2.3: Typologies


Read Sean O’Hagan’s Guardian article on the New Topographics exhibition and publication and watch a You Tube video of Lewis Baltz talking about his work.

Write down your own responses to the work of any of the practitioners O’Hagan mentions in his article, and describe your thoughts on typological approaches.

Conclusions for my own work eg ‘Christmas 2014’ or Assignment 2 and Assignment 4 Safari?

  • I need to think very carefully about what I am trying to say about my surroundings and ‘suburbia’ – am I interested in dramatic perspectives, finding the sublime or beautiful, or about human interactions and ‘sense-making’?
  • How might I show this through for compiling typographies or other forms of narrative? What sorts of structured grids or conceptual juxtapositions might I make?
  • How might my approach differ if I am working in a different culture where there are sensitivities about stereotypes against a backdrop of colonial exploitation?

“New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” 1975

See overview of the exhibition, overview on New Topographics with video discussions, and links to each photographer:

Robert Adams:  Minimalist plains landscape aesthetic with muted melancholy.

Lewis Baltz: his photographs convey sadness, disappointment, and anger at how we have used the landscape..It becomes hard to distinguish construction from destruction

Joe Deal: homes newly constructed against the desolate landscape of the American Southwest. I really like his later images in West to West with their square format and minimalist line.

Frank Gohlke: Bold and dramatic skies or sky/foreground contrast. Pictures of grain elevators as sublime in machinery. I really like the drama in these images.

Nicholas Nixon: His images are mostly high view images showing complexity of roadways and textured skyscrapers. Although they have a formal beauty, I do not find them as effective in terms of message or emotion as other images in the exhibition. I prefer his portraits eg the Browns sisters and Close Up.

John Schott: His 20 images of motels are more human than most of the images in the exhibition. They are not homogenised or standardised; they have distinctive architectural features and are not owned by corporate chains. Cars are parked rather than being a threat.

Stephen Shore: I like the colour and like in his shots of streets and parking lots. And the way he experiments with perspective and tries to see what happens when you try to take a photograph with no perspective structure.

Henry Wessel, Jr: I like his treatment of light, and also the idea of the ‘flaneur’ who shoots images first, and thinks later in order to get something new and less studied.

Bernd and Hilla Becher:  typologies of industrialisation. Although I find the idea of typologies interesting (see below) I find the subject matter less inspiring.

There is a core message of the exhibition as a whole about ‘ecological citizenship’: we need to notice and appreciate what is around us – human colour and nature in the ‘semi-wilderness’. The everyday and apparently banale can also be beautiful. We must preserve and protect what is valuable in it . Not relegate ‘conservation’ and perceptions of beauty to an ever-shrinking small protected area of idealised wilderness. All our human environment is important.’

Thoughts on typological approaches

Typologising is an innate human instinct as we attempt to differentiate and order objects in the world around us to try and make sense of the chaos. In some contexts they have an obsessive attraction as for example in coin or stamp collecting. At the same time typologising can lead to stereotyping and closing off possibilities as we ignore differences and assume that because objects have certain characteristics in common, they are automatically the same in other respects as well.

The actual term ‘typology’ was coined by Augustus Pitt Rivers who was interested in the evolution of different tools and mechanical implements used by man [sic]. Pitt Rivers collected different ‘types’ of one kind of tool across centuries and sorted them into series, which he believed demonstrated the tool’s logical progression – for example, stick, spear, musket.

Typological approaches to photography are an extension of the process of photography itself – collecting images based on certain  criteria of selection and putting them together as narratives for the purpose of comparison and/or narrative.  They build on documentary recording in archaeology (artefacts) and anthropology (physical racial types) and natural sciences that became part of photographic practice in nineteenth century. Within photography its origins can be traced back to the questionable nineteenth-century experiments in eugenics and criminology of Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911) and Alphonse Bertillon (1853–1914), respectively. August Sander’s 1929 series of portraits entitled ‘Face of Our Time’   sought to record of social types, classes and the relationships between them in German society between the two World Wars.

In relation to landscape photography the term ‘Typology’ was first used to describe the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher documenting dilapidated German industrial architecture in 1959. Each photograph was taken with the same large format camera, from the same angle, at approximately the same distance and then photographs were combined into grids. Key photographic typologists such as Thomas Struth (studies of cities), Thomas Ruff (giant passport photos), Thomas Demand (desolate empty cities and bleak interiors) and Gillian Wearing.

Typologies are also used in commercial catalogues and becoming increasingly important in the context of date-driven websites etc. where it is important to make one website or one set of images stand out from the rest.

Typologies are potentially extremely interesting as an area of enquiry and exploration in photography. On an aesthetic level they can propose different structural relationships and patterns and also highlight aspects of perception. On a conceptual and/or political level, they can lead the viewer to question assumptions and look deeper into presumed similarities and differences.

Individual: selection and identity:

  • What objects qualify as ‘the same type’, by what criteria? Which criteria of similarity are to be emphasised?
  • What differences are identified? how and why are other objects different enough to not be of the same type? what particular differences are to be emphasised?

System: juxtaposition, pattern, narrative

  • How are the objects to be presented together? Grid (dimensions?, circles? diamond etc?) ? Linear filmstrip? Sequential in time?
  • In what order? As a progression of difference? To emphasise contrast? By time of occurrence or capture?


Greg Foster-Rice and John Rohrbach ‘Reframing the New Topographics’ 2013 University of Chicago Press

Photographic Typologies: The Study of Types:

David Campany’s ‘Almost the same thing: some thoughts on the collector-photographer’ in Dexter, E. & Weski, T. (eds.) (2003) Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth-Century Photograph. London: Tate Publishing

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