Subject-Oriented Classification of Photography

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by joe_jackson|4, Jul 23, 2008.

  1. I'm referring to the typical "landscape", "portrait", "nature" categories, as frequently seen on sites like this
    and on the chapter headings of all the "How To Make Your Photographs Look Just Like Everyone Elses" books.
    Christ, it's dull.

    Now, compare this with music: we have rock, classical, pop, jazz... These seem to me to be categories
    based on musical style, not subject matter... And with movies, we have comedy, thriller, romance, horror... Sure,
    I know we
    also have crime, war, sci-fi and so on, but there does seem to be more in the way of emotion-oriented
    classification applied in the world of cinema.

    So, what does this tell us - if anything - about photography and photographers? That style, emotion and mood are
    secondary to subject matter to many people, perhaps...? Or is it simply more convenient to organise photos by
    subject matter...?

    Do you think the widespread adoption of these simplistic classifications is likely to lead some photographers -
    particularly beginners - straight down the slippery slope of cliche, causing them to blindly bypass individualism
    and experimentation...? Is it likely to limit the type of photography we get to see, on sites like PN, for

    Any thoughts...?
  2. I've always thought of music as mostly nonthematic and
    nonnarrative and more symbolic or stylistic. The reason musical categories aren't arranged by subject matter is that music itself
    doesn't typically have a subject matter, only lyrics do. Many writings on esthetics (from Plato to Langer) approach music differently from the
    "visual" arts because of the latter's more
    representational nature. (Of course, there is abstract visual art, but we are used to making representative associations even with visual
    more readily than we make thematic or narrative representations with sound -- programmatic music is an exception). Attempts such as
    Fantasia to
    "interpret" music visually and narratively seem to do more to miss the point of the music than to enhance an understanding
    of it. Although such endeavors can be fun!

    So I think photography is by its nature different from music and that may be why its categorizations are approached
    differently. That being said, I wouldn't put too much stock in PN being representative of how photography is often presented.
    I have many stylistically-oriented books. Avant-Garde Photography in Germany is one that encompasses an array of subject
    matters from architecture to portraiture to street shooting and the overriding factor is precisely what you're talking about,
    style and technique. Annie Leibowitz's new book, A Photographer's Life, is intentionally put together chronologically so that
    her portraits are interspersed with family photos, landscapes, and personal visions.

    I think it would be interesting, on PN, to set up an alternative universe of categories like you're suggesting. It would give
    some freshness and vitality to submission behavior. As you mention, it might tune more people into the fact
    that there can be more to a photo than whether or not it's "about" a pregnant woman or a lake or a flower or an old wrinkled
    up face or a homeless person on the street. It might make us conscious of the approach and vision as well as the topic and narrative. It
    might suggest a focus on *how* as well as on *what* we see.

    I also can't imagine the will being there to make this actually happen on PN.

    Thanks, Paul, you've made a great point.
  3. I think that there is a (perhaps large) difference between true photographic movements and the folksonomic classifications that are used on most web photography sites. Artistic movements are often classified after they have had time to develop (no pun intended) and I would imagine that those who are making true art with cameras these days will be classified in some grouping other than by the subjects which they have photographed. The things that most people do with cameras currently more easily fits into the categories that you mention because they are good handles for that type of work. Those descriptors describe the categories of images well, and therefore people who are looking for certain types of images can more easily find them.

    As for the effect that this has on people who make photographs, my feelings are that, people who have not develop their own vision tend to duplicate the work of others by default as part of the learning process. I've seen the same thing with other classification systems with art made with other tools - students who paint learn to recognize the various historic styles of painters and often imitate them, and only a (comparatively) few ever develop their own vision. The same goes for the photo students where I work. Most of them never move past the duplication of the latest gimmicks or trends to develop their own vision, but a few do. If you have the ability and the determination I don't think that arbitrary classifications will inhibit your vision, but I also don't think that defining a different classification system would help anyone find their vision any better either.

    - Randy
  4. "I'm referring to the typical "landscape", "portrait", "nature" categories, as frequently seen on sites like
    this...Now, compare this with music: we have rock, classical, pop, jazz... These seem to me to be categories
    based on musical style, not subject matter..."

    What is the subject matter of the "documentary" category of photography?
  5. Don, there are certainly commonly-applied categories of photography that don't specify the nature of the subject - more the style - and that's a good thing in my book. I'm thinking more of the very popular categories that do, and what effect this is having on the variety of pictures taken.

    I've lost count of the number of times I've looked at a photographer's web site, and the little list describing the galleries reads like the contents page of a very basic beginner's book on photography. Even when the photographer concerened is clearly very experienced... I've always wondered why people choose to do that. It always comes across as extremely unimaginative to me.
  6. Randall, I agree with much of what you wrote there. And clearly there will always be those that are content to emulate rather than try to innovate. There are cover bands and generic soundalike bands aplenty out there, after all... And there's certainly a market for such work - I don't mean in a commercial sense, but that too - so I have no problem with that.

    What I find slightly odd is that so many photographers are shooting such similar (and very familiar) subjects, almost as if they don't want to break some kind of unwritten photographic rule regarding what they should be taking pictures of... How many mountains and old wrinkled up faces do we need to see...?

    I have to wonder if people would perhaps be more likely to think for themselves if some of the more commonly-applied, subject-oriented categories weren't quite so widely used.
  7. Hmm, I somehow sidetracked myself with my own thoughts there... Often happens :)

    My main point is that popular photography often seems to be more concerned with certain familar categories of subject matter than with visual style and mood, and I think this is a bit of a shame. I'd like to see a shift of emphasis away from the subject itself, and towards the style in which it's been photographed. The latter seems a more interesting way to describe and classify photographs to me.
  8. jtk


    I don't think we'd see "subjects" if we weren't personally limited to that organizing method. In other words, if we saw better, we might not do that.

    Rather than classifying, we might see images centering on graphics, lovers, corroded metal, or birds as "trite" ..or we might see them as "lyrical," "ominous," or "insightful." But that's scary, isn't it? After all, it'd mean we were individually taking risks, gambling with ideas and values, and others might not agree. Safer to conclude "it's a duck."

    Classifying by subject is less likely to be bogus than classifying by inferred "innovation." Look at the images of those of us who have posted here. Are we ourselves "innovative?"

    At this moment I'm happier thinking that we (photographers) seek something, or try to manifest something, than I am with grumbling about "people," "popular," "beginner" and "so many photographers."

    At other moments I am as self-congratulatory as Paul W :)

    "Beginners" eye Buddha's eye (to paraphrase somebody). I have my own fish to fry.
  9. John, I classify myself very much as a beginner, so at this stage I'm firmly inclined to be more self-critical
    than self-congratulatory... Still, maybe when I'm your age I'll allow myself a moment of smugness, eh...? ;)

    It's precisely because I've read - and in some cases re-read - several elementary, introductory books on
    photography relatively recently (meaning over the last two years) that I've noticed the lack of emphasis on style
    or even experimentation. Fundamental technical matters aside, it's largely very formulaic, subject-oriented stuff
    in the few books I have.

    Has it always been this way...?
  10. I see no reason to categorize your own photography according to the labels you've cited. I'm currently working on a show, and I have categories like, "annoying," "things," "found arrangements," "blue and white," "gray," "pink," etc. They tell me exactly what they are, but I'm sure they're meaningless to anyone else. Part of the reason for the generalized categories is that you don't have to discuss the meaning of the category to gain an understanding of what type of work you'll be looking at. My favorite category of my work is "annoying." I can hardly wait to see 3 walls of very large, annoying photographs.
  11. Steve, TBH the only category I care to apply to my own photography is "stuff I pointed my camera at". I do like
    the sound of "annoying" though... Would be curious to see those...
  12. jtk


    Steve, you're onto something BIG. Seriously.

    Minor White said "we respond to photographs that feed something in us" and "if we hate an image, it's feeding something in us." Not precisely his words, but they are his point.

    Paul, I was so much older when I was your age (imagine that line in a nasal voice).

    "Dig..." (per Lord Buckley }

    Smugness is *always* the engine when "me / they" is the theme. I don't deny my own pleasure in it.
  13. "Has it always been this way...?"

    Stock photos? What interior designers put on the walls? What particular magazines buy? What the prospect is looking for? The genres of photography are not unlike the genres of painting, or they are the same. Portraiture, landscape, and the like -- those are also the typical genres of painting. Get good at one and you may earn a living, with photographs or with paintings.
  14. John, I'm sure you were... :) I can tell... :)

    Don, yes, perhaps there's an element of "giving people what they seem to want" here. Makes sense, commercially,
    as you say... And on sites like this, too, where popularity seems to be the name of the game.
  15. I think it's important to keep in mind that many people are not trying to be innovative in their photography, at least in general. I mean, most of everything I see online, here and elsewhere, could be classified as 'Pictiorial', so having some other classification to separate them seems to work fairly well. Then again, if you look at the ratings many people give very common subjects the highest ratings for originality, so perhaps it has something to do with people not being as familiar as we are with these themes and subjects.

    I like the category 'annoying' by the way. I suspect that, depending on the person, there would be a lot of images that could be placed in that category.

    - Randy
  16. "Don, yes, perhaps there's an element of "giving people what they seem to want" here. Makes sense, commercially,
    as you say... And on sites like this, too, where popularity seems to be the name of the game."

    Painting has always been "commercial" and the subjects reflected the clients' desires. Until the past few
    centuries, the clients were Church and State and the subjects reflected that. Once a middle class developed, new
    clients with different desires appeared. They bought paintings that reflected life as they lived it and as they
    understood things (and also fit on the size of their walls) and that meant painters took up those subjects which
    we know as the genres, still life and landscape for example. Although portraiture is ancient, for the first time
    common people could have their portraits painted. I'd argue that "street" began in the 17th century among Dutch
    painters who painted daily life scenes in taverns, kitchens, and parlors, and the activities of common people.

    The old subjects (on religious, historical, and mythological themes) and the style of painting them became the
    "elevated subjects", high art. The development of photography coincided with the 'refusee' movement in painting
    which gave us Impressionism and all the post-impressionism and the final break with the "elevated subjects",
    although the so called pictorialists devised photographs with the intention of presenting high art subjects.

    This is also the time when amateur painting and photography become common, and also when "art for art's sake"
    emerges among professionals. It is here where non-commercial motives for painting and photography appear.
  17. Personally I find the main categories are often a natural fit with ones interests. I love the simple natural beauty of the
    woods and hills around my home, so landscape is as good a tag as any. I also love taking picture of kids,
    so 'children' as a category is only natural. Derivative or cross-category tags are a fantastic way to create more
    interest and creativity (and are alive and kicking in the no words forum) but they are a lousy generic starting point and
    will have no relevance in a giant community of photographers.
  18. Late to this conversation, sorry!

    Terry Barrett, one of the few researchers seriously studying photographic education, has created a new, theoretical construct for classifying photos based on social use.

    The include:

    Descriptive -- a drivers license photo, or an X-ray
    Interpretive -- basically, posed, fictional photography
    esthetically interpretive
    ethically interpretive.

    Best to everyone.


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