Style or Gimmick ?

By ralph

One of the more refreshing aspects of watching the work done in a camera club is to see the emergence of the individual styles of the particular photographers, free from phony attempts to create a style by the use of gimmicks. I define a gimmick as a way of creating a different look by some simple technical manipulation like using a filter, color change or distortion with the conscious aim of creating an instant style. A true style arises from a mix of its makers abilities and preferences, both in processes and subjects, and is such an extension of their own personalities that they may be unaware of having created anything unique. In fact the mix of subjects and technical approach can be so specific to a particular photographer that it's hard to spot either one alone. If Ansel Adams ever shot a cat picture or Karsh ever did a landscape I'm sure we couldn't figure out who did what without checking the credit line.

Since the advertising and fashion industries see any distinctive change in imagery as a way to snag the eye of the viewer any photographer who comes up with a new look is the Hero Of The Moment (soon to be discarded when the next new look comes along). Since any "new look" can have cash value there is pressure on the pros to seize upon almost any gimmick to make their work look different. One of the worst examples I've seen in recent years was a spread of fashion photos where the photographer made sure the head of every model was in deep shadow - a different but clumsy look. The best idea to come along has been the reappearance of B & W, often with the product in color, certainly a clean and novel way of highlighting a product.

Since perfect color and sharpness are the common currency of mailbox stuffing, third rate catalogs and still higher quality is not an option, a new look usually involves slight to severe compromising with that quality. Twenty years ago, when new special effects filters were appearing almost weekly you could grab the latest multiprism, star filter or zoom filter and create an instant "style" with it - as long as you were the first kid on the block that had it. Obviously the main problem with a gimmick is that it's easily copied and soon of no value to its first user.

Conde Nast Traveler magazine seems to be particularly prone to the gimmick-as-style syndrome. There was a run of covers that showed part of someone's body protruding into the usually tilted view of some exotic place (presumably your feet sticking into a snapshot). They got over that but still seem to consider any level image "hopelessly square". I find their latest gimmick even more annoying. They've featured lots of photos with heavily blurred tops and bottoms leaving a band of sharpness across the middle. Unlike soft focus images or soft images with sharper centers, both of which resonate with the idea of dim and distant memories, or just plain nostalgia, I find the blurry tops and bottoms intrusive, annoying and without any feeling. The effect is probably caused be either tilting the back or lens of a camera out of parallel with the other, either in a view camera or with a Canon tilt-shift lens. Unfortunately many of the dimmer lights of the photo business are now copying this gross look.

Polaroid has been hugely successful in recent years by finding one novel way after another of interrupting normal processing of their products to create instant styles (or gimmicks). First there were the wavy and smeared images that resulted from manipulating emerging SX-70 images, then the smoky, off color and arty images from "image transfer" (as in peeling apart and rolling onto watercolor paper in mid processing). The latest effect, wrinkly and distorted images, results from floating the whole image bearing emulsion off its paper and on to new supports. When these procedures are used on appropriate subjects the result can be quite engaging.

So what's the deal about the Diana and H
ga cameras. They are basically cheap, small cameras that perform like 1930's box cameras but are updated on the outside. The smeared sharpness which declines to the darkened corners creates a kind of nostalgic or even drugged look - a piece of "style" inherent in the equipment. This might occasionally work with some offbeat story but what is the point when whole photography classes adopt it. Everyone gets the same, phony style.

So does a gimmick ever become a style or become accepted as one. Irving Penn used to cut the tops off the heads of many of his celebrity and fashion pix, even while there was excess space on the bottom. Was this a gimmick? Since it really made no attempt to make the image more appealing I'd say this was more like a signature. On the other hand Arnold Newman posed many well-known people, from artists to politicians, looking out the short side of the frame with many details of relevance to their life filling the frame behind them. At first this seems a bit gimmicky but it really grows on you. The connection established between the person and their "background" becomes a powerful way of telling a story.

Even a "speed filter" used appropriately can be a valid way of creating a picture. Alas, almost all of the rich, extended vocabulary of effects from soft focus, motion blurs, selective focus to special color biases tend to fall outside the limited list of options that the average camera club judge considers acceptable.