Having a photographic style is something you discover through creating a lot of work. It’s retrospective! To be honest, I’m still figuring out my own personal style, even though I’ve been shooting for over a decade now. There are some small tricks to nudge the process along though, but photographing kittens is not one of them.
I, for the life of me, can’t seem to find the exact quote. I know Jubal Hershaw says it, and it’s from “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert A Heinlein; anyway, the gist of it is it’s really not conducive to create pictures of puppies or kittens. They’re naturally photogenic and cute, and sure, you’ll end up with cute pictures of baby animals, but they’ll lack narrative. Broadly speaking, of course. I mean, Petrina Hicks has some great images of cats in her series Bleached Gothic, but that’s more an exception than the rule.
What we can do instead, is photograph botanicals. So many photographers photograph flowers and plants to great effect, and each one of these artists does so in a way that is uniquely them.
Nick Knight’s roses are the perfect blend of romantic fantasy. Dale M. Reid’s mushrooms are transformational, harkening life and rebirth. In contrast, Robert Mapplethorpe’s flowers are clearly from New York; they’re gritty, rough, and sexual. Whereas Tina Modotti’s calla lilies speak to a certain collectivism. Isamu Sawa’s frail botanicals are detailed and masterfully lit. I could go on and on, but you get the point.
So, why not kittens but flowers? The biggest difference, of course, is that flowers are unanimated — that is to say, they don’t move. So, you can project whatever narrative you want onto them. Images of flowers become less about what they are or what they look like, but how they feel.
What do you do exactly? Well, for starters, get some flowers. And then photograph them. And then think about what you’ve done.
Of course, do it in a way where you have intention and care. Select which flowers or plants to work with. What species speaks most to you? How to light them? How to crop the image? Color or black and white? You can kind of do whatever you want. This exercise is about working with an intuitive intention. That’s a tricky balance to find really; you want to think about what you’re doing and why, but you also want to work in a way that is free-flowing.
After photographing your botanicals, though, leave the images for a bit, say a few days or a week or so. When you come back to them, figure out how they relate to the remainder of your portfolio. Do they sit nicely with the other work you usually create? Is there a unique and unified voice between the flower images and the remainder of your portfolio?
Having a style or an aesthetic takes time to figure out. Absolutely do not stress about figuring it out quickly. Doing exercises such as this helps to flex some of those creative muscles to figure out what type of images you create. It’s less about doing one thing or another but rather questioning your creativity. I wish I could impart some grand wisdom here, but this really isn’t about that; instead, use this as a meditation for getting more in tune with yourself perhaps? That’s why this article was more questions than anything; they aren’t things necessary for you to write or answer but rather think about.
As an example, my images above are simple, detailed, and have a certain sadness to them. The plants I created separately from each of the portraits, but retrospectively, you can easily tell that the same person likely authored all of them. I don’t ever set out to make this particular style of photographs; they’re done intuitively. They’re very much an extension of how I view the world.
If you were to succinctly describe your flower images in two or three words, what would those words be? And would you use the same words to describe your broader body of work?
Title image by Emma Wilkinson. Used with Permission.