Style or Substance?

It’s been a fair while since I blogged here, mostly on account of a whole jumble of thing currently going on in my life, not all of them fun. However, despite everything, I’m continuing what has become a very regular daily habit: taking a walk out from home every morning or afternoon, and aiming to come home with a few photographs each time. These usually get reviewed the same evening, and many fail to survive until the next day. Time was, even using film, that my basic philosophy was “shoot lots, keep few”. Partly, I think, because my walks in the last 18 months or so have not involved a great variety of location, time of day, or subject matter, that philosophy has shifted somewhat.

I frequently go for my daily walk armed “only” with my iPhone, and sometimes also with a “proper” camera in a rucksack or shoulder-bag. It hasn’t really been a conscious thing – a few months back I just realised this had become my current habit. More recently, I’ve occasionally found myself pondering what effect this has had on the photographs I take. I used the words “style” and “substance” in the heading for this blog, but, for the moment, be patient, please; I’ll get to looking at those shortly.

Going out with a camera phone as my recording device of choice is no great statement about its capability as a tool, or its ability to slip into a jacket pocket. After all, I have a very capable Lumix compact camera with interchangeable lenses, which is hardly any hassle to carry either. Nor, these days, does the device I use make much difference to post-shoot workflow. I have never done much by way of editing or manipulation of my images, beyond a bit of levelling-up light and colour. I do quite a lot of cropping for emphasis, or to bring out a photo that’s hiding inside the one I actually shot. No, what has led to far fewer trips out with my big Nikon, or one of my medium format film cameras has been determined by that old phrase “horses for courses”. That’s to say, I know that where I’m going and I know what I’m seeing on my regular daily walk can be captured well, and to my satisfaction, with a smaller device.

Were I still shooting track and field athletics, and other sport events regularly, or getting away to interesting, and usually foreign, places, I’d be making much more use of the big guns. However, Covid restrictions changed a lot of that. Having to surrender my driving licence six months ago, while I undergo tests for a possible (non-Covid) medical condition has changed much of the rest of life, and so my sphere of operation is smaller and, perforce, far less varied and becoming far more familiar as every day passes. Still with me? Good.

A short seven years ago, I held a photo exhibition entitled “The Bigger Picture”. This wasn’t because the images in it were printed large (though some were). No, the reason was that, by that time, I’d become involved with six or seven different spheres of photographic subject matter. Each was very immersive and the boundaries tended not to overlap all that much. 

Therefore, the runners who enjoyed my photos of themselves and their competitors, knew little or nothing (usually the latter) about my work, say, as a landscape photographer. Those enjoying one or both of those “spheres” of my work would mostly not have a clue that I was also frequently to be found photographing Morris dancing, motorsport, and so on. None of them were seeing “the bigger picture” of my work. That made for a fun exhibition, much enjoyed by the varied audiences it attracted.

The content of the show included only maybe five or six pictures of each of those spheres. Its substance was intended to be the variety between the spheres. The variety within the spheres was essentially unconscious, or much less visible. Or so I thought when I began putting the long-list for the show together. That was when I encountered the conundrum that bugged me – and probably only me, all the while the show was running. Despite the variety of subject matter, I seemed to have some recognisable styles to my photos!

Now, of course, that’s not to suggest all my runners looked like Morris dancers, or that all my mountain landscapes looked like motor racing scenes! No, what I spotted was that, whatever the genre of photo, there tended nevertheless to be features that were common. I discovered how keen I was that where there were “verticals” in the image, I made sure they were properly vertical, for example. Something similar applied to relevant horizontals, like horizons. I had (and might still have, for all I know) an unconscious preference for certain colour or tone combinations, and a fondness for close-cropping shots with people in them, too. I won’t elaborate, however, because, at the level of an individual photo, these things are subliminal, or scarcely visible to the casual observer, and it takes browsing to spot these things as habitual.  The “style” is within the “substance”.

Fast forward more than seven years to my rather reduced circumstances post-Lockdown. Walking past, along and through essentially the same, or similar, places at least four or five times a week breeds familiarity. They tell me that familiarity breeds contempt. However, I’ve never found that. Indeed, I take great enjoyment, and not a little comfort, from the colour, shape, sound and smell, of the places I know and like, and it seems, if anything, to intensify over time.

But at certain times, and in certain places, there are constants. Am I the only photographer who prefers to shoot trees in the winter, rather than when they are in leaf, for example? One of the regular pleasures on my daily walks by the River Medway, most particularly in the middle of winter, is to be able to enjoy trees on the riverbank that are stripped of everything except their most basic structure. Just trunks, branches and twigs. But wait! On many days, and particularly when there’s no wind, and little else to ruffle the river’s surface, these trees give a pleasure twice over. Compared to some places I’ve been to, the Medway near to where I live seems to give superb reflections, and remarkably often. 

I recently spent a week of quite good weather visiting the area around the River Stour, on the Essex/Suffolk border. It was the place beloved of the 19th Century great, John Constable. I had hopes for lots of great “treeflections” from its banks, but came away a little disappointed. In many places, the Stour was just too narrow to accommodate a full reflection of some of its magnificent oaks and chestnuts. My Medway is that bit wider where it matters.

And so, particularly over the three or four winters since my second exhibition, in late 2016, which was about the Medway, I’ve found myself shooting its reflected trees more and more. Maybe that’s because, since that show, I’ve felt less driven to try to “document” the river in a wider variety of guises and poses. Maybe. However, in the years leading up to that exhibition, I just don’t remember seeing so many of the kind of reflections that are my current hallmark (or they are, according to several of their fans on social media). 

Perhaps it’s the repetition of the same or similar kinds of view that gives an impression one has developed a particular style? When “the style” actually becomes “the substance”?

Whatever, I can live with it. I can live with it all the better when critical reaction is good. I don’t keep a particular tally of these things, but the photo at the head of this blog, which is another of those iPhone shots, by the way, was one I posted on Twitter, and it seems to be attracting more likes, re-tweets, and positive feedback than any that I’ve taken and shared before.

Enough for now.

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About tomsprints

I am a Masters athlete and freelance photographer living in Kent, in Great Britain. I'm a sprinter. As well as competing, my camera and I work regularly for the British Masters Athletics Federation and the European and World Masters Athletics organisations. For pleasure, I'm (principally) a landscape photographer. I have been blessed with the chance of spending quite a lot of time in the European Alps in the last 30 years. My web site is a vehicle for a my photographic work, and is at http://www.tomphillipsphotos.co.uk I run two blogs. One is about what it's like to be an older athlete ( http://tomsprints.wordpress.com ) and the other is basically about my photography ( https://ablogscape.wordpress.com ), although they often overlap.
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