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Fields of photographic practice

6 August 2003

I suggest a few fields of photographic practice, more as a heuristic for orientation than as an attempt of classification.

Obviously, tese fields are not neatly separated. The starting point for the differentiation is neither formal nor aesthetic, but follows what I see as different lines of practice, or motives for photographic activity. These do not coincide with distinctions such as genre, amateur/professional or documentary/illusionist. Any of the fields can be a starting point for artists, who will usually set up a secondary discourse on the basis of the primary photographic activity, its rules and implicit standards.

1. Documenting objects of study or possession

Documenting, capturing, measuring reaches from ethnographic study to cataloguing inventories (real estate, collections, medical, insurance or criminal photography). Many artistic practices from the early days of photography are related, obviously in quite different ways (Eugene Atget, Karl Blossfeldt, August Sanders, Thomas Ruff, Lucinda Devlin, Christopher Williams)

2. Proving the existence of objects of relevance

This is broadly the field of journalism. 'Relevance' is linked to power, the dominant discourse. Indices of an historic process - which may become historic (recorded) through this act of photography.

I see two sides to this:

  1. the white collar side: politicians getting into or out of cars, speeches, shots from press conferences, inaugurations, celebrations, historic handshakes;
  2. the blue or khaki collar side: illustrating the public sphere, i.e., anything that is subject to or impacts on political decision-making in peace and war zones: traffic jams, rallies, demonstrations, elections, occupied houses, contested sites or objects, sites of crimes or accidents, war zones, rebels, border controls, arrests, patrols, destroyed cars, crumbled buildings, corpses, mourners

The main characteristics is that the referent counts, and secondly, that any referent should deviate significantly from an implied normal uneventful 'default' state (even if this state is never realised). This visible deviation qualifies shots to be embedded in the news system across all image-carrying media. Uneventful shots must be justified by a special category: the German Taz newspaper, for example, had (or has) a daily photograph, I believe, under the rubric "Augenblicke" (moments, literally "eye views"); only here, the aspect of news-worthiness is replaced by the anecdotal, curious, uncanny, funny, or touching)

Both categories (white and blue/khaki collar) may be ranked according to the power of the referents of which indices are captured - a village fire-fighter rehearsal is not on the same level as the assassination of a president but the difference may be quantitative only.

3. Documenting the achievement of meeting aesthetic standards in photographs

This may be landscape / scenic views, nudes, plants, animals, and the like. The photography as an aesthetic object assessed according to some canonical understanding of beauty/aesthetic accomplishment, where the value will commonly be attributed to

  1. the beauty of the referent (the object portrayed)
  2. the formal achievement of portrayal (according to canonical rules which will also accept the 'uncommon', 'creative' to the extent that it relates to the implicit standard)

Interestingly the two aspects of value attribution will rarely be distinguished; the former rules over the latter, i.e., most viewers will prefer a badly photographed beautiful person to a beautifully photographed ugly person (?).

Here you have Adams, Weston, Avedon and many more—a whole lot of successful photographers-photographers who always seem to hover at the fringes of art proper in the sense that they define a primary discourse and canon which art refers to, without engaging in (or being interested in) the secondary discourses followed by artists using photography as medium.

What is reproduced in glossy print media is by implication considered aesthetically successful (it has passed an editorial threshold) and thereby defines on the whole the standard for amateur photographers. The same holds for professionals, who may however attempt to extend the implicit standard, to innovate, to break rules successfully (successfully only if this translates sooner or later into a redefinition of standards: witness the 'rules' on cropping portraits, 'right' lenses for portraits, 'correct' lighting, acceptable postures, etc, etc which all undergo constant transformation)

A sub-category may be the human portrait—this touches category 1.

4. Proving individual existence

Photography that shouts "This is us" or "We have been here". The family reigns, couples follow; solitaire individuals have less reason to prove their existence - to whom? (as an aside, they actually seem to exist to a lesser extent - if existence means to be tied into human feedback loops). Predominantly this is the domain of lay people, but it may be commissioned to professionals for important especially unrepeatable events (weddings).

A large sub-category is travel snapshots linking identifiable subjects to identifiable location markers, e.g., (us in front of the tower of Pisa) - extended by group portraits in front of location markers.

Some artists / photographers take this as a starting point in quite different ways: Richard Billingham, Tina Barney, Nan Goldin, or Martin Parr (e.g., Parr's tourism shots such as the photo of someone of taking a photo of a large group of Japanese tourists in front of the Akropolis).

5. Producing 'art'

The point of distinction is difficult to set; it may be where the photographic and sujet choices introduce their own markers and distinctions based on some primary photographic discourse, which is turned into a referent, replacing the immediate referent 'out there'. On the level of the ambitious amateur this would be attempts towards abstraction, macro, the stock surreal, all kinds of post-production effects (what used to be solarization and is now replaced by editing tools in Photoshop). On the professional side, this might encompass artists' use of photography 'against-the-grain': the non-event (Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, John Miller), the staged event (Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman), reproduction of primary art events or objects (Matthew Barney, John McCarthy, Mike Kelly) series and in-depth studies (Caesar, Ed Ruscha), contextual / sociological study with uses other media as well (Allan Sekula, Victor Burgin), meta-photography (Christopher Williams, to some extent Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler)

6. Generating sellable photographs

In a turn on any of the above categories, the driver here is to capture any primary objects of which images / reproductions can be sold by any third party (publishers, stock photography). The primary impulse to photograph this or that is then partly or fully replaced by a knowledge of the market and its standards, and consequently, possible distribution channels and revenues. So this may be, in that order of sales ranking (?), pornography, "artistic nudes", stars, sensational photography (Princess of Monaco kissing chauffeur on yacht), all kinds of nature shots for calendars, travel magazines, etc. (Ranking would require differentiation of sales by category, per-item price and volume price - a usable shot of a shot president will be worth more than 1000 shots of a staged gang bang, regardless of the technical quality). Professional art is exceptional here since a single large print of a well-known artist (e.g. Andreas Gurski, Hiroshi Sugimoto) may fetch tens of thousands in art auctions.

Here is another way of slicing the cake, identifying its place and trying to distinguish between private/professional and indoors/outdoors: map of photography's genres indoors/outdoors

And here is another older attempt to distinguish between different types of art photography, which never exist in isolation, but usually in a mix: Art photography matrix

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