Finding your own theme and developing your own signature style is one of the most difficult but also one of the most rewarding tasks as a photographer. If your body of work is too diverse and lacks a common theme, it is really difficult to get to the next level. So the aim as a photographer has to be to become an expert or a master of your theme.
We have an exercise that we go through with all of our professional photographer students at LIoP.
This assignment is made out of two parts.
I am going to show you how my most inspiring images then influence my personal work and the type of jobs that I’m going to get off the back of it.
Part one: Select the 10 most important, most memorable images of your life. That can mean anything between 5 and 15. These images need to be really important to you. Don’t select any images that you find just so, so. That is not good enough. Another point is that you select your images from your memory alone. The sheer fact that you are going to remember those images already gives us a very clear indication in terms of what type of images actually matter to you.
Part two: Think about how those images are linked. Do they have something in common? Of course, they have something in common. They have YOU in common.
No other photographer would bring the same identical 10 images.
And the second part usually is easier if you work maybe with friends or another photographer or someone with some with visual training because for them it would be easier to spot the common theme.
There should be one or two main themes appearing. And then, by analyzing those images it should give you a relatively clear idea where your interest lies. And now you can convert those into concepts and ideas for projects and for personal work.
So the first image on my list represents one of my first visual memories. It’s a painting that I had in my bedroom. So this one is in fact not the original because I couldn’t find it. But it is a screenshot of a computer game called Crysis II. You can see that it shows an apocalyptic urban landscape and a slightly kitsch with waterfalls from skyscrapers.
The second image is from a photographer called Harold Edgerton. I remember seeing it in the Guinness Book of World Records and it shows a bullet piercing through an apple and it was the fastest photograph at that time. What is important is that millions of people have seen this image, but only a few will remember it. I remember it because it shows, again, an element of destruction, a so-called transitional moment, or famously called the decisive moment. You can see the inside and the outside of the apple at the same time. And photography here can show us something is most great photographs, too, that we haven’t seen before or that our naked eye can’t see.
My parents had a book about the moon landing, and these images are some of my all-time favourites. They are scientific evidence and propaganda at the same time. And they showed this beautifully desolate and vast landscape with its amazing hard light and particularly drawn towards these calibration crosses.
When I was a teenager, I was a drummer in a band- a real Hippy and Pink Floyd had a huge influence on me. I particularly loved this image. The cover of Wish You Were Here.
The next image is by photographer Richard Avedon, one of the greatest photographers of all time and is from his series in the American West. And after seeing this image, I decided I want to become a photographer. I find these images very voyeuristic, and I’m not talking about the erotic voyeurism. I’m talking about the fascination of staring. These images are very revealing. You can see every skin pore every hair and teeth on the subject.
Later, I was introduced to the work of Jurgen Teller, and when I saw this image of Kate Moss, I immediately fell in love. I thought this is how she looks at you in the morning when you are her partner. And I later read in an interview with Teller where he sets what you see is not the real Kate Moss. What you see is how I decided to show her. What he means by that is, of course, he shows the real Kate Moss by DNA and by name, but that you don’t see the real person behind the image. It’s still staged. Until this point, I would have agreed, like most other people, to the statements that you’ve seen reality when you see a photograph and now realize that this is not the case. I realized that I can create whatever images I like. I don’t have to show reality and that as a photographer, I can play God.
The next image is by photographer Phillip Lorca diCorcia and his work, and particularly his series Heads. This taught me the importance of lighting. Light can make or break an image. It can invoke interest or make something look very ordinary. With the lighting he adds to the pedestrians, I started to develop an interest in these characters. Where is he coming from? Where is he going? Is he happy? Does he live a full-filled life? And what are his dreams? I don’t think I would ask these questions if the images were not lit in this particular cinematic style with a hard key lighting and the strong hair light.
The last image, I want to show you are from Edward Muybridge. He was the first photographer to capture motion in a sequence of shots. First, he photographed galloping horses. But later on in his career, he progressed to photograph anatomical studies and movement sequences in front of a background that allows him to trace the movement of the human body and find these images also have a voice quality. The analytical elements of the grit background, the fast shutter speeds, and the hard life that reviewed every detail of the fighter’s bodies.
When you look at my personal work, you will recognize a lot of these elements that we talked about. You will often find an element of voyeurism and destruction, a fascination with the spectacular and an interest with the human body. And that’s now what my specialization is. And if you know what your theme is then the style of your photographs is just a logical consequence.
As photographers, we have to make creative choices all the time. Slow or fast shutter speeds. As a photographer interested in the spectacular, naturally, I will go for fast shutter speeds. I want to capture all the details.
Great or shallow depth of field, naturally, I will go for a great depth of field. Why would I want to blur anything in my images?
Hard or soft light? Hard light reveals, and soft light smoothes things over and looks flattering. I’m not interested in flattering. I want to reveal every muscle and every water droplet.
Now, if you compare these two images, they are, of course, very different. But for me, they are directly linked. And I can trace a lot of my images back to this shot by Harold Edgerton.
And the jobs I get on the back of my personal work look like this. This is a campaign for Nestea, a revival of the so-called Nestea plunge when they were looking for a photographer to shoot the advertising campaign. They were looking for someone who’s good at capturing people with water, is able to capture the key moment, and then make it look spectacular.
That means first you create your own personal work and then there will book you for something that looks similar.