Category Archives: Genres

Paris in the Springtime–Episode Two

Lilac in Paris April 2014 (1 of 1)

Indulgence in some ‘pretty’ photography – why not?  This is the second of three, maybe four, write-ups from my visit to Paris last week.  Here, I’m focusing on two more contemporary exhibitions – in terms of subjects, artists and presentation.

As well as the Robert Adams (blogged here), Jeu de Paume also had a sizeable exhibition of works by French photographer, Mathieu Pernot.  New to me, Pernot, the exhibition notes tell me, “… specialises in documentary work, but offers a new take on the codes of this photographic genre …”, exploring “… alternative paths …” to develop a “… multi-voiced narrative …”.  The reference to genre leads me to link his work with Part One of this module.  He uses archive, found images and elements of psychogeography, which, apart from the fact that I found the work genuinely interesting and stimulating, makes him particularly apt for this blog.  The exhibition presented works from around 10 or 11 different series that he has produced over the last twenty or so years, with a common – though not exclusive – theme of nomadic and precarious characters e.g. gypsies and migrants.  In other hands, images of such subject matter can seem separate – the ‘other’ – but I got much less of that sensation from Pernot’s work.  In some cases, I think, this was because it felt more genuinely ‘involved’ and collaborative e.g. Giovanni 1995-2012, where he has photographed the same subject, a Roma Gypsy, over an eighteen year period.  In others, oddly, it was an element of abstraction and detachment that avoided the sense of exploitation that can sometimes go with ‘other’ photography.  The series below, called Migrants, is a case in point.

Mathieu Pernot The Migrants (1 of 1)

Pernot has photographed Afghan migrants, in a Paris square where they gather, early in the morning before they are moved on by the police.  Recording them under their blankets, sleeping bags etc may, as the the exhibition notes say, reduce them “… to the condition of simple forms …” but it also seems to make it possible for me to look at them and speculate about their situation without the sense of exploitation that I can feel when the face is looking back.  I’m not sure how rational that is or whether it is something other viewers feel but I got more out of these images than the hundreds of photographs of migrants that I’ve seen in newspapers or other exhibitions of documentary work.  It might simply be that these are ‘different’ or it might be because they are more like still-life images.  Also, just the day before, I’d been at the Rodin Museum where one line of comparison between him and Robert Mapplethorpe (coming up in Episode Three) was the use of drapery.  Whilst coming nowhere near the aesthetic qualities of a Rodin sculpture or a Mapplethorpe print, there is something directly comparable about these, to which is added the dimension that these are ‘real’ (dangerous word!).  There is someone under there with a real story (one of which, by the way, was recorded on the opposite wall in The Afghan Notebooks).

Mathieu Pernot Witnesses (1 of 1)

This image is from another part of the Pernot exhibition, which brings together two of his series – The Best of All Worlds and Witnesses.  Both are based on a collection of sixty postcards, published between 1950 and 1980, showing high-rise housing estates in French suburbs, considered to be symbols of progress, at the time.  (Not unlike parts of Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards, but used in a somewhat different way).  In The Best of All Worlds, Pernot has simply reproduced and enlarged the postcards to ‘gallery-size’ prints, a process that obviously raises their profile but also emphasises the artificiality of the colours – and of the whole environment and the way it was being presented in the cards; as though the enlargement takes us through the veil.  In Witnesses, he goes a stage further, homing on on the tiny figures of people, accidentally caught up in the photograph (and the narrative, too, of course), and enlarging them even further so that they are no longer anonymous incidentals but the main subject of the image.  This process takes me right back to Arles, last summer, and the work of John Stezaker (blogged here), who created tiny exhibition images of figures cut from larger photographic prints).

I have been truly impressed by Pernot’s work and his “… multi-voiced narrative …”.  Rather in the way that I have thought about using studio-based work to respond to events, he has created ‘documentary’ work that moves beyond the (mere) taking of photographs, and is all the more powerful and effective for that.  There were other series worthy of note that I’m not covering here that do appear on the website – A Bohemian Camp, for example, which starts from an archive of images and documents from a camp for nomadic people created by the French Vichy government on 1942.  I would rate this one of the best exhibitions I have seen in a while.

I had visit Le Bal before and this smallish gallery in Montmartre lived up to the promise of that last visit.  Quite apart from the exhibition, to which I’ll come in a moment, the space is excellent, the culture is very much contemporary photography, and the welcome & service are both excellent.  The staff at the super little cafe went out of their way to accommodate eight hungry OCA students and so ‘full marks’ for that.  This time, the exhibition was of work by two artists of whom, like Pernot, I had never heard before – Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse.  The former is South African and the latter British; and this was their collaboration on Ponte City.  I must admit that I had done little preparation for this particular exhibition (much of the background on Le Bal’s site being – perfectly reasonably – in French), but subsequent reading further informs me about Ponte City itself – a circular tower-block building in Johannesburg that seems to have as many stories as it has storeys (54)!  It was built during apartheid, in 1976, targeted at white middle-class couples, but has gone through various phases – sometimes seeming to epitomise the hope for a brighter South African future and sometimes seeming to represent (and house) the least positive aspects of the reality of the country’s struggles with itself, its past, and economic reality.  The exhibition seeks to explore that history – partly through new photography, some of it portrait, some documentary, some almost more typology – but also through a variety of other sources such as promotional material, architects’ drawings, found objects, old photographs, magazines, letters/communications, handwritten accounts, tear-sheets, and so on.  And it works – not especially on the level of photography itself, though that is clearly a crucial element and, to an extent, a subject of the work, but as documentary art representing social history in a varied, interesting and stimulating manner.

Subotsky & Waterhouse Le Bal (1 of 1)

This image gives a flavour of how it uses and presents the mixed media – in this case, mainly found material though there is a glimpse of a large-scale image on the right.  It also demonstrates a phenomenon that was common in this show, but also present in Pernot’s exhibition (and others on the Paris trip) – the impossibly high exhibits.  Short of taking a ladder, it is physically impossible to look at several of the images and items that are placed high on the wall.  The only conclusion is that it is meant to be viewed as a whole, as in this image, and/or that we are meant to feel a sense that however long we look we will only ever know part of the story.  Sometimes, it was intended to relate to the height of the building, as in the presentation on the far wall below.

Subotsky & Waterhouse Le Bal 2 (1 of 1)

There was no shortage of accessible material to look at, so I’m not suggesting this approach detracted from the effectiveness, but it was certainly unusual (albeit, as I say, a characteristic of more than one of the Paris shows).  As with Pernot, there is much to learn from the use of varied materials, beyond the purely photographic.  And, as fellow student Stephanie identified for us, this work has been exhibited in different ways at different locations – see here.  There was also some creative and interesting detail to reward the closer look.  Look at the combination of newly-created photograph, found image, and document in this specific exhibit.

Subotsky & Waterhouse Le Bal Detail (1 of 1)

So, two contemporary exhibitions, both operating broadly in the documentary field, which have demonstrated the effectiveness of taking a flexible and multi-faceted approach to the presentation of photographic material.  They have also introduced me to some new names to follow – especially Mathieu Pernot.

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A Personal Journey – back where I started!

A deliberately ambiguous headline!  On Wednesday of this week, I took a trip back to some old haunts from my childhood.  Searching out a few of the locations that featured in the Newsbook provided some focus, but it was also intended as an open-ended/open-minded exploration of the place I grew up, with the potential to hit some emotional buttons and lead who knows where.  Actually, I don’t feel that it has lead me anywhere – other than back to the conclusion that I don’t do emotional, personal journeys!  As briefly as I can, this is the story – starting out with the revisited locations.

Newsbook Locations

The book itself was created, nearly 60 years ago, behind the two tall arched windows to the right of the building shown in the top right image – my old primary & junior school.  The location featuring most frequently, with the narrative “I went to church on Sunday”, is a very small country church – St Marks at Eagland Hill.  It is still there, little changed, and judging by the drawing & photo (second row down), the weather on Wednesday was similar to October 1955!  Another frequent piece of ‘news’ was that I went to my ‘Granny’s’ (or on one, more pretentious, occasion, ‘Grandma’s’!).  The third pair of images shows that ‘Clocky Hill Cottage’ has changed significantly.  It was always attached to another property on the left, even though my 1955 drawing suggests otherwise; but the smaller, older whitewashed part of the property (known to my mother’s family as “Th’owd end”) has been replaced with a new extension.  My mother was born there nearly 100 years ago, and the last of her family only left the cottage in the 1980s.  St Marks Church and Clocky Hill are both in the hamlet of Eagland Hill, but my childhood was more associated with the neighbouring village of Pilling, where I lived.  The school is there, and so is the graveyard that featured in my Newsbook – between two other village churches shown in the fourth photograph down.   I couldn’t seem to locate my grandparents’ grave and the ground was too sodden to tramp around in.  But I did go off in search of the cinema at Knott End – a few miles away – where “I went to the pictures” in January 1956.  I knew very well that the cinema was no more, but the building remains – as a squash club named ‘The Squash’!!

So, what to make of that aspect of my trip?  It’s at least twenty years since I last saw some of these locations – but no surprises, really.  And, apart from a recognition that the locations exist in some form or other, and could possibly provide locations for some of the self-portraits, no inspiration either.  I could use them, but they don’t have anything distinctive to offer.  Which is pretty much my reaction to much of my ‘Personal Journey’.  I don’t believe that the ‘place’ that is Pilling – or Wyre Borough, as the district is now known – ever had much impact on me.  In fact, as I’ve looked back, I’ve always suspected that it’s greatest effect was probably a stifling one and Wednesday left me with the same idea.

Personal Journey-13

Interesting to note that the institutions – the churches & schools – have barely changed at all in 60 years.  I have brothers living a few miles away, but I know no one in the village, and so I wondered whether the people and their lives have changed much.  They will have, of course, through technology and communications if in no other way.  Then I notice the names of Churchwardens in the Parish Church illustrated above.  One of them is called Ben Shepherd and, remarkably, when I attended this church regularly, maybe 45 years ago, one of the Churchwardens was called Ben Shepherd!!  And, at St Marks Eagland Hill, I popped into the church porch, where a flower rota was displayed.  My late mother’s name was Dorothy.  It’s not that common a name these days – but here is the St Marks flower rota for 2013-14!  Crikey, Mum, not still doing it, surely!

Personal Journey-5

That’s what I mean by stifling.  I was only in the area for a few hours, but I felt the past crowding in on me.  I may sound ungrateful – to an area that looked after me well enough; to a loving family & friends; to a harmless and enjoyable childhood – but I’m not.  I went off to University in the centre of London when I was eighteen and hated the wrench from this comfortable country village life – understandably.  But a few years later, much as I loved to come back and see my family, I would always get that stifling sensation within a day or two – and it’s perhaps the most striking emotion, maybe the only one, that I felt on this visit.

And so, I began making pictures that looked outward.  Pilling & Knott End are on the Southern edges of Morecambe Bay; and my eye and my camera began to wander in that direction.

Personal Journey-18

Personal Journey-20

Personal Journey-28

Personal Journey-29

‘Looking upwards and outwards’ is a good principle to work with, I think; looking to the present and the future, not towards the past.  I had thought that the self-portrait project should be about ‘now’ – a serious but light-hearted reflection on where one might be now rather than any notions of regret or nostalgia – and I now know that that is correct.  There is a slight hint of melancholy in the way those four images above have headed; and part of me does wish I was more emotional, more naturally open about my feelings, but whenever I’ve tried to go that way with my photography, the result has been angst and frustration, so I’m certainly not going to make that mistake again.  Mind you, if I believed in Divine Intervention, I might have been moved by what happened just a few moments after the last of those four images …

Personal Journey-30

I left those churches and associated beliefs behind a long, long time ago – but maybe they’re still after me!! It’s just light, of course, like all photographic images!  It was the light that was changing, not my mood, honestly!

So I made my personal journey, back to my roots, and I took 80-90 photographs, of which a handful have something to say about where I go with my Body of Work project.  I first came up with the idea for the Newsbook project when I was reading BJP.  It was an article about a young photographer who was making a series of images that related to a narrative around communication with his mother, who had died when he was a child.  Not for the first time, I thought “… no deep emotional trauma has ever happened to me, and maybe that’s a shortcoming when it comes to being creative …”.  Then came the idea of creating different narratives, different versions of me – maybe using the Newsbook, the five-year-old’s story as the trigger.  If life isn’t interesting, create an interesting life – more than one, maybe!

The journey back to my roots has also taken me back to the beginning with the project.  It will be a contemporary, post-modern project in the ‘now’.  It is not about me or my personal journey, because the author is dead.  Abigail Solomon-Godeau, in the concluding paragraph to her essay ‘Playing in the Fields of the Image‘, in ‘Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices‘ (page 102), says:

“The photographer’s personal vision, sensibility, or capacity for self-expression is assumed to be of interest only to his or her friends, families, lovers, or analysts. While the aesthetics of consumption (photographic or otherwise) requires a heroicised myth of the (male) artist, the exemplary practice of the player-off of codes requires only an operator, a producer, a scriptor, or a pasticheur.”

I am a producer, a scriptor or a pasticheur and, happily, can dispense with the angst!

Genres – Responding to the archive

Lion Tamer - Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Lion Tamer – Tyne & Wear Museums & Archive – via Flickr Creative Commons

I was looking for something to illustrate my reflections about ‘the archive’ and specifically searched for a photo of an archive.  Nothing came up, but this photograph leapt off the screen at me.  It was, originally, a glass slide, one of a number of fairground images in that format found in a store at the Discovery Museum, Tyne & Wear.  There is absolutely no information about the photographer, the subject, the location, the purpose – nothing.  It is so tempting to begin to speculate, to interpret.  But what right do I have, probably one hundred years after it was taken?  Leave him and his lions (well two of them at least) to stare out at us over the decades; and let whatever is happening off frame, to their right, remain a historical mystery.  This is just one of the billions of images I can access, almost instantly, via the 21st century ‘archive’ that is the internet.  Is there any wonder that so many contemporary artists use that creative potential to seek to create meaning?

Coincidentally, the Tyne & Wear Archive was one of several sources of photographs, prints, paintings, artefacts, recordings and other parephenalia, used by Jeremy Deller in putting together ‘All That is Solid Melts into Air’, which is currently on show at Manchester Art Gallery, and which I saw last week.  To be a little more precise, he sourced from 9 museums; 2 libraries; 2 city archives; 4 art galleries; plus various artists & private collections, as well as creating some of the work himself.  Deller’s working method is very curatorial; and I suppose there might be debate as to whether this was ‘his work’ or just an exhibition that he has curated.  I would go with the former – but I’m not sure it matters.  What he does, with this work, is invite the 21st century viewer to consider and relate to his/her history – specifically to the impact of the Industrial Revolution on British people and culture – by a careful and clever juxtaposition of images, artefacts, sounds and creations, from the very recent past to the late eighteenth century.  It is fair to say that, in the context of this note and this section of my Body of Work module, he is working with and responding to ‘the archive’.

The module notes invite me to look at an article written, in 1986, by Allan Sekula, titled ‘Reading an archive: photography between labour and capital’, which appears in ‘Visual Culture: a reader’, edited by Evans and Hall, Sage Publications, London, 1999.  The article links the photographic archive with power, in the context of economic life (pertinent, therefore, to the Deller exhibition).  In essence, the argument goes along these lines:

  • The archive is ‘property’ and subbordinates original meaning and use to the logic of exchange.
  • Meaning depends on context and the archive, by supplying institutional authority and control, shifts images away from their origins and so may release the user (of the archive) from the responsibility to refer to original meaning and purpose.
  • This maintains a hidden connection between knowledge and power.
  • He also questions the validity of photographs as historical documents (or at least he questions history that is based on photographs) and as artworks.  The former tends towards spectacle and exoticism and the latter towards romanticism (if it favours the authorial perspective) or detachment, irony and even contempt (if it treats the photograph as a found object to be ‘interpreted’ – my ‘Lion Tamer’, for example).

Photography, Sekula concludes, has served as a tool of industrial and bureaucratic power.

Reflecting on this, I note:

  • that it was written nearly 30 years ago, in the context of physical, and largely institutional archiving, as opposed to open and digital archives;
  • that the scale of what might be interpreted as the photographic archive has moved on, as have the means of organising and the scope for searching and selecting images;
  • but the ‘power’ issue is potentially even more important – in the context of online archives, stock photography, sophisticated search engines, and the explosion of web-based vernacular images;
  • plus, the subordination of original use and the scope for new meaning becomes even more significant when ‘ownership’ is a) disputed anyway, with so many ‘orphan images’ circulating the web, and b) even further separated from the originator and any notion of authorial authority.

In ‘The Photographic Image in Digital Culture’, edited by Martin Lister, Routledge London, 2013, Nina Lager Vestberg’s article ‘The Photographic Image in Digital Archives’  confirms that 1980s critical studies of the archive, such as Sekula’s, were concerned with the ‘uses and abuses’ of the archive and approached the idea from a materialistic perspective.  Looking with a more contemporary perspective, she distinguishes between ‘Digitisation’ of images, including those from the old, physical archives, and ‘Computerisation’ of working practics – the latter leading to a changing role for the archivist (interfacing between user and ‘system’ as opposed to user and ‘image) and the ‘invisibility’ of the algorithmic search.  In the context of ‘stock photography’, she also notes the huge increase in staged or modelled images designed purely for stock purposes (Paul Frosh, in the same publication, refers to the ‘wallpaper of consumer culture’); the use of keywords (often highly conceptual in nature) to fuel searches and retrieval of images; and the changes to licencing rights.

Which brings me, directed by the module notes and in the context of keywords, to Taryn Simon’s ‘The Picture Collection’, an exhibition based on selections from the New York Library’s picture archive.  That archive comprises 12,000 folders, with individual titles such as ‘Handshaking, ‘Express Highways’ and ‘Yellow’, to name just three, which contain, in total, 1.2 million physical images, collected together by the library staff, since 1915.  Simon makes her own selection, from a selection of the folders, to create large scale ‘collage-type’ images.  Even without seeing the physical exhibition itself, one is prompted to reflect on the very process of the archive’s compilation over nearly 100 years, and the short video in this link highlights the fascinating juxtaposition of images the archive has produced.  But I am also prompted to relate this work to the concept of ‘Keywords’ in contemporary digital archiving.  The NY Library staff, over the years, have made individual decisions to place each specific, physical image into a specifically named physical folder.  Vestberg quotes just one, relatively insignificant image that she uses to illustrate her article as having well over 100 keywords attached to it – the equivalent of placing it in over 100 of the NY Library folders at the same time, of course.

For me, this is another illustration of the challenge, in critical photographic studies, to keep up with and ‘contain’ (in a critical theoretical sense) the changes brought about by the internet and digital media.  Issues of power, control, politics, economics, meaning and truth, all of which might reasonably be discussed in the context of a photographic archive, become even harder to fully comprehend.  So, one senses, critical theory and study can become more a question of ‘coping’ than of explaining and understanding.  Frosh, in his article in the Lister book above, refers to Getty Images as having an aspiration to become a ‘total archive’.  (He compares Getty to Hobbes’ Leviathan.)  Where, one wonders, does that take Sekula’s questions about ‘power’?

One brief reflection on the ‘Lion Tamer’ – what would he make of these questions?  I allow myself that reflection only to emphasise to myself that I probably have about as much chance of knowing what his life is all about as he has of comprehending mine.  The archive, especially the great archive we call the internet, is a powerful, attractive and tempting source of creative imagery and meaning – but one to be read and interpreted with some caution.

Genres – Tableaux – Gregory Crewdson

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The module notes ask me to do some research on Gregory Crewdson’s work and reflect on how it relates to ‘… film and/or art’.  The research has taken me into five or six photography books from my shelves; two NY Times articles from the internet; a written interview from Aperture website; three video interviews from YouTube and Vimeo; plus online viewing of several images from ‘Twilight’, ‘Between the Roses’, ‘Sanctuary’ and some earlier works.  So, where has that led me regarding the ‘film and/or art’ relationship?

There are unmistakable areas in which one can make direct references between Crewdson’s images and film.

  • Production process is the most obvious.  He employs a significant team of staff to produce the works, including Art Director, Casting Director, Location Manager, even camera operator, whilst taking an overall directorial role himself (that does not involve actually handling the camera).  It might, therefore, be argued that producing a Crewdson photographic image is more akin to making a movie than taking a photograph.  And that might be extended into post-production, with many ‘takes’ being combined, through digital processing, into a final version of the image.
  • Comparisons are also made in the narrative context; a suggestion that his work resembles science fiction or horror movies; that he almost seems to collapse the entire story of the movie into a single image.
  • Which leads to, or is maybe directly related to, the resemblance to film stills.  I have recently looked at film stills in the context of John Stezaker’s work – here – and it becomes clear that this type of image is not quite what it ‘says on the tin’.  Far from being ‘still’ frames from the film, they are carefully staged and posed images, shot with a still camera on the film set, intended to ‘inform’ the viewer of a sense of the film, its narrative, and its genre.  As such, Stezaker suggests they have something in common with paintings.  Crewdson’s images have all those characteristics – posed, still, somewhat ‘unnatural’ – and so do indeed resemble ‘stills’ (though that might also relate them to paintings – see below).
  • Whilst my research hasn’t turned up any information about Crewdson’s funding of his work, the level of planning/production, the large crew, etc all suggest a significant budget, which must be pre-funded in some way – backers, pre-purchase of the limited edition prints, or whatever.  This commercial aspect will, one might assume, have something in common with the process of movie-making.

Turning to the relationship between Crewdson’s work and ‘art’, it is tempting to get into the debate over ‘what is art?’ and to question why ‘film’ is being differentiated from ‘art’.  Since that isn’t, I’m sure, the point of this piece of research, I’ll work on the basis that ‘art’, in this case, is probably referring to the commonly-used, narrower definition of painting, drawing and the ‘traditional’ visual arts.

  • Several of my references have made a comparison between Crewdson’s work and that of painter Edward Hopper; and Crewdson himself acknowledges the influence.  One can make direct, ‘physical’ comparisons – looking through windows; ambiguous scenes in suburban USA; the ‘gaze’ of the figures, often staring off-frame, we know not whence – but perhaps the sense that the images are exploring some psychological state of mind is an even stronger axis of similarity.  That state is usually more dramatic in Crewdson’s case – relating, no doubt, to the oft-quoted, and acknowledged, influence of his father’s psychoanalyst profession, with consulting room in the basement of the family home.
  • In the context of the identified genre of ‘tableaux’, these are carefully constructed and composed images, with high levels of attention to detail (books on tables, pictures on walls, reflections in mirrors), often details that have significance in suggesting narrative – all factors that resemble the construct of traditional paintings.  I am reminded of reading Michael Fried’s ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before’ (Yale, 2008), in which there is a detailed examination of Jeff Wall’s constructed photographic images and their relationship with classical painting.
  • Even the production process mentioned above, whilst most closely resembling film production in the literal sense, could also have much in common with the ‘studio-produced’ work of a Leonardo da Vinci or Anish Kapoor – to name two disparate artists who were/are certainly not ‘hands-on’ but ‘team-based’ in their output.
  • And Crewdson’s work is certainly targeted at the ‘art’ market.  The investment of time and money in creating images which, printed very large in editions of six, sell for tens of thousands of dollars.  He makes his work as ‘art’ in that sense.

In summary, whilst Crewdson’s images reference ‘film’ in a number of ways, they are apparently created for what one might term ‘wall-based’ display, with some very significant and serious aesthetic intent and an intensity of development process, placing them firmly in the ‘art’ world.  They resemble film stills; they resemble paintings; they are photographic images; but, in the end, they are principally his creations, his expressions, his chosen unique contributions.  They are complex, ambiguous, and thought-provoking; but at the same time, perhaps, they are highly-produced and highly expensive artefacts.  Does artifice overtake meaning?  Or does Crewdson simply push the boundaries of what level of production values might meaningfully be brought to bear in the creation of photographic art?  Those questions might also seem to hover somewhere in and around the distinction between modernism and post-modernism in photography.

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.