Two Against One — Repeating Themes and Finding Your Artistic Voice
Recognizing patterns as a way to create a visual signature.
Welcome to In the Flash, a reader-supported publication about intent and creativity in photography.
Finding your voice is a pursuit filled with frustration and fear. My first years in the industry were crippled by a panic that I would never come into my own as a photographer. It was hard to pick a lane, I was interested in everything — portraits, landscapes, street photography — and limiting myself to one or the other felt claustrophobic. The contradiction between experimenting and distilling a visual signature cost me many sleepless nights. What I didn’t realize, is that the fragments of “personal style” were already in place. Honing who you are as a photographer comes with a tricky caveat, it is impossible to get away from yourself.
My puberty, exacerbated by a lack of English skills (my family just immigrated from Ukraine) and a sudden weight gain, blossomed into social phobia. All recreational activities, including my high school prom, were shunned for the dread of standing alone in the corner. Photography changed everything. It gave me a reason to engage in public activities without the anxiety of rejection. When confronted with a camera, people saw only their own reflection, allowing me to dissolve into the background while in the middle of a crowd. The camera became a social passport, a shield, and a mirror all at once. But I have never stopped seeking out my psychological doppelgänger — a person disconnected from the revelries around them — in every social situation.
It took me years to discover that instead of a monolithic idea of a “voice,” my work was a fragmented mosaic of repeating themes. The image below was taken in 2007 while on vacation with my husband and two friends. I was in a honeymoon phase with photography, infatuated with the process and oblivious about intent. For a long time, I dismissed the images from that exploratory period as irrelevant. When this photo popped up in my archives, I was stunned to recognize it as the first of what I baptized as “Two Against One” theme (after a Danger Mouse song).
Here are a few others.
“Finding your voice” is the bête noire of every young photographer. It implies searching for something that is currently absent, who knows where or how. Given as advice, it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, well-meaning and infuriating in its vagueness. If instead, “finding” is replaced with “excavating,” the fear of the unknown is supplanted by a focused quest. It becomes about discerning existing patterns and molding them into a leitmotif. This eliminates the need of restricting yourself to a genre.
No matter how disparate, from Amish vacationing in Florida to the courtship rituals in the Meatpacking District, my work has been connected by repeating themes — two against one, the idea of leisure, spectacle and audience. Over time, my worry about discovering my voice has dissipated. Ironically, it was replaced by a worry of being locked into a personal style and unable to pivot away from it. But more about that in a future post.
I wrote about the making of personal style in the past newsletter
Find me on Instagram @dina_litovsky
I tripped over your work in Instagram, but it's your newsletters that I really enjoy! I love to read how you think about your craft. Thanks for the fascinating insight.