larry towell: vision, voice, and yes… style
It’s been almost three weeks since the Magnum workshop and I’m still digesting much of what I learned there. Since my return I’ve had a chance to read Larry Towell’s book “The World From My Front Porch“–make that soak in–no, IMMERSE myself in it. I don’t own many books of this calibre but then again, I doubt there are that many. It’s a work of art from beginning to end. More than that, it’s a window into Larry’s world, the way he sees it, and what he has to say about it. I wish I had bought an extra copy to give away because I think everyone should own it.
Described in Larry’s own words: “(t)he theme of the book is very much about land, landlessness, people’s association with land, how the land makes you into who you are, and if you lose your land. As you look beyond your front porch, what often happens which is peasant rebellion, a revolution, an insurrection.” When you look at this work, even though it was photographed over a period of more than 25 years, you can see this vision running through his work. I’m not sure he knew this was what he intended to photograph and by this I mean, that he knew at the start what he wanted to say. I get the feeling that as time went by it became much more intentional but in the beginning, even when photographing his family, it wasn’t consciously about being anchored through the land. In fact Larry said that we don’t have to photograph anything spectacular, just show things as they happen and I think that was his approach. For me there is a lesson in this. I have a tendency to over think when I photograph. Ray calls it “editing before shooting” and Larry agreed with him saying that the visual approach comes first, the edit comes later. I get a little paralyzed thinking about intention. At times, if I don’t know what I want to say before I say it visually with a camera, then I don’t want to say anything at all. I’ve said this before in another way, that I need to be moved before I photograph. Now I am changing my thinking about this but more about that another time.
In my last post, I mentioned a discussion we had with Larry on style and voice. On our second day at the workshop, we had to share the images we made the day before and Larry provided his feedback. We discussed how I was “photographically schizophrenic” and that led to a discussion on style and vision. Larry uses the words interchangeably but I believe there’s a difference. An important one. As Ray mentioned in the comments on my previous post, style can be copied, voice cannot. Whenever I try to imitate the style of one photographer–as I did when I first started learning photography with say Bryan Peterson–I approached it from the technical perspective. Same lens, same settings, same location. Same image? Not a chance.
One of the most refreshing aspects of the Magnum Workshop was the almost complete lack of discussion around gear. It really was all about making images and the experiences that are so much a part of it. For a brief moment, Larry did discuss what equipment he uses–28mm lens on the Canon, 50mm on the Leica (vertical shots only) and a panorama camera. He shoots film and for him, digital is for audio and video. In looking at his images, Ray remarked how Larry photographs people like landscapes and that makes sense considering his kit. In “The World At My Front Porch” there are many examples of this approach (read: style): a strong foreground, middle, and background. Larry also spoke about the differences between photographing today and what it was like when he created images from the early days in Central America. Often there were long periods of time where there was nothing to photograph so he’d hang out at the city dump; you can’t do that these days because it isn’t safe. Back then you could make compelling images just waiting in the San Salvador city dump, images strong enough to be published in his book “El Salvador“. The effects of his choice of a wide-angle lens, his timing and the attention he pays to the lighting all combine to create a certain style. While all these elements are his personal choice and can be identified as his style, in my opinion, none of these make his images truly original.
Originality–that personal stamp that says you made a particular image–comes from voice, not from style. Your voice is unique to you and comes from the sum of all your experiences and who you are. When asked what motivates him to photograph, Larry replied “love, anger, and curiosity“. When you look at the images from his work “The Mennonites” you can see how Larry feels about them. He admits that after 10 years he stopped photographing them but he could have continued because he loved it so much. Look at the images from the conflict zones and you’ll see the same thing but you will also see anger. Where do those feelings of love and anger come from? For me, some of it is revealed in what Larry said both at the workshop and in this piece on the Magnum website: “probably everything I learned that I needed to know about the world, I learned before I left home from my family….that was affection, but also hardship”.
Voice is how you choose to say something and reflects your own way of saying it. Studying Larry’s images in “The World At My Front Porch“, I can see how Larry the family man, the poet (especially the poet), the musician, the oral historian, the human rights activist, and the artist all come together to create a signature visual experience. You and I cannot duplicate it even if we choose to say the same thing (vision) using the same techniques (style). The world already has a Larry Towell, and any imitation will pale compared to the original. David Alan Harvey said it too–if you want to be considered for Magnum, don’t bother copying any of their photographers. They are all unique and they won’t be looking for a replica. What the world needs is you and your unique voice.
Would you like to know more about the difference between an aesthetic style and voice or how you can discover your visual voice? There is one more opening at The Artist Roundtable due to a late cancellation. For more information, please visit this page or this post or email me using the Contact Form. Also I’ve decided to allow comments on this post to be included in the giveaway for the Larry Towell DVD “Indecisive Moments” to give loyal readers multiple chances to win. I’ll do the draw for a winner at the end of the week. Ok we are now open for comments…