The first part of the BoW course has focussed on the idea of genre and explored work within various genres of photography. In this post, I reflect on the significance of genre in the creation and consumption of photography. In addition to my course work to date, I also referred to David Bate’s introduction to Photography: the key concepts .
Before considering genres in depth, I saw them simply as a method of labelling – not too dissimilar to signs in supermarkets above the aisle; Fruit & Veg (so I can find carrots), Bakery (so I can find wraps). Which, to a certain extent they are; allowing us to place a photography within a category so that we can conceive where it belongs and what we might find with it. Yet, I’ve always been surprised when one of the first questions people ask is, ‘what sort of photos do you take?’. Perhaps because I’ve been experimenting with different genres in my studies to now, it has not seemed important or relevant. However, replying ‘all sorts’ to the question seems to receive a disappointed reaction. It could be like someone asking ‘where do I find the bread?’ and being answered, ‘somewhere in the shop’.
A photograph is more complex than a supermarket commodity as it is a cultural text that requires reading. A genre as a guide to what we might expect and how we might approach that reading is important. As Bate succinctly puts it, ‘ … the theoretical importance of genres is that they enable photographers, spectators, and institutions to share expectations and meanings’ .
The importance of describing my own work in the context of genre is now clear to me. I need to work on articulation of this, but broadly I would situate it at a cross-roads between psychogeography and portraiture (a mix of contemporary and traditional genre nomenclature). Psychogeography, is a genre I intent to (re)visit in my research as I attempt to describe my own work.
In the course material, the advice is not to feel restricted to ‘one genre or style’. Sound advice, but what do we mean when we say ‘style’ in photography? The origin of the word relates to the way in which a mark is made (from stylus as a writing instrument). When our marks are made with the help of a machine and post-production offers a wide range of possibilities to the look of an image, there is perhaps a risk that many photographs become so similar that they are styleless. This is a matter I’ve previously considered in the context of film versus digital, with the former to a certain extent baking in a look based on the type of film used and the later being almost infinitely flexible with digital processing of RAW files. It’s time for me to pin this down as well as genre.
Bate, D. (2016) Photography: the key concepts. (Second edition) London New York: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
This exercise asks for a viewing of interviews run by Source Magazine, enquiring about conceptual photography . And then, to explain my own understanding of conceptual photography.
The series of interviews were helpful to gain an understanding of how and why the term evolved and its place among photography genres, even it that seems to be subject to some debate.
There are a few aspects to my understanding.
Firstly, semantics and the importance of having a word to describe something. When conceptual photography surfaced in the 1960s, there was not the critical industry around photography that exists now. It is suggested that the term conceptual was adopted by photographers (John Hilliard) to help describe their work / a ‘flag to indicate a photograph might require more work to understand’. Effectively a label to assist viewers / critics in placing and categorising the work. In the interviews, John Roberts suggested that during the 1970s the photographic discourse became dominated by humanism, so the ‘conceptual term’ was useful to flag an alternative perspective. It is also suggested that there is a discontinuity between now and the 1960s and therefore the term (as originally used) is dead.
My understanding of the term conceptual (in its original guise) is work that is more concerned with the expression of an idea than a visual aesthetic. However, this can be contentious as Sean O’Hagan observed; there is an inference that other photography is not based on a thinking approach and doesn’t need some effort to decode it. All photography is conceptual to some extent (a photography is a concept of its referent). There can be confusion between the concept of a work and the notion of it being conceptual. Personally, I would reserve the term conceptual for work where the idea drives the making of the work and the idea might also be more interesting than the visual that is representing it. Alternatively, analysing first and shooting later; rather than shooting first and analysing later.
To find a contemporary example of conceptual work, I looked at the April 2019 edition of the BJP and saw that Erik Kessels’ 24HRS in photos work was featured. The concept here was to physically show the number of photographs uploaded to Flickr in 24 hours so viewers might gain some visual understanding of the enormity of the numbers.
This exercise poses a question related to psychogeography – ‘do you think it’s possible to produce an objective depiction of a place or will the outcome always be influenced by the artist? Does it even matter?’
It is helpful to first be clear on what is meant by objective. A dictionary definition of objective: ‘(of a person or their judgement) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts: historians try to be objective and impartial. Contrasted with subjective. Not dependent on the mind for existence; actual: a matter of objective fact.’
There may be an argument that because a camera is a machine the depiction it renders is objective. However, this would be a fallacy. The photographer takes numerous decisions in making an image. Which place to photograph, when to visit the place, where to stand when photographing it, what technical settings to use when taking the photograph and how to approach post production et cetera.
Examples of these decisions can be illustrated in the works referenced in the OCA materials. In Mark Power’s 26 Different Endings he made one photograph at locations from each of the fifty-six pages meeting the edge of the London A to Z. The place was influenced by his choice of process for making the work and within that process, which place he chose from each of the page edges. On arriving at the place, he chose where to stand, which perspective to photograph, when to press the shutter and what to include in the frame. If he took several photographs, he would have edited to arrive at a final selection, making another choice. His choice of camera, lens and film (if not digital) would have affected the rendering of the images. As would his approach to post production.
There is always a chain of decisions leading to the making of an image, which perhaps make absolute objective depiction an impossibility. It is debatable whether there can be complete objectivity in any field and the question has been researched, for example, in Douglas Heather’s The Irreductable Complexity of Objectivity . But does it matter this matter when making art works? In art the subjective perspective of the photographer is expected, along with a voice and style that make that perspective interesting. In contrast, when viewing a forensic photograph of a crime scene, one would expect strict conventions to be followed.
I suggest that the lack of objectivity does not matter and perhaps it is even completely irrelevant in the context of art.