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Part 1 | Building a vision: The paradox of unicity

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We’ve already seen in this book that our creativity is driven by internal and external elements that are unique to us – namely our experience, the environment, and critical influences in our lives. All these elements already mean that our vision of a particular scene will be unique to us. As Rohit Vohra said very well: “We are the director of this shot. Should we have taken this shot some milliseconds before, or using a slightly different angle, this would have resulted in a very different shot. Street photography is highly subjective for this reason.”

But moving away from a single shot, what does building a unique vision really mean? Rohit Vohra describes it as “developing a unique voice in street photography capable of influencing others”, while Mike Lee defines this as “developing a unique style combined with a powerful narrative”.  In essence, a vision is a unique way of seeing and capturing the world that transcends every picture one takes, creating a sense of consistency and unicity in one’s work. It means stepping away from imitating others in order to create images that are truly ours: unique in themselves, yet consistent and recognizable as a whole.

Building a vision over time

Building a vision, for a street photographer, can be incredibly difficult at times.  Because a photographer is not planning consciously his shots, it is hard to create an output that shows unicity and consistency. It’s as if trying to take the best shot coming in front of us, all the while making sure that this shot reflects our unique way of seeing the world, not anyone else’s. Not a simple task to achieve, for anyone!

Winogrand used to say that a photographer should take 10,000 images before figuring out who they are and what they do. And indeed, it takes time and practice to reach a level where an artist develop what we call a unique vision – a style, a voice – that is consistent across their work and resonates with others in the street photography world.

•        “I admit I was naïve about what the hell I was doing until one day I was in a café watching and realized I got my eye back. From that point on, the train started rolling.” Mike Lee

•        “My style found me when I stopped trying to have a style. Despite my yearning otherwise, I kept coming home with moody/abstract/pretty photos. So I decided to go out and take whatever I was drawn to.” Melissa Breyer

•        “I found myself slowly, through doing 25 years of assignments. Before that, I was interested in taking important pictures like Robert Frank. Nowadays, the subject doesn’t matter anymore. Only the story does.” David Carol

 

Case study: David J. Carol

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David J. Carol aims to paint the absurdity of the world, a constant theme tying together a 35 year long career as an artist and professional photographer. For David though, his photographs are primarily a reflection of who he is: “all my pictures look the same. I am just being myself.”

When he was younger, David tried to be edgy, to take intelligent shots, to always create something new. He shot with many different formats and lenses with the hope that something new would come out of it. He now understands that ultimately, he takes pictures for himself – pictures that look like him, and he remains the only judge of whether he’s been successful or not. After years of practice, the importance of the subject is no longer relevant to him. He can afford to take the images that he likes, favoring unexpected moments over events with historical significance. The story is all that matters to him nowadays.

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The paradox of unicity

David J. Carol has clearly established a style and a voice in photography, and the thematic homogeneity of his images – across both new or old work – appears clearly to the viewer. However, not all photographers follow a similar approach, and the meaning of unicity and consistency can largely differ based on what drives you as a street photographer.

As an example, here’s what Mike Lee says about style and unicity in his work: “You have to develop your own style, but it doesn’t mean that you have to stick to one style or form of composition for the rest of your life. I like to play across a large sets of styles influenced by Saul Leiter, HCB, Lee Miller, Robert Frank for example. I still see unicity in my work across these different styles – my pictures are still mine.” On the other side of the spectrum, some photographers favor a project-based approach to their work, so consistency and unicity are more easily shown within a project or series, as opposed to the entire portfolio.

Rammy Narula’s vision is a constant exploration for him: he gets drawn to a subject for a while whether he intends it or not – and it becomes central to his work. Now that he’s done with Platform 10, he’s moving on to a very different subject, about patterns in light. His work is no longer about people at a particular location, but about colors and light everywhere. Change is key for him – his creativity is tied to a subject, one at a time. He doesn’t come back to creating the same images over and over again, and keeps evolving with his each new subject.

 

 Image by David J. Carol

Image by David J. Carol

Conclusion:

  • A vision means creating a unique voice or style in street photography, that is recognized within the artistic community. In other words, it means creating photographic work that is clearly distinct from others.
  • Building a cohesive vision means achieving a level of consistency and unicity in one’s work, which is often a challenge for emerging street photographers
  • It takes time and self-knowledge to be able to create something truly unique, meaning that the evolution is long and requires a high level of maturity from the photographer
  • Some photographers keep producing the same pictures with high level of consistency in their work, while others display more diverse styles sometimes dependent on the project they are working on.
  • Very often, the work we produced at the beginning of our journey will be greatly influenced by others, while the more we know ourselves, the more we are able to find our style.