Style is important, and it’s something that I’ve struggled to really nail down for a while now. A consistent, unique style. I love the process of taking pictures, I love the act of photography… but when it comes to post-processing and modifying my images along a certain aesthetic, I have no real eye for the matter.
I think that is a large reason why I was (and still am) so attracted to film photography. Other than the beauty of analog film cameras, fully-mechanical marvels, and the intrinsic, organic, irreplaceable qualities and aesthetics of film emulsions… film locks you into a fairly predictable, consistent aesthetic (assuming you stick with a standard film stock).
With film, the look is widely out of your control. You can dodge, you can burn, you can adjust development times and pull all sorts of various tricks to modify your negative and prints, but altogether, you’re going to end up with a reasonably uniform end-result. And I liked that. I could focus on making images and generally not worry too much about the development thereafter. If I loaded Kodak T-Max into my camera, I pretty much knew what I was going to get. I had a pretty good idea of what my images were going to look like. I could “see” my images in that emulsion. The same can be said with Kodak Portra or Fuji Superia. I knew the films well enough that I could visualize what my exposures could reasonably be expected to come out looking like.
With digital photography, unless you shoot JPEG, the onerous is on you, the photographer, to create the aesthetic of your exposures. Digital RAW files come out of the camera flat and bland, but packed full of huge amounts of data capable of mass latitudes in modification. There exists almost infinite possibilities in what your photograph can be or how it can look. You can make multiple, radically-different variations of the same photograph by simply editing the photo in a different way. And, while that is objectively a giant leap above analog photography, it creates a paradox of choice in many situations, and can break apart the consistently and uniformity in your work. It can make choosing a single aesthetic difficult — and, perhaps even worse than difficulty in an initial editing decision, it can make long-term contentment with your work exceedingly difficult.
When you have a digital RAW file that is capable of looking almost any way you desire, the possibilities remain endless even after the editing process is complete. What might have looked perfect and left you feeling satisfied today might make you feel inadequate tomorrow. Maybe it’s a difference of perspective, maybe it’s a change of perception, maybe your mood or hormones are just different. I find myself regularly going back to old images that I have taken and edited to change the edits I had originally made. Tinkering with work I had thought was already complete. Where today the photo I took looked fantastic in black and white, and left me with a sense of accomplishment in creating a good piece of work, the next week I might have a penchant for vivid color photography. Instead of being forced to be happy with the work made due to the medium — being married to a format and aesthetic — with digital photography I am stuck in a world of possibilities and “what ifs”. With analog photography, I knew the image I was about to make was going to be contrasty black and white, or faded, over-exposed pastel colors. It was chiefly going to be what the emulsion I had in my camera dictated. And I was okay with that. I was happy with that. I was making an image, and for the most part, I would be happy with the results of that exposure. I had to be. There wasn’t any other option. I couldn’t go back and change it, I couldn’t radically modify the aesthetic. It was what it was. It stood on its own. It had to stand on its own.
Digital photography is hugely convenient. It’s much more affordable, workable, and accessible. It allows so many options that weren’t and aren’t available with film. But it never leaves me satisfied. It never leaves me content. I can make fantastic images, take great pictures… but pictures I am never truly satisfied with. Pictures I am constantly re-evaluating, re-analyzing, left in an ever-changing limbo where anything is possible, versus being cemented as its own. With analog photography I was focused on capturing moments, focused on the composition and content of an image. With digital photography, I am always struggling with the look after-the-fact. Too concerned with achieving a perfection that can never really exist. Stuck in a paradox of choice, unable to make up my mind or settle on a result. Ever-changing, ever-evolving, jumping from one style to the next; Changing styles to emulate others, or lost in a sea of sliders and buttons trying to find happiness with a look of my own creation. A look in a world where anything is possible, and where I’d be happy with many, many different looks and styles. None of which I can settle on. None of which I can marry.
I was happy with T-Max. I was happy with Portra. I struggle to find happiness and satisfaction in the digital world, where everything is in flux and potentialities are endless. I struggle to find myself, my own unique style. My own, signature aesthetic.
Post-script: In hindsight, I suppose on a greater philosophical and existential level, the same could be said regarding life choices. Life partners… occupations… decisions. It’s difficult being happy with what you have, or with the choices we’ve made in life when we believe anything is possible. There was actually a movie made about this exact subject-matter called Mr. Nobody — about a man who may have never really existed because he never made any choices in life. He was stuck in a sort of purgatory of his own fashioning since his memory wasn’t built around what he actually did — but lost in seeing and understanding all of the “what ifs” that could have been in his life. His past reality was ever-changing in a sort of constant multiverse flux. For example, his parents divorced — did he go with his mother or his father? Both were equal possibilities, and both carried totally different future unfoldings, and therefore the results of his past were constantly changing based on what decision he may have taken. Girls came and went, and his past life was in ever-change based on who he ended up being with. He never knew, because he only saw and experienced all the potentialities at once, never cemented into a singular life narrative or timeline. He never made choices, and so he never had a future. By being anything he could have been, by being everything at once, he ended up being nobody. It’s a very tedious, intellectual movie. Not the sort of movie you watch for simple entertainment value. But a similar subject-matter. But, in a way, as it relates to identity based on choices and decisions, it relates to identity as an artist. Would Van Gogh be anything if his style was everything? Van Gogh is who he is, and his work is what it is, because of the aesthetic he chose. We are who we are based on the choices we make and stick with. And both are difficult conundrums. What is your style? Who are you? What choices will we make? Who will we decide to become? These are difficult choices to make. But, if we don’t make a choice, we won’t make anything or become anyone at all.