The Personal Voice

In considering the notion of the Personal Voice (PV hereon) a few questions arise right away:

  • Can it be defined and if so, how and by whom
  • Does it matter
  • If it matters, how can it be achieved

My first port of call is Google as usual and search results which include personal and voice  are intriguing – most of them relate to courses and workshops promising to assist the aspiring photographer in achieving  their PV – at a price, naturally.  In many cases the cost is eye-wateringly steep;  I have noticed this in other private learning areas – the more nebulous and esoteric the aim, the higher the cost.  Your knitting and crochet PV can be located for a very reasonable outlay whereas achieving a karmic PV (Priestess training, Glastonbury) will take weeks and cost thousands.

Cost aside, a definition of PV is elusive.  Our own institution, through Peter (Haveland I expect) makes a tentative proposition:

“I would suggest that what the OCA expects from its students (in common with every other college that I have had anything to do with over the years), is a search for something to say, for areas of interest and concern during the first level and then during the second level an increasing development of some sort of individuality in the work made, some solidifying of the ‘Ah yes, this must Jo Skroggins’ work’ moments. Then in the final level a growing confidence in the work being made, a consolidation both in the practical and theoretical investigations leading to a body of work that is truly that student’s and no other’s.”

Personal voice | OCA student. (accessed July 9, 2017).

Students hoping for a firm steer may be disappointed with “some sort of individuality”  even if it does lead to a fairly confidant stab at a naming-of-Skroggins moment.  It suggests some aspects of individuality though, the expression of interest, concern and growing confidence. It also shows the underlying tenets of the course, that photography is a means of expressing ideas, concerns and convictions.  This represents only one strand of photography among many, but it is one which lends itself admirably to academic discourse. Students who lean towards other forms of photographic endeavour may find themselves in a slightly hostile environment and there is no escaping the fact that the terms of appraisal are decided solely by the institution.

That’s the extent to which it matters for the OCA student.  If you want to be successful in attaining the academic award, you need to join in and do this particular dance.  (Or not.  Maybe a refusal to conform is in itself  the expression of a personal voice, but that may be a risky bluff.)  For example there’s an almost unlimited opportunity for individuality when doing the Tango, even if you have to keep it recognisable as such.

Stretching the dance analogy further, in order to perform an expressive Tango you have to become quite good at dancing.  You can do other dances pretty well as a result, but when called upon to Tango you can really give it all you’ve got.  Maybe learning photography is a bit like that too.

You can only photograph what you see;

You can only see what you feel;

you can only feel what you are

–thus, you can only photograph what you are.

Chris Johnson in Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity; Ted Orland; Godine, Boston 1988

The quote above is from an article written by Johnson in the ‘Image Continuum’ group’s Journal.  The group included David Bayles, Sally Mann, Chris Johnson and others and was closely associated with the West Coast Photographers Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Jerry Uelsmann, Brett Weston et al.  Despite this lot being namby-pamby pictorialists without a decent concept between them (*) they each managed to achieve a pretty recognisable visual signature so maybe Johnson’s assertion has some validity.

There remains the question of the part that commitment and purpose may play in a student’s work.  A strong interest may dispose the photographer to make a detailed exploration of a subject, making many images in a variety of settings.  The wealth of photographs which result will afford the student greater opportunity to make careful selections in the edit……  which raises a further question:  how much of PV arises from personal selection?  I have a sturdy volume of Robert Capa’s work – The Mexican Suitcase – which includes many hundreds of unprinted Capa negatives.  Most of them are utterly unremarkable; I think even a Capa expert would have trouble naming their originator.  But from this morass of imagery came what we recognise as the Capa Classics, the true expression of his Personal Vision.  Despite the doubts raised recently over his versions of events, Capa was determined and committed to a subject which enlivened him.  As a result he took a lot of pictures.  Many, many pictures from which he was able to select those which expressed his vision.

Perhaps finding a subject which motivates you to take a lot of photographs then making a careful selection is a good start to finding that PV.

In the meantime it may be wise to keep quiet about it:

Along with many if not most tutors I rarely talk directly about a student’s personal voice in my reports simply because I know how badly understood the phrase is by most students. It s one of those phrases that we assessors understand and find a useful shorthand for so many things so it is a useful phrase to have in assessment criteria, criteria meant for assessors rather than for students.

Personal voice | OCA student. (accessed July 9, 2017).

(*) Satire Alert