CALL + RESPONSE: TYPOLOGIES
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)
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.