Part One – Genre

Groucho Marx (1 of 1)

I have always tended towards what one might describe as the ‘Marxist’ view of categorisation – Groucho, that is of course, not Karl – the ‘not wanting to join any club that would have me as a member’ approach. My problems with genres in Photography have been a) that it seems you have no sooner defined one than you find exceptions and contradictions; and b) that if you choose to ‘join’ a category, you become defined, and therefore restricted, by its ‘boundaries’. That this may have stemmed from some muddled thinking, I’m prepared to admit, but there has also been an element of suspicion that such ordering and defining of photographic images – even photographers – has stemmed from academic or archival convenience rather than ‘real’ value. Confession over, we move on to take a more serious view, in the context of the first section of ‘Body of Work’.

The course notes use a quotation from David Bate’s ‘Photography: The Key Concepts’ to summarise genre in Photography. I’ll repeat it:

“… a genre in photography – portraiture, landscape, still life, documentary, etc, – creates an expectation for the meanings to be derived from that type of photograph.” (Page 3)

Bate acknowledges that the notion of genre has been take up more frequently in film theory than in photography study, and also that photography has tended to be classified according to more traditional genres inherited from the field of painting – the first three listed in the quote, for example – but he also notes that:

Genres are processes which evolve and develop or mutate into hybrids.” (Page 4)

So he sees ‘Documentary’ as almost certainly a “… specific invention of photography.” The key seems to be that in theoretical study, the idea of genres enables all those involved – photographer, viewer, student, critic, or whatever – to share expectations and meanings. Crucially, in the context of one of my concerns expressed above, Liz Wells, in Chapter Six of ‘Photography: A Critical Introduction’, says that:

“… genres are defined not by uniformity, but by clusters of characteristic themes, formal and aesthetic concerns, and ideological preoccupations.” and “… are revitalised through aesthetic experimentation and … new issues ...” (Page 310)

It seems that genres are, perhaps, more fluid than I might have thought and that it is acceptable for them to evolve in line with contemporary issues and new ways of working.

Bate, in the rest of his book, stays with the traditional classifications – as listed above – though he does certainly look at the way photography has, at times, mutated and transformed them. Refreshingly, Part One of the ‘Body of Work’ module comes up with a different set of genres – suggesting a kind of matrix into which the traditional genres might be used. The genres looked at here are – Tableaux; Personal journeys and fictional autobiography; The archive; Psychogeography; Conceptual photography; and the ‘catch all’ Genre hopping. Some of these are familiar and some are new, but I do certainly see the potential for some refreshment of thinking in this approach. I can see how an exploration of some of these in my own work will potentially set me off on different tracks and or provide direction for ideas that are already around.

There is a reference in the notes to thinking with photography as opposed to thinking about photography. I felt a little uncertain about that when I first read it. I have sometimes been concerned that, despite studying a visual art, I perhaps think literally rather than visually, and that learning to do the latter could be difficult. I still feel a bit that way – but in reading the Wells’ chapter mentioned above, I came across a quote from Jeff Wall, in a section where Wells uses Landscape as a case study for looking at genre. She quotes Wall as saying “I make landscapes … to work out for myself what the kind of picture (or photograph) we call ‘landscape’ is. This permits me also to recognize the other kinds of picture with which it has necessary connections, or the other genres that a landscape might conceal within itself.” This, I suspect, is thinking with photography, and it encourages me to go out and explore some or all of the genres in the module with my own image-making.


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