Brand vs. Style
Style has no formula, but it has a secret key:
It is the extension of your personality.
A few years back a friend told me that she instantly recognized a picture as mine on her Instagram feed before looking at the name. I was flattered, because I have often heard (especially in the past decade) how important it is that we develop a style. I honestly didn't know that I had a style, and I was feeling a little insecure about that, until she essentially told me that I did. I concluded that I had arrived.
Many photographers I admire have recognizable styles. I recognize the work of Colin Templeton immediately. I can pick out a Michael Kenna from across the room. And I can tell a Peter Turnley picture with my eyes closed. In fact, after seeing some pictures on Megan Kwasniak's website I concluded that she had taken a workshop with Peter. Turns out she had taken two.
Style is important because it signifies maturity in our photography. A photographer seldom starts out with a style, although there are exceptional people who have.
Be careful, though. Although style imparts a predictable consistency in our work, when we promote our style it becomes our brand. A brand is especially important for commercial photographers because clients can know ahead of time what they're getting when they hire someone. In fact, they are really hiring the style rather than the person, and it's the brand that tells them that.
But, do we really want to be branded? Once branded, a cow is part of a specific herd and belongs to a certain ranch, until that rancher decides to sell or kill it. I don't want to be a dead cow. A dead cow can't improve, change or move forward. A dead cow is just, well…dead. Until it becomes a hamburger in a paper bag.
Once you become branded, you cannot stray from the ranch. People come to expect a certain type of photograph. In portrait photography, this can boil down to a certain light setup, focal length and facial expression. Think Peter Hurley. That's a strong brand with very rigid criteria.
Your style, on the other hand, is your subtle signature. That little hint of your essence that you leave on your work. It's the way you see things. It's you.
While an argument can be made for branding in some commercial genres of photography, should a fine art photographer even try to develop a brand? A brand connotes a lack of imagination and forward momentum on the part of the photographer. It constrains the photographer into a creative rut.
On the other hand, photographic style comes from within, and the bad news is you may have no control over it. Edward Weston observed that his early photographs made in adolescence bore a strong resemblance in style to his latter work, even though he moved from pictorialism to straight photography and his subject material varied greatly, dependent on geography and carnal lust.
The important thing is, don't try to pick a style by emulating someone you admire. The gift of one Peter Turnley is enough for this world. Even his identical twin has a distinct, albeit related, style.
And don't fall into the trap of actively trying to develop your style. That will just stunt your growth and maturation as a photographer. Your style is within you and you should not try to control it. In fact, you might be the last person to recognize it because it is so much a part of you.
Just make photographs using your heart. Your style will come.