A typology is an analytical study or classification system based on types. It is a concept often associated with theology, Jungian psychology, personality assessment, linguistics, architecture, and criminology. The premise behind typology is that a set of similar objects can be identified by their external appearance, and that things manifesting that outer appearance will have other characteristics in common with other things that resemble it. That is, things may be grouped together by how they look, and their behavior may adhere to certain established precedents.The use of the term typology within photography has come to refer to a methodical image-making approach that expands on the general description outlined above. The term can be used both descriptively, summarizing a group of images in retrospect, and predictably, anticipating the style a given artist will employ to record a particular subject. Furthermore, it can, by extrapolating from earlier photographs, signal a type of subject matter that a given artist would be likely to portray. Broadly speaking, typological photographs are identified by an empirical, straight-forward appearance, with great detail and clarity in the prints. They are often displayed or reproduced in series; one important element of a typological project is its open-ended quality of comparative investigation. A given image in a typology implies that there will always be another example of what you have seen, and that juxtaposing the new and the old will reveal meanings inherent in each individual image, and in the series overall.
Origins and Precedents
The Germans Bernd and Hilla Becher introduced the term "typology" to the vocabulary of photography in the subtitle of their first monograph, Anon-yme Skulpturen: Eine Typologie technischer Bauten; the Bechers' images of blast furnaces, water towers, frame houses, coal mine heads, and other industrial structures, begun in 1957 and usually presented in sequences or grids, are the most widely recognized examples of typological photography. But there is evidence of typological photography dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century and before. An important, often-cited model is the work of Eugene Atget, who brought the patient, passionate thoroughness of an historical cataloguer to his systematic documentation of Parisian architecture. August Sander provides what may be the definitive model for typology; his open-ended attempt in the 1910s and 1920s to record of "the face of our time"—that is, a collective portrait of all types of people inhabiting Weimar Germany—carries all the methodology, the serial, open-ended nature of the working system, and the compelling semblance of objectivity that characterize the contemporary standard-bearers of type photography. Sander was a typologist in all but the name. Also serving as typological antecedents from Germany are the photographers who worked under the Neue Sachlichkeit (usually translated as "new objectivity") banner, including Karl Blossfeldt and Albert Renger-Patzsch. Renger-Patzsch, who presented his spare, frontal esthetic in his influential book Die Welt ist schon (The World is Beautiful) (1928), Blossfeldt (see Urformen der Kunst , published in the United States as Art Forms in Nature ), and Sander are united in their apparent insistence on the predominance of subject matter as the principle cause for making a photograph, and the creation of straight, unmanipulated photographs to record and convey their impressions. The work of the American Walker Evans, specifically its apparent transparency or authorlessness, is also cited as a model for contemporary typologists.
Examples and Parallels
Younger artists, born in the 1940s and 1950s following the Bechers (and in many cases instructed by them in courses at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düƒsseldorf beginning in 1976), have carried out typological investigations into a variety of subjects. California-based painter Ed Ruscha's 1960s book-works, collections of photographs almost completely described by their titles—Twenty-six Gasoline Stations (1962), Thirty-four Parking Lots (1967), Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), for example—are clearly in line with the goals of typology. American photographer Roger Mertin recorded extensive series of trees (in both orchards and as featured players in Christmas activities), basketball backboards, and libraries, especially those funded in the United States and Canada by Andrew Carnegie. Lynne Cohen has documented interior spaces designed for scientific observation and for firearms testing. Bechers' protege Candida Hofer has used a hand-held camera to record impressions of large meeting halls, empty of people but full of chairs that often provide an anachronistic contrast to their surroundings. Fellow Bechers' student Thomas Ruffs enormous portraits of classmates at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie pay homage to August Sander's catalogue of types, while paring down his environmentally descriptive scenes to wall size approximations of passport photographs. These five artists, plus Judy Fiskin, Thomas Struth, and the Bechers, are presented by the exhibition and catalogue Typologies (1991), to date the most probing and definitive consideration of this mode of photographic practice. Essays by curator Marc Freidus, James Lingwood, and Rod Slemmons provide a range of perspectives on the history, meaning, and implications of typological photography. Other contemporary photographers whose work reflects typological inclinations include Andreas Gursky, Catherine Wagner, and Michael Schmidt. Also manifesting comparable concerns were the photographers included in the 1975 exhibition New Topographies: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape, organized by the International Museum of Photography and Film at George Eastman House, Rochester, New York. The Bechers were the only non-Americans in the exhibition, which also featured work by Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel, Jr. The New Topographies approach was distinguished from typology in several ways, primarily in the formal execution of individual prints. Although many of the New Topographies photographers worked on projects that constituted extended series and made photographs with an ostensibly objective appearance, their concerns were largely social, esthetic, and humanistic, in contrast to the more austere, cataloging approach of the typologists. Typology could be considered a more postmodern approach, in contrast to the more traditionally estheticized images in New Topographies.
As Jonathan Green writes:
Consciousness of light is perhaps the quintessential characteristic of American photography. It is precisely the lack of luminosity that sets apart the work of the German photographers Hilla and Bernd Becher in New Topographies. Their work stems from a European, Teutonic demand for cataloging, and their world is seen in terms of constructions rather than illuminated objects within a luminescent landscape. Their obsessive concern with the typology of representation stands in marked contrast to the American delight in modeling sunlight. The Bechers use the medium merely to obtain a uniform sizing of disparate objects. Ironically, their work is the only work in New Topographies that literally records topography. For the American photographers, as Robert Adams said, 'Light still works an alchemy.'
(Green 1 984, 170)
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(In Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, 2005. Chapter written by George Slade)