Billy Sheahan Photography – Class 103 – Finding Your Style

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Billy Sheahan Photography Class 103

Finding Your Style

This is part three in a series of photography discussions to help you make the most of your photographs. If you haven’t read Class 101 or Class 102, you may find those interesting.

I’ve been sharing the technical aspects of making photographs in previous classes, but most likely none of us are doing this solely because the hardware and technology excites us. No, it’s something deeper than that. It’s a way of expressing ourselves. Observing and collecting moments that speak to us. Telling stories one frame at a time.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, being a professional photographer gets more challenging every day. Unlike working in an industry that deals in credit default swaps, the rest of us are feeling the squeeze. So why keep doing it? We do it because our lives would be less fulfilling without photography. Ask me to stop making photographs? You might as well also ask me to grow antennae out of the top of my head.

Finding your style as a photographer is not for me to lay out for you step by step. What I can do however, is guide you through things to think about as you continue your photography adventure. And it is an adventure. It involves risk taking, fighting for what you believe in and thinking quickly on your feet.

This is written from my own personal truth-telling point of view. It was my path. Follow along, although at some point everyone has to blaze their own trail.

The word passion is overused these days, yet it remains a critical piece of finding the delicate zen balance of Art vs. Commerce. If I’m not passionate about the subject I am photographing, no matter what good intentions I may have, the photos suffer. They are technically good, but unless I find a connection, I notice a slight lack of soulfulness that pulls me in to the image.

As tempting as it may be to take on a project because you need to put food on your table, in the long run is it really good for your long term career to work on a project that doesn’t ring your bells? The photos will probably be less than they could be and you’ll have taken the first step toward career burn out. And if you’re not out there doing your best work, your clients will notice. As professional as you try to be, you can’t fake passion. Well, I guess you can try and you may succeed in fooling some people, but you’ll feel a bit empty afterwards.

Three Faces, 2008

In order to make photographs that have a piece of you in them, you have to determine your style. That can mean many things. The look of your images, the subject matter you choose, the underlying humor or heart-tugging empathy, even how you run your set. Put most simply, your style is taking the most fundamentally important things from your own life experiences and philosophies and focusing them back out in the photographs you create for the viewer.

Years ago when I was starting out and just beginning to find my own style, a brilliant designer I respected commented that even though I was making photographs of other people, unlike earlier images, she could see now myself in the photographs. The photographs were of someone else, but somehow part of who I am was ending up in the frame as well.

It was my first success in realizing that my style was in the early stages of being formed. How I got there was like so many other things in life. I tried and failed and tried again and failed. But I kept learning. What kind of photography felt natural to me? When did I feel like I was acting instinctively instead of trying too hard to emulate someone else’s style?

I started to make mental notes about when I really felt excited when I clicked the shutter. Basically I just shot many different kinds of photographs. Anything I could get in front of my camera. Portraits, travel, nudes, events, documentary, street photography, fashion. Did a great many of the photographs suck? Absolutely. Most of them did. Poorly executed knockoffs. But sometimes a better way to find out who you are is to find out who you’re not.

It was less about making a good photograph and more about finding the kind of photograph I felt passionate making. I knew I’d get better once I found what I loved. Then it was just a matter of growing my little style nugget into something that looked good.

Karlov Most, Charles Bridge, Prague, 1999

A lot of what I did back then was not to think too much. I didn’t pay attention to the rules of composition because, well, I didn’t know most of them, being self taught. I just balanced the frame by what felt right to me. In my viewfinder, I learned to see the various shapes or subjects in the frame as being visually “heavier” or “lighter.” In other words, something visually heavy drew your eye to it, weighing down the composition. If I could balance the weight of a heavy area with a larger area of “lightness,” by giving something that felt visually lighter more room in the frame, it seemed to balance better. It allowed me to create what I considered to be a more interesting composition.

Ot remains one of the main reasons I like to shoot in B&W. Color adds another weight to the composition and I seem to be drawn more to the essence of monochrome shapes rather than colors in a lot of my work.

No one taught me this, it just was how I began to perceive composition by shooting a lot of film. I would develop the film and review. Over time each review session became less of a I wonder what I have here, and more of a confirmation that the vision in my head during the shoot was accurately represented on the film. Why did one image feel good and one didn’t? Did I still feel the connection with the subject matter in the photo that I felt at the time I shot it?

Turns out that at the time, I was dreadful at shooting fashion. I got lucky once in a while, but as much as I tried, my eye was just not developed enough. Plus I was completely ignorant to the importance of the stylist, hair and makeup as well as the subtleties of fabric and cut. I put that aside for almost 15 years.

And my portraits were excellent by Sears Photo Studio standards, but from a unique style standpoint, they needed work. I needed to work on creating a connection with the subject during the shoot to draw something out from them besides just a representation of what they looked like. And as I mentioned before, I needed to be able to see some sense of me in the photographs as much as who I was photographing. I need to tell some story about them through what I was seeing in them.

The two areas that I quickly became most comfortable with through all the experimenting were nudes and travel/street photography. I was a little puzzled at the time because they seemed to not have anything to do with each other as far as I could ascertain at the time. But something about those two genres seemed to stand out far and away from others I had been experimenting with. Composing seemed to be second nature after a while of practicing. The resulting photographs were some of the most pleasing to my eye that I had ever made. I still wasn’t great, but you could see the potential. What was to come if I kept at it.

Perhaps the most important thing I did during that incubation period was not to ask myself too many questions about my motivation for making those images. I spent many years at the beginning simply making the photographs by feel rather than really dissecting the reason behind my choice of subject matter. It was as if I answered the why am I doing this question, I would lose all the magical power associated with it and I wouldn’t be able to make beautiful images any more. Silly really. But it worked. I just followed my bliss. And that bliss gradually grew into a undeniable passion, which grew into my style and raison d’être.

I never made a photograph to please someone else. If I pleased myself, that was enough. If anyone else liked it, well that was gravy. The amazing thing was, people did like my photos. And I began to sell them.

And it was shortly after that time that I very nearly lost my way.

I remember traveling in Greece and looking for images to make that would sell. I spent a week making completely mediocre photographs. I put my camera away for a few days to clear my head. When I picked it up again on one of the Greek Islands, I remembered to please myself and stop thinking about what might be commercial. And the photographs became infinitely better.

Now, you may have noticed that I have not discussed terms such as commercial, fine art or editorial. That is on purpose. Some people will try to pigeonhole you into one of those categories when the truth is the photos you make with your heart and passion could probably fall into two or all three of those categories depending on how the photograph is used contextually.

Reaching, 1995

And it’s easy for any photographer to be tempted to self categorize just because it’s a simple shorthand way to describe some aspect of your work. But you may be not giving yourself enough credit by limiting who you are in that way.

A photograph can resonate on many levels. The same image can be a fine art piece as well as commercial. It comes down to the idea and the story you as the photographer are expressing.

Is the photograph on the left fine art? Is it commercial? It ended up being both. I exhibited it back in 1996 in galleries and shortly thereafter, I sold the usage rights for a beauty related print advertisement. It’s all in the context.

Which, to come back full circle, is why having a stubborn passion about your work is always going to make it better. Sometimes it’s about picking you battles. Unless you completely finance your work by yourself, you’ll rarely have total control. But you can make the decision that a project may or may not feed what you are passionate about on some level.

Maybe you love working with a particular client. The idea they want you for isn’t exactly in your wheelhouse, but there is enough mutual respect that the client is going to insist on getting as much of you into the frame as possible. They didn’t simply hire any photographer. They hired you. And if they’re smart, they let you alone to find the thing that ignites your passion. That might be enough to inject your style into the project. It still comes down to doing the work that speaks to you the most. And presenting that work as who you are.

One of my brilliant photographer friends who I frequently mention in this blog called Doug Menuez, once told me about his “fuck you” portfolio. It was made up not of images that the conventional wisdom would indicate he would get work from. Rather it was made up of what might have been considered his fringe work. His personal work. The work that rang his bells.

And, you guessed it, he was suddenly getting the work that was more in line with his passions. Sure it’s a risk to create a “fuck you” book, but in the end it changed the work he was being asked to bid on.

Here’s a blog he wrote on that unconventional portfolio called On Chaos, Fear, Survival & Luck. Doug is a wise, truth-telling, generous man with his stories and always makes for a good read.

The point is, if you don’t show the work that is made from the deepest recesses of what makes you, you, but instead present only images you think are what you are supposed to show regardless of whether they turn you on, well… you will probably have a long and successful but creatively frustrating and unfulfilling career, maybe. Or you may just burn out and leave the business altogether.

And my style? I still enjoy my nudes and travel images. But I’ve also expanded to people and fashion. You can view my portfolios on my main website. Nothing like 15 years of refining a passion to allow you to take what you absolutely love about the work and applying to new genres without losing what made you passionate about it in the first place. Just don’t lose the me in whatever style you find yourself working in.

Is my portfolio commercial, fine art or editorial? Maybe all three. Your photos should be a bit of a mirror of who you are.

And because they are little mirrors of truth-telling, your viewers will not only see you, but in the really good images made with passion, they will see themselves.