larry towell: vision, voice, and yes… style

Posted on June 6, 2011 | 30 Comments

© LARRY TOWELL Mexico 1996 from The Mennonites

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 bookThe 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…

Share

30 Responses

  1. Ramón Vasconcelos
    June 6, 2011

    Hello, my first time here (coming from Musea). Great article about photography in its more vast and deep meaning. Thanks for sharing, it was great help for me, totally touched me. My best, from Brazil.

    P.S.: Also want to win the “Indecisive Moments”.

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      June 6, 2011

      Welcome Ramón! It’s always nice to have new visitors here and your name/number is definitely in the draw for Larry’s DVD. I have a copy myself and I think whoever wins it will find it informative and enjoyable in its own way (it is after all about a conflict zone).

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Monte Stevens
    June 6, 2011

    I like your statement, “Voice is how you choose to say something and reflects your own way of saying it.” I would love to be at your TAR but I will have family visiting. But, please have have and I hope I have another opportunity.

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      June 6, 2011

      Wish you could be there too Monte; it would be great to finally meet you. We have to see how things go with this Round Table as it might be a one-time only thing even though we’ve had requests to do it again.

      Enjoy the time with your family and don’t forget to make some memories to share with us!

  3. Brian Miller
    June 6, 2011

    Dear Sabrina,

    I’m noticing you have really given a lot of thought to this distinction between style and voice and have been able to aptly define and describe them in this wonderful post. I think this awareness-this clarification-within you is also becoming more and more evident in your photography. I find myself smiling at your continued development as a photographer and visual storyteller. It is very much a wonder to observe! Thank you so much for sharing it.

    I am very sad not to be able to join you for the Artist Round Table gathering. It looks like it will be a wonderful get together with wonderful folks and I cannot wait to see what comes of it.

    My best to you,
    Brian

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      June 6, 2011

      Not to worry Brian, we have the BBQ bus photography tour in the works and I expect you to be a part of that, ok? I am very excited to see what happens at ART. I know how much I’ve benefited from an ongoing conversation with Ray about life and photography and I hope that everyone who comes will have a similar–and yet unique–experience.

      Thanks as always, for popping in 🙂

  4. Matt Connors
    June 6, 2011

    Very well put Sabrina. The magnum experience keeps on giving and connecting.

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      June 6, 2011

      Thank you Matt. FYI…I’ve asked Ray about the Port Townsend dump (transfer station) and we shall see where we land up at ART 🙂

  5. Flemming Bo Jensen
    June 6, 2011

    Extremely well written, informative and thought provoking article Sabrina, thanks very much for this. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

    I still struggle with the word itself, voice, but I do very much see your point. The idea of it anyway. I have done/do writing, music, drawing, photography, woodwork and a lot of other stuff. I like the idea of the core expression of me coming through in whatever I do in whatever style I do.

    I do believe though that they are all part of the whole package. I am sure the first shots Larry did were not as expressive as his latter. One must practice to sharpen skills. My “voice” continues to be better as my vision, mission, passion, style, technique and emotional involvement continues to be heightened and sharpened. So I think I like to look at all of these as parts of the whole “expression” and I must not focus too much on one thing for too long or some of the other parts suffers.

    Great stuff, Sabrina, wish I could come to ART and meet all you guys 🙂 Hang on, there’s an opening? Hmmm, plane tickets….crazier things have happened 🙂

    Reply
    • Flemming Bo Jensen
      June 6, 2011

      Btw, trust Larry Towell to turn the “shoot a rear view mirror reflection” cliché into an insanely good shot!!!!

    • Sabrina
      June 6, 2011

      Thanks Flemming! Just to clarify, I don’t believe I’ve said outright or implied that voice is separate from how we visually express ourselves. However I do believe it is not the same as vision or style and to treat it as such is one way to keep making generic images destined to be simply decoration on the wall. For me, there is relationship between the three and thinking and reflecting and working on one feeds the others. Self-awareness is for me the key to keeping everything in fine balance on this adventure.

      And yes, I have to agree that is a brilliant image by Larry…so much said within that frame!

    • Flemming Bo Jensen
      June 6, 2011

      Hi Sabrina, no sorry, I did not mean to imply that you said it was separate. I just wanted to state my thinking that the whole melting pot of voice, style, vision, mission, passion and technique must form a whole and exist in unison in harmony or something like that 🙂

    • Sabrina
      June 6, 2011

      Ah, now I get it and I think we agree that when all of these come into place, the result is a visual feast that fills the soul 🙂

    • Flemming Bo Jensen
      June 6, 2011

      Yes!!!! 😀 You’ll have to pardon my English language, at times I do not quite find the right words for what I actually mean.

    • Sabrina
      June 6, 2011

      Ain’t nothing wrong with your English, Flemming just me reading things that aren’t there. Besides my Danish is completely non-existent so I admire you greatly for being multi-lingual…

  6. Peggy
    June 6, 2011

    Sabrina, thanks so much for the great post. It came at the perfect time for me. I’ve been studying and practicing photography for about 3 years now. My own voice and style are something I’ve been struggling to find. And something that’s been on my mind alot lately. I’ll definitely be picking up Larry Towell’s book this weekend! Thanks again for the thought provoking words.

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      June 6, 2011

      You’re very welcome, Peggy. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book and if you see something more in there. It wouldn’t surprise me if you did because it is such a rich experience from cover to cover.

  7. Chris Plante
    June 6, 2011

    WOW! Great review, Sabrina. Magnum sounds like THE workshop to attend. So jealous.

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      June 6, 2011

      I’m sure you would have loved it, Chris. I was hoping for more interaction with the people in my group but I think we were all just hungry to learn from Larry. Some of us are staying in touch so I expect the learning to continue.

  8. Charlene
    June 6, 2011

    I was going to stop buying books for a while (my latest 3 just arrived from Amazon and the boy is all “oi, we have no space for any more books” and he is right, dammit), but you know, I just *have* to get The World From My Front Porch now. That photo in your post made my jaw drop!

    I loved that there was little to no discussion about gear during the Magnum Workshops – that was my experience as well – and it was great to skip the technicalities altogether and talk about the subject, story, and nuance of images and their sets – i.e. what happens after the image is made and processed. That is something I don’t get to do enough and it was a mind blowing sort of eye opener.

    On vision and voice and style etc, Flemming and you have pretty much said what I have been thinking, so I will go “+1” on the comment thread above!

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      June 6, 2011

      But you can never have too many books when it comes to a treasure like this one.

      The whole experience was everything you said it would be and I have a post planned just for you. I wish you could have been there with me but perhaps it will be the next best thing. Stay tuned!

  9. Maureen Murphy
    June 7, 2011

    Great post Sabrina and interesting posts from your ‘readers’. I know that the posts in the future will take this subject in interesting and insightful directions.

    Charlene- I think there is no such thing as too many good books – there is always space somewhere…..

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      June 9, 2011

      Thanks Maureen, I would love to get together over coffee and talk more about the experience!

  10. Suzanne Chater
    June 7, 2011

    Hey Sabrina,
    An really excellent post – thanks so much for sharing your Magnum experiences and reflections in such detail and so generously. I have been following all your posts and am really enjoying the journey so far, but admit I am a bit of a ‘delinquent commenter’ – sorry I have not made any comments earlier. Anyway am really looking forward to more and would love to be able to join the ’round table’ event – its just a geographical impossibility for me!

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      June 9, 2011

      Welcome Suzanne and thank you. I am glad you decided to let us hear your voice in the comments. I wish I could take the Round Table to more places but for now, we are just hanging out in Port Townsend for the weekend. I might do a post while I’m there but no promises 🙂

  11. Domestic Executive
    June 9, 2011

    Hi Sabrina – this is a brilliant post. It unpacks vision, style and voice clearly and concisely. I’ve hardly picked up my camera in a week but after reading this I feel inspired to get myself back in gear and push forward again. Sometimes reaching for creativity feels too hard and exhausting with all the other demands in life but armed with the insight you’ve brought forward in this post, I now see how I can push through the chatter in my head and get focused. Maybe you can run a virtual ART in future so your global audience can hop on board!

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      June 9, 2011

      Hey Julie! So pleased that there was something in this post for you. Who knows maybe one day you will be having your own round table sharing your journey to discover your voice? I have a feeling I am not too far from being wrong!

  12. Dorothy Brown
    June 9, 2011

    I have to say I keep returning to the description of your work as “photographically schizophrenic.” I hope that phrase was delivered in a gentle way. It sounds pretty harsh to me. I think the variety of your work speaks to your curiosity about life, people, and this craft of photography, as well as how serious you are about learning it. It seems to me we are all on a journey to discover just what it is we truly want to photograph, and how best to do it once we know. I understand the usefulness of a specific project for the purposes of the workshop, but I think curiosity is an important trait of the storyteller, and it can lead us down many roads. (I wish I was coming to ART. A lot.)

    Reply
    • Sabrina
      June 9, 2011

      Oh Dorothy, you are so sweet to think of me but really Larry’s assessment was right from the perspective of what and how I presented my work. I’ve never paid too much attention to editing before but now that concept has been shared with me by a real master, it will change what I do in the future.

      I wish you were going to be at ART too…we’d love to see you again and pick up right where we left off 🙂

  13. Sarah Fischler
    June 12, 2011

    Hi Sabrina –

    It has been quite interesting to read your last few blog posts on your Magnum experience. I think that many photographers yearn for this kind of experience but are too fearful to actually seek it out. Not only did you seek it out but now you are sharing the experience with all of us. Wow!

    You used the word “transformational” in a previous comment. I would be interested to hear more about that aspect of your experience, as well.

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Sarah Fischler