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We’ve looked at a number of ways to approach photographic series and sequences over the last few weeks, but have for the most part left out a significant approach – that of the photographic typology.

Typology is the study of types, and a photographic typology is a suite of images or related forms, shot in a consistent, repetitive manner; to be fully understood, the images must be viewed as a complete series. (1)

A number of photographic series come to mind with the above definition. Certainly the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher is at the forefront, with their decades-long photographic study of industrial complexes, grain elevators, silos and water towers. The Bechers’ work is sort of the gold standard of typologies, as it can be read as highly conceptual as well as aesthetically engaging. While immediately stand-offish, the photographs endear themselves to the viewer over time as one comes to read the nuanced differences between the structures. The cold images play in the empty arena of Minimalism while also opening us up into an almost obsessive practice of image capture that when viewed across the artists’ oeuvre reveals a systematic documentation of the contemporary global industrial landscape. In a way, the Bechers are archaeologists of a time that passed not so long ago, but “obviously only in art could they find the motivation for their gigantic task, and then concludes that they work precisely as artists do, since they rigidly limit their interest to a few chosen subjects and refuse to let themselves be distracted by anyone, scientist or historian, who would present a different visual approach.” (2)

Bernd + Hilla Becher, Gas Tanks

Bernd + Hilla Becher, Gas Tanks

The impact of the Bechers is still being felt as many young photographers continue to take off on their complex, unromantic photographic practice (including the photographer currently on view at the Corcoran, Ed Burtynsky), and their work has for years been a museum staple.  Their work has also been included in a number of important photographic exhibitions, including the 1975 New Topographics show in Rochester, NY. The Bechers’ influence also came through their teaching at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf where their students included other notable typology-making photographers like Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer and Thomas Ruff.

Check out the two-part video on the Bechers from Contacts Vol. 3, where they talk about their conceptual approach, means of categorization and process:

And also check out this 2002 Art in America interview with the Bechers on ASX: An Interview with Bernd and Hilla Becher

With little effort one can discover any number of photographers working in typologies – from the important artists like Gursky and Struth listed above, to their German forerunner August Sander, to lesser known photographers…

there is Reinhard Krause’s Windmills:

Paul Virilio’s 30-year study of WWII-era bunkers:

Andy Mattern’s Remote Controls:

and even an homage to the Bechers created by Beierle and Keijser entitled, Joghurtbecher:


Taking off from the Joghurtbechers, we can continue down the slippery typology slope and into other light breakfast fare – Michaela Moscous‘s toast, a 15 postcard set of black and white pictures of toast presumably made from a single loaf of bread:



The line between good typologies and one-trick-ponies is often drawn by the taste of the viewer, but it is often fairly evident when a photographer lacks conceptual backbone and uses the method as an easy trick. Either way, typology making makes for a great deal of crap work out there, for it is in fact an easy way to mimic photographic cohesion and intellectual loftiness. (3)

Good or bad, find some examples of photographic typologies over the next week and briefly share what you think about them in a new post.


1 Kristine McKenna, “Photo Visions”, Los Angeles Times, 29 Dec 1991.
2 Ulf Erdmann Ziegler, “Interview with Bernd and Hilla Becher”, Art in America, June, 2002.
3 Cara Philips, “Typologies”, Ground Glass Blog, May, 2008.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. arisslater permalink
    10/20/2009 01:53

    I saw thoes at the George Eastman House! they were pretty neat. Kinda boring when viewed separately but together gridded they made some interesting designs and a really interpretive even bigger picture all together.

    It also reminded me of what my sisters boyfriend is currently working on. here is a link to his flicker

  2. Jared Ragland permalink*
    10/20/2009 02:40

    thanks for sharing that link, Aris. look at all those bikes!

  3. pavloskaralis permalink
    10/21/2009 22:41


    Jeff Brouws — signs without signification, freshly painted houses, farm forms, surveillance cameras, strip malls, drive ins, partially painted pickup trucks, gas stations, and freight cars

    Interested in the fact that this can be applied to anything

    • Jared Ragland permalink*
      10/22/2009 16:21

      lucky 7’s all the way across, Pavlos. A great find. I especially love the partially painted pickup trucks.

  4. sjwinston permalink
    10/26/2009 01:43

    I agree with Pavlos, It is so interesting that typologies can be applied to anything that fascinates an individual. In the Contacts feature on the Bechers, Hilla describes how photographing allowed for the shrinking and collecting of these structures. She briefly comments on the sentiment + fascination involved in the process, and its objectivity vs subjectivity. It is amazing that in the mass of images, together, “the object represented is allowed to speak for itself.”

    The Brecher’s photographs contain a wonderful sculptural quality to them. Through the mass of images there is a particular consistency: the light quality masks the surroundings of the structures, creating the illusion that these industrial places are settingless. Maybe there lays some of their subjectivity. Aside from the deliberate exclusion of background information, the inclusion of the horizon, and minimal information to the left and right of each structure perpetuate the effect of the typology and make some of those nuances more obvious.

    I am not sure how I got onto such a Brechers tangent. I am interested in what people choose to make photographic typologies of. I am highly interested in what fascinates others and why, and how it can be communicated through an individual’s particular vision in photography.

    Unfortunately I have no cool links to share. Sorry everyone.

  5. dsutherland permalink
    10/27/2009 16:15

    I was searching the web and found on this blog a photographer named Eric Tabuchi. His website is:
    Some of his work reminds me of Ed Ruscha’s series 26 Gas Stations.

    • Jared Ragland permalink*
      10/28/2009 15:27

      Diana: a perfect find! Interesting too, that it takes off on the American landscape/American road found in Ruscha’s images and applies it to the EU. All the categories almost become ridiculous, which makes the work fun to look at.

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