Most of us who come alive when seeing good artwork, especially when making it ourselves, appreciate unique styles, genuine statements that are consistent throughout an artist's body of work. Writers might refer to this consistency as style, or maybe voice. For musicians, the term might be sound. You recognize guitarist, Larry Carlton's, playing because he has a unique sound. Photographers use the term vision to describe a quality of their work that defines each photographer.
Still, I've found it a bit vexing to try to settle on a description of the concept that’s clear and definite. Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart expressed the challenge as he sought to define the term, obscenity. Maybe I can't define it absolutely, Stewart said, but I know it when I see it. (Not sure that’s a direct quotation, but it captures the judge's intention.)
Vision is more than the most effective or efficient way of seeing. It includes effective composition, but beyond that, it's something unique to each photographer. Vision can't be taught or transferred from one person to another. It's discovered, and then developed and refined.
Our vision encapsulates what or maybe how we respond subject matter. It necessarily includes the subject matter that most resonates with us as individuals. It determines what we perceive to be of value in a photograph, what we understand to be worth showing.
Our ability to recognize and develop our vision is what will enable us to be successful in our art making. And in turn, understanding or recognizing vision in an artist's work can allow us or enable us to respect his work, even if the work isn't consistent with our personal tastes and aesthetics.
The greatest photographers, the icons, were people who recognized and cultivated extraordinary vision. They include people such as Dorothea Lange, Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Harry Callahan, Arnold Newman, Irving Penn, and many others. Charles Cramer, Cole Thompson and Chuck Kimmerle are artists who are currently working who have extraordinary vision.
Vision is the thing that as photographers we must be true to. Or loyal to. Or faithful or consistent. And it's tough because we don't always know how the next twist or turn in our creative development will unfold. And sometimes we grow by taking steps that don't work out so we can learn from the experience, take a step back and try again. But while I believe the preceding sentence to be true, it’s also the case that our work might develop in ways that aren’t popular with our audience. Bob Dylan has been booed off the stage more than once in his career. But playing electric guitar wasn’t a “wrong” direction for him, even if his audience didn’t appreciate it at first. Or at all! So we need to be patient with the process as it unfolds. And we need to trust that if we're as honest and faithful to our work as we have the strength to be, our efforts will be validated in the end.