The summary at the end of Bate’s introduction to the second edition of Photography: the Key Concepts (2016: 9) explains the main points of this subject far better than I could in my own words:
- Genres give stability to the image-world of representation
- Institutions rely on genres to achieve communication
- Genre is not just a type of picture, it is also a set of processes that involve the producer and consumer in conventional systems of meaning production
- Recognition of a genre is already an act of communication
- Genres are mutable, dynamic and polyvalent
At first I thought it a little retrograde to be covering ‘genres’ at this stage in the degree, as I feel like I had enough grounding in the main traditional photographic genres (portraiture, landscape, documentary, advertising, fine art, still life etc) in Levels 1 and 2 – in particular on Gesture & Meaning, which took a genre-based structure.
However, this particular way of categorising photography doesn’t look at these traditional genres directly but rather takes a kind a sideways look across traditional genres to pick out contemporary variations.
To be pedantic, I’m not sure these are really ‘genres’ (per the Bate analysis) as much as ‘approaches’ or ‘areas of work’ – in fact the course notes muddy the waters a little with the explanation:
“The genres listed below and discussed in the rest of Part One don’t adhere to traditional categories known to photography but rather look at fields within which the traditional genres (landscape, portraiture, etc.) may be used” (OCA 2013: 12)
I’m not going to get hung up on the words though – however these ‘genres’ are defined I will look at each of them in turn and attempt at this early stage to start positioning my planned body of work within one or more of them.
Some of these ‘genres’ I will look in more detail separately later, and some I will only cover here briefly before moving on, as I’m fairly confident that they don’t naturally fit my current thinking (which is, of course, subject to change).
I will be covering this in more detail later, as I think it might become more relevant to my work going forward.
In brief though: I used to dismiss tableaux photography as overblown and lacking in depth – but the more I have seen by different photographers, the more I can appreciate it, especially the more subtle versions of it. The tableaux work I really like is that which doesn’t draw attention to its own artifice but more simply gets its message across, with the fact that it was constructed specifically for the photograph being very much secondary.
Personal journeys and fictional autobiographies
Again I believe this is worthy of its own post looking at its potential application to my evolving body of work, so I won’t attempt to go into great detail here. My early experiments for Assignment 1 could be seen to fall into this category, though it remains to be seem how much I develop this approach.
Responding to the archive
At first glance this felt relevant to my work-in-progress but once I read more about it, I realised that this is more concerned with other people’s archive rather than one’s own (which I guess is covered more by the previous category).
However, I am toying with the idea of using other people’s historic photographs as part of a later assignment and so I may come back to this genre at a later stage in my studies.
I confess I don’t find this kind of photography to be of particular personal interest. I increasingly find the psychological landscape to be more interesting then the physical one, and my current ideas for BoW don’t relate to a particular place or places.
I can see that an exploration of memory could incorporate ideas of psychogeography (such as Jodie Taylor’s Memories of Childhood, 2013), but just don’t feel that my particular project idea lends itself to such an approach.
This will become a more detailed post of its own as I definitely feel that this is one of the areas in which I can situate my evolving work. I like the definition of conceptual art as “making art from ideas” (ibid: 33), as one of the realisations I had when self-assessing at the end of Level 2 was that I prefer transmitting ideas to telling stories.
I will tackle the ‘what is conceptual photography?‘ exercise as part of that post.
This is what I actually find most interesting: the intersections of genres. My current assignment experiments could be said to combine Personal journeys with Conceptual photography, and I can already envisage a potential future assignment combining Tableaux with Responding to the archive.
To briefly answer a question posed in this part of the course notes: “how useful is genre as a concept?” (ibid: 34):
I personally find it useful when a photographer’s work is described (by themselves or curators etc) in terms of its relation to existing genres, even if to do so might feel restrictive, especially for more conceptual work. The relation to one or more existing genres could be direct and self-evident (e.g. “this series combines landscape and documentary to comment on xyz”), or it could be a way of helping a viewer to get a grasp on some kind of interpretive framework for conceptual work that is perhaps more ambiguous, including possibly subverting existing genres (e.g. “by obscuring the subjects faces, these portraits provoke questions of identity” etc).
Genre definitions give the viewer some markers, some parameters within which (or between which) to interpret the work. The work I increasingly find most interesting is that which subverts or reacts against traditional genres – but in these cases the genre expectations still act as reference points, it’s just that you’re trying to get the viewer to understand where your work is in relation to, rather than it being firmly inside, a particular genre.
Bate, D. (2016) Photography: The Key Concepts (2nd edn). London: Bloomsbury.
Open College of the Arts (2013) Photography 3: Body of Work. Barnsley: OCA.