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)
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)
While typological photographs are not devoid of visual pleasures, they are characterized by equanimity of means and ends, and an interdependence with other pictures of their type. Form and content receive equal weight in these sequential pictures that imply and derive meaning from both past and future works; "The archive, not the picture, is an appropriate frame for understanding this work" (Freidus 1991, 12).
(In Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, 2005. Chapter written by George Slade)
Rotterdam-based photographer Ari Versluis and profiler Ellie Uyttenbroek have worked together since October 1994. Inspired by a shared interest in the striking dress codes of various social groups, they have systematically documented numerous identities over the last 14 years. Rotterdam’s heterogeneous, multicultural street scene remains a major source of inspiration for Ari Versluis and Ellie Uyttenbroek, although since 1998 they have also worked in cities abroad.
They call their series Exactitudes: a contraction of exact and attitude. By registering their subjects in an identical framework, with similar poses and a strictly observed dress code, Versluis and Uyttenbroek provide an almost scientific, anthropological record of people’s attempts to distinguish themselves from others by assuming a group identity. The apparent contradiction between individuality and uniformity is, however, taken to such extremes in their arresting objective-looking photographic viewpoint and stylistic analysis that the artistic aspect clearly dominates the purely documentary element.
Inspired by a shared interest in the striking dress codes of various social groups, the Rotterdam-based photographic team of Ari Versluis & Ellie Uyttenbroek have been systematically hamstringing such permutations of received identity for ten years. They call their series Exactitudes, a contraction of “exact” and “attitudes”. It’s August Sander and Eugène Atget turned on their heads by Bernd and Hilla Becher - a direct assault on the mythic formula that photography plus the street equals authenticity.
By dragging the repertory of the street kicking and screaming to the studio backdrop, the series offers a purposely absurd response to the sentimentality of Jamal Shabazz (“Back in the days”) and the beloved and utterly bogus spontaneity of the photo booth. It’s a perfect fit for an age that’s made the “cool hunt” a corporate pursuit. Of course the photos are starchy and obdurately posed and ever so consciously styled, because there can be no meaningful limit to the cross-contamination between those notions of a authenticity and supreme self-awareness.