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.

Paul Hill, MBE

I’m beginning to think about the upcoming study visit, OCA Study day: Library of Birmingham archive room with photographer Paul Hill. Before thinking about any work in progress I might like to take along to the event, I’ve looked at Paul’s work. I have his book Approaching Photography and Hill’s own website is generous in sharing information and examples of his work .

My notes from a quick reading of the book are attached. It is intended to be a primer and the material dates from the 1980s (reissued 2004), but includes advice and suggestions that I still find relevant. Hill concludes by reminding us that the authenticity of our way of seeing is pivotal to the value of our photographs – after an earlier caution that ‘intention can be destroyed by flashy techniques that have little substance …’. In the upcoming study visit, it would be interesting to ask him, what advice he might add to the book now we are immersed in an internet and mobile media age.

Hill’s website includes some of his writing as well as examples of his work. What he has to say on ‘style’ is important to the idea of ‘finding a voice’. He says ‘Style gives an image that visual impact that acts like a magnet to the eyes . Stylists make ‘showstoppers’ through their command or subversion of conventional techniques that expose us to unique ways of seeing . Their personal signatures are more compelling than the subject matter alone .’ . I feel this could add a critical perspective to my upcoming consideration of ‘genre’.

I enjoyed viewing Hill’s work online – it looks like an embodiment of the advice he offers in his book; unique and authentic. There is a good online display of his White Peak Dark Peak work at the Hyman Collection . The sky is absent from many of the photos, giving a perspective on the land without the drama and distraction of sky. Incomplete from the perspective of the eye in an actual landscape, but more complete as a photographic perspective.

Notes on book