Terry Barrett describes six types of photographs within a classificatory system based on content, function, intention, and use (1990, 1996). His categories are: descriptive, explanatory, interpretive, ethically evaluative, aesthetically evaluative, and theoretical photographs. This system is useful for both thinking about images, and for utilizing photography for research. Some photographs may fit within several categories, and the classification system depends largely upon the viewer. Barren's approach emphasizes how photographs are used - it implicates photography in the broader social currents that produce, celebrate, and consume photographic images.
Descriptive photographs record subject matter. Mug shots, X-rays, satellite shots, art reproductions, driver's licenses share a common purpose to accurately describe something. This is not to say that most photographs describe, or that descriptive photographs are not enmeshed in aesthetic, political, and cultural trajectories, but rather to group some photographs into what was one of the bases of photography's promise - to accurately represent nature.
Explanatory photographs are similar to interpretive photographs, but some photographs offer detailed explanations - such as those used in scientific reports, medical textbooks, or owner's manuals. Most journalistic photographs are also explanatory in nature, although a growing number also serve evaluatory or aesthetic functions. Many product catalogs utilize explanatory photographs - they need to show the product and explain how it looks and/or functions. Barrett's examples include famous photographic studies of how animals and people move, medical monographs, and instructional manuals - each example aimed at showing reality as if through a window. The photographs may be instructive, but often the forum they appear in implicates them in larger issues. In chapter 4, I take up photographic instructional manuals as cultural documents that do much more than describe. The next categorical group moves well into the aesthetic, subjective realm.
Interpretive photographs attempt to show how things are - at least to the photographer. Often, photographs appear fictional or dreamlike. Interpretive photographs act as mirrors - they are often personal and subjective reflections of events under control of the photographer. Most artistic-motivated photography - that small percentage of photographs that exist to appear in galleries and museums - belongs in this category. Cindy Sherman probably represents this category as well as anyone, her staged film still photographs traverse the realm of portrait, fine art, and identity statement in ways that have helped make her one of the most important artists of the past twenty-five years (Morris 1999). Interestingly, Sherman is known as an artist, not a photographer - her work, although photographic in material, has merged into contemporary art. Although Barrett doesn't discuss advertising photography much, I suggest that many advertisements fall into the interpretive category. Ads are usually staged; they represent a corporate interpretation of events, people, or products. Earlier forms of advertising photography concentrated around descriptive or explanatory; now advertising photography normally dwells in the more aesthetic realms.
Ethically evaluative photographs make ethical judgments. They are motivated by a desire to condemn or celebrate something. They comment on how things are, or picture how things should be (Barrett 1996). War photographs often fall into this category. Barbara Kruger's explicitly political work exemplifies current ethically evaluative photographs (Kruger 1990). Political photography - the "photo opportunity" - and political advertising routinely make use of ethically tinged images. Advertising campaigns from Benetton, Diesel, and Kenneth Cole share some aspects of ethical evaluation, albeit tempered by inconsistent corporate practices in other areas (see Schroeder and Borgerson 1998). I will discuss Calvin Klein's use of aesthetic photography at length in chapter 7.
Aesthetically evaluative photographs focus attention on aesthetic issues - what is good or beautiful, what is worth photographing or contemplating. Aesthetically evaluative photographs frequently feature natural forms - the nude, the landscape, still life studies. These subjects appear as beautiful things, beautifully shown, such as Ansel Adams's photographs of the American West, or Sally Mann's probing, provocative family portraits.
Theoretical photographs designate perhaps the most sophisticated, self-referencing photographs. Barrett argues that photographs about photography are theoretical in the sense that they promote reflection about the medium of photography as an artistic, political, and personal tool. Theoretical photographs "speak" to those interested in photography: "they are photographs about films, photographs about photographs, art about art, and can be considered a visual type of art criticism that uses pictures rather than words" (Barrett 1996: 81). Kruger's work, such as I Shop Therefore I Am, might be placed into this theoretical category (see Schroeder 1998). I think that much so-called postmodern imagery -including advertising - can be effectively considered theoretical, in that it calls attention to conventions, codes, and categories of communication technology. For example, many ad campaigns refer to advertising conventions of comparison of brand "A" vs. brand "B" in a playful, ironic tone that lets the audience in on the joke and subverts established - old fashioned - marketing ploys.
Barrett's categories might find many uses in marketing and consumer research. First, they provide a useful typology of photographs that contributes to understanding about images. Using the categories requires interpretive work to make sense out of images, as well as comparative analysis to distinguish images from one another. Second, these classifications provide novel perspectives on advertising photography, and a way to connect images in ads to aesthetic issues. Third, the categories explicitly include contextual matters - photographic images are part of image culture, and need to be understood within the external domain of the photograph. Finally, his typology offers a set of propositions about images and how they are interpreted by viewers, the photographer, and perhaps researchers. Each photograph must be interpreted before placement within the six categories, each image requires reflection - a key process of understanding how images influence our world as they do.
(In "Visual Consumption" by J.E. Schroeder, 2002)