by Paul Hill

Briefly , style may be defined as the distinctive treatment of a given subject that is characteristic of a particular photographer , movement or period . As studio portraiture in the early years took its lead from painting , so another genre – landscape – became infected by formulaic conventions adopted from easel artists .The branches of trees were used as framing devices , the rectangular picture plane was divided into thirds with the golden mean positioned with scientific accuracy .These stilted devices are still used by most ‘weekend’ painters and amateur landscape photographers , as is the studio portrait pose where the sitter looks over his/her left shoulder at the camera lens.

But technical developments since the late 19th century , more sensitive film emulsions, handheld cameras , and electronic flash enabled photographers to capture things on the wing . This candid , instantaneous style is unique to the medium and gives the impression of a moment frozen in time and captured forever . This sense of naturalistic realism could be invalidated if the subjects looked at the cameraman because the operator was considered to be our ‘invisible ‘ witness to the unfolding events not their orchestrator . Henri Cartier Bresson is the best known exponent of this ‘ decisive moment ‘ style although he has always maintained his approach was more surrealistic than reportorial.

Towards the end of the 20th century when photography became the most popular medium for gallery artists , the various styles and genres became the subject matter for innumerable art works .For example , postmodernist Jeff Wall artificially recreates the candid realism style in his staged pieces by using actors and digital montaging , thus pointedly undermining its raison d’etre despite the authentic ‘look’ of his tableaux . Conceptual artist/theoretician Victor Burgin used the styles of advertising and documentary photography in the 1970s to convey critiques on capitalism .Twenty years later , textile manufacturer , Benetton , did the reverse and put social realism in its advertisements . Cindy Sherman took the particularly familiar style of film promotion photos and created fictitious scenarios where she played the ‘star’.

Advertising agencies use pastiches of styles from the history of photography and film as they know they are part of a common visual vocabulary and absorbed into our subconscious .This lexicon is continuously being added to and it does not take long for the challenging works of the avant garde to become acceptably mainstream and a new style comfortably appropriated by bandwaggoning practitioners and enterprising agencies alike.

All work has its antecedents , but the maker’s signature has to appear original if it is to be memorable. It could be an unconscious desire for some kind of immortality that drives the maker to try and leave an original contribution that may elevate them to the pantheon.

Bill Brandt’s high contrast , wide-angle images were influenced by the film Citizen Kane, but their distinctiveness and lasting qualities are beyond question , as is Diane Arbus’s uncompromisingly direct use of flash in her portraiture, William Eggleston’s neurotic preoccupation with the colour of the unregarded , Nancy Rexroth’s optically aberrated ethereal snapshots , Martin Parr’s humorously sarcastic vignettes from his travels , Mari Mahr’s meticulously montaged fragments from her personal history , Ralph Gibson’s* formalist close-ups , Duane Michals’ psychologically charged narratives , and Richard Billingham’s revealing portraits of his dysfunctional family.

Style gives an image that visual impact that acts like a magnet to the eyes . Stylists make ‘showstoppers’ through their command or subversion of conventional techniques that expose us to unique ways of seeing . Their personal signatures are more compelling than the subject matter alone . Julia Margaret Cameron’s theatrical Victorian portraits , Man Ray’s playful photograms , Alvin Langdon Coburn’s* birdseye abstractions from the urban landscape , or O.Winston Link’s dramatically illuminated steam trains may reside in the past but these stylised images still linger in the memory .In recent years the humble colour snapshot style has been elevated into an acceptable artform despite its seeming artlessness . But the makers are not naïve primitives , they are ironic decontextualisers . Gallery walls and glossy monographs have replaced the mantelshelf and the family album and a type of work derided by professionals as ‘bad’ photography is now collected by museums and can command high prices .The style has become subsumed into the postmodern aesthetic and it has , as a consequence lost its ‘innocence’. But the reappraisal process created the sort of debate that has conclusively established the dynamic influence of photography on contemporary art and culture .

Time Life Editors The Art of Photography (1981)
Steele-Perkins C. (ed.) About 70 Photographs (1980).
Wells L .(ed.) Photography: A Critical Introduction (2001)

800 words (incl bibliography)


April 2018

Fast and Furious

Ludlow, Shropshire April 20th - 22nd, 2018


Performing for the Camera

Dance4, Nottingham, April 14th - 15th, 2018


May 2018

A Challenging Landscape

Keswick, The Lake District, May 11th - 13th, 2018



One-to-One Tuition & On Location with Paul Hill.

Paul has been teaching photography for many decades in higher education and was the first professor of photographic practice in a British university. He created the famous Photographers‘ Place group workshops in Derbyshire and has specialised in one-to-one mentoring...