

Personal style emerges out of personal work. In expressive work, the emphasis should be on the personal aspect of vision, and not on the style. If your work is truly personal, it will also have a style that is consistent with your unique abilities and sensibilities. And if your personal outlook changes, the style should change with it. Think for example of Picasso’s drawings in his early days, then his Blue Period, then his Cubist period. They each look very different despite representing one person’s vision (rather, one person’s evolution of vision).

Likewise, I believe that a unique look should not be a goal, but a byproduct. If you express your subjective thoughts and feelings, your photographs will be unique by virtue of you being unique. And if they are not sufficiently so, I propose that it is better to work on the cause, rather than the effect.

It is one thing to develop your technical skills so you can produce unique and visually appealing photographs, but I think that it is a much more worthy goal to make yourself a more unique, complex, and creative person, and then to have your photographs be an expression of that uniqueness, rather than just being unique in themselves.

I think that for those who seek personal growth in art, the pervasive emphasis on visual characteristics of a photographs is, in a sense, putting the cart before the horse. Instead of settling for predictable aesthetics—those inherent in the subject, or produced by application of some common formula—I believe that it is more elevating and rewarding to make yourself a more creative, more knowledgeable, more interesting, and more expressive artist, and let the appeal and uniqueness of your photographs emerge organically out of these personal qualities, using the visual qualities of your subject not as the subjects in themselves, but as a means to expressive ends. Such is the distinction, and the power of becoming a self-expressive artist, rather than merely one who makes “good” photographs.

Unto Itself
Unto Itself
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7 thoughts on “The Expressive Photograph

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  1. Guy – you wrote similarly about this in the recent edition of lenswork. My heart fluttered when i read both. You have put into words what i have been struggling with recently in using my photography to creatively express a concept i am working on. Thank you so much!

  2. Very assertive essay, Guy, and I agree wholeheartedly. I loved this part: “Vision evolves and changes with you, reflecting your sensibilities, thoughts, skills, knowledge, and maturity at a point in time”. I was discussing with a fellow photographer about “vision”. Among other things on that occasion, I mentioned that vision is alike to biological evolution. In evolution, species change across time due to the influence of their environment, but they preserve the original/ancient traits that make them unique. In a similar way, our vision evolves almost dialectically with every aspect of our lives, but it remains faithful to those traces within the images that have always belonged to us, and that we (should) keep close to the heart.

    I love this quote too: “A unique style […] is the by-product of visual exploration, not its goal. Personal vision comes only from not aiming at it. Over a long period of time and through many, many images, the self re-emerges with even greater strength than if it were the end-product.” ~~David Hurn

    Cheers, Guy!

    1. Good points, Paulo. I would also say that we should be careful not to assume that “self” refers to one constant and unchanging quality, or to a quality that evolves in a continuous, linear, fashion. Much like biological evolution, the self may evolve in a pattern of punctuated equilibrium—sometimes consistent with its recent past, and sometimes changing in abrupt and profound ways in a short period of time.

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