Book: Psychogeography (pocket edition)

In the context of genres and placing my own work, I feel there may be some connection with psychogeography. When I think back to the beginning of my serious photography, it was in street photography and the pleasure of wandering unfamiliar streets. Though, I had not heard the term ‘psychogeography’ back then.

I read Merlin Covey’s book Psychogeography earlier in my OCA studies and revisited it now to understand more about the genre. I note here points relevant to my own work.

While psychogeography is strongly connected with Guy Debord and the Situationist International movement (founded 1957), Covey argues that its practice and reflection in literature (even if not labelled as such) pre-dates Debord with English writers like Daniel Defoe (1660 – 1731). Particularly influential is Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which gets a nod in later psychogeographical works including the films of Patrick Keiller (London and Robinson in Space). Importantly, it is not a practice that should be too strongly attached to wandering the streets of Paris, even if that is where the term was coined. Debord defined the term: ‘Psychogeography – The study of the specific effects of the geographical environment , consciously organized or not , on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’ However, Covey is enthusiastic in connecting the practice to the streets of London and authors writing about those streets.

It is seen as a practice associated with city streets, kicking against the flows organised by town planners: ‘the mental traveller who remakes the city in accordance with his own imagination is allied to the urban wanderer who drifts through the city streets ; the political radicalism that seeks to overthrow the established order of the day is tempered by an awareness of the city as eternal and unchanging ; and the use of antiquarian and occult symbolism reflects the precedence given to the subjective and the anti – rational over more systematic modes of thought .’ . I may find following the route of a canal, even if I step away from it on occasion, a very different experience to wandering a multidimensional city. I think for a psychogeographic experience, it will be necessary to step away from the path and explore what lies around it in the towns and cities along the route. At the same time, wandering too far would make the work no longer about the canal. I feel that this would be the practices of a genre positively shaping my practice, rather than it being an adjustment of practice so the work better fits a genre.

The practice involves a mindful approach that challenges our usual perceptions, as Covey suggests, ‘transforming our experience of everyday life and replacing our mundane existence with an appreciation of the marvellous … street and the stroll was a crucial practice in its attempt to subvert and challenge our perceptions.’ . I think bringing a mindful or contemplative approach to my work will be important to its success – otherwise I could miss what is hidden in the banality of long empty stretches of little used industrial-age motorways.

Covey observes Debord’s concern about the ‘banalisation’ driven by modernity and mass consumerism, and alludes to the ‘spectacle’ – the essential emptiness of modern life is obscured behind an elaborate and spectacular array of commodities and our immersion in this world of rampant consumerism leaves us disconnected from the history and community that might give our lives meaning’. . I don’t yet know what I will find along the 29¼ route, but I suspect commercialism may be limited. I’m perhaps more likely to experience modernity through suburbanism. As psychogeography concerns itself with the negative psychological and geographic impact of modernism, my work could also be aligned to the genre through this.

Covey’s work concludes by examining psychogeography today, citing writers such as JG Ballard, Iain Sinclair and Patrick Keiller. Interestingly for my project, Ballard regards the ‘city as a semi-extinct form’, he thinks, ‘the suburbs are more interesting than people will let on … you find uncentered lives … more freedom to explore imagination and obsessions.’ . I think this thread and Ballard’s work is worth following up – the notion that the banality of the suburbs dissolves community and is replaced by self-obsession.

Covey’s book has cemented the idea that my own work could be placed in the psychogeography genre. Also, an interest in revisiting Robinson Crusoe (last read as a child) and looking at JG Ballard’s work.


Coverley, M. (2012) Psychogeography [Kindle edition]. (Amazon Kindle) (s.l.): Oldcastle Books.

Exercise: genre

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.

Social definition of photography: Pierre Bourdieu

This work was originally published in 1965 and features in Visual Culture: a reader . It addresses the question of photographic genres in the context of popular culture and how photography is defined socially. While the language and the division of critical perspectives along class lines now seems archaic, the discussion remains relevant. Potentially it has heightened relevance in a contemporary context, in which images are shared prolifically online.

I note aspects of interest to me at this time:

  • ‘… that which is visible is only ever that which is legible’ . If we cannot read or understand a photograph it remains invisible. The ability to read or understand is partly dependent on education and experience, and the implications of limitations are explored by Bourdieu.
  • Building on the idea, Bourdieu argues that while popular reading of photographs might embrace the idea that they agree to reality, it is not the case. However, to be read successfully, they need to conform ‘with rules which define its syntax within its social use’ , otherwise they are not understood and dismissed. Anyone who has taken a photo of something mundane is likely to have experienced this. He explains that popular photographic aesthetic is based on prohibiting certain possibilities (eg photographing into the light, or blur) and anything that fails to acknowledge these rules may be read as a failure. Therefore, if non-conforming work is to have any chance of being read broadly, it needs to be explained and appropriately situated. Perhaps in a genre that connects it with art rather than the vernacular.
  • Bourdieu discusses the idea of ‘natural poses and postures’ and observes that these are based on cultural ideals of what is natural, rather than actualities. And that the cultural ideas often reflect norms stemming from social relationships. For example, ‘the convergence of looks and the arrangement of individuals objectively testifies to the cohesion of the group’
  • Popular judgement of photos is then against norms, ‘whose principle is always ethical’ . Bourdieu explains that genres help to situate photographs amongst the norms and ‘the ordinary use of photography almost completely excludes any concern for the universality of the picture … [and is concerned] with what it is for one person or for a group of people.’ . As artistic photographs might escape conventional genres/categorisation, unless they can be placed as ‘a competition photograph’ – it then has a social function.
  • Bourdieu discusses a technology aesthetic, which seems prevalent in contemporary vernacular photographs and camera clubs. He sums up, ‘the judgement of taste is the appraisal of a disparity between the realisation … and a real idea or model.
  • In concluding the essay, Bourdieu discusses the legitimacy of various creative activities in the sphere of art, placing photography in a category that is fighting for that. He suggests that ‘it is no accident that passionate photographers are always obliged to develop the aesthetic theory of their practice, to justify their existence as photographers by justifying the existence of photography as a true art’

While the work was written over half a century ago and photography is widely accepted into the art establishment, my feeling that this acceptance is not universal or understood – photography is increasingly open to everyone at the level of pressing a button on a camera or phone to make some kind of image. Whereas it is self-evident that playing a musical instrument, for example, is more of a rarified activity.

What is slightly concerning that this need to justify and theorise can perhaps take over the activity of making images. Where does the analysis stop and the image making begin – do we choose to be photography theorists or photographers? Perhaps there needs to be just enough theory to justify the work we make as art.


Bourdieu, P. (1999) ‘The social definition of photography: Pierre Bourdieu’ In: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (ed.) Visual culture: the reader.London ; Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications in association with the Open University. pp.162–180.

Taryn Simon – which genre?

Taryn Simon is introduced in the BoW course materials. I followed a trail and stopped at a TED Talk of Simon discussing and showing her work . Her work is investigative – she explores hidden sites and deception through images. She says that her interest is in ‘the space between image and text’. And has a compelling hook to explain that, ‘at best image floats away into abstract fantasy, but text acts as a cruel anchor that nails it to the ground’. This creates a brutal image, but her work The Innocents speaks to what can happen if the limitations of images are not recognised. It deals with wrongful convictions based on the misuse and careless use of photographic evidence. Her closing remark is, ‘distortion is a constant and our eyes are easily deceived’.

How might this type of work (The Innocents) be situated in within the genres proposed for this course? It features tableau but its main thrust seems to be conceptual – how images mislead. So the categorisation doesn’t work that well in this case. If I call it portraiture overlaid by the conceptual (traditional genre, with meta-genre) it is clearer. If I use Terry Barrett’s categories and call it ‘ethically evaluative’ it goes direct to the function of the photos in this case. This serves as an example of the shortcomings of labelling, using work that highlights the limitations of photography.

I found Simon’s work fascinating and an example of how text is essential to the understanding of some work. Without context to explain, the concept would have been missed. While I enjoyed the work, it is not an approach that appeals to me – as she says herself, she spends very little time making photographs and most of her time trying to get access to people and places.



The OCA BoW materials briefly discusses genres and outlines what are called traditional genres before proposing ‘narrative genres’ that are said to have become common phrases used by artists. It is these narrative genres that the course material intends to work with. The inference could be that they displace or are more relevant than traditional genres. What we call things is important, and here I reflect on the use of genres before moving on to look at how work might fit within genres.

Attached are some short notes. In making these I also referred to Terry Barrett’s book Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images , in which he discusses genres at length and also proposes his own system for categorising photographs (not photographers).


The important messages for me is that ‘genres’ have developed based on different descriptive / categorisation needs. It is not necessarily that one approach is better than another, more that they serve different purposes. I would suggest that the genres mentioned by the OCA can be thought of as meta-genres; genres about the traditional genres, referring to the narrative structures within the traditional genres. Barrett’s own approach proposes functional categorisation, describing how the images are being used (they could transition between genres depending on context), which is related to how a photography might be read or decoded.

I understand that labels and categories are helpful to enable us to make sense of the world, but they inevitably simplify by introducing a binary dimension to complex texts. I feel it helpful to use genres, but to also keep in mind their purpose and limitations.