What is a Photographic Typology?
A typology is simply a study of types. A photo typology is a collection of images or photographs which are “shot in a consistent, repetitive manner; to be fully understood, the images must be viewed as a complete series” (Kristine McKenna, “Photo Visions”, Los Angeles Times, 29 Dec 1991). These series are often arranged as grids (e.g., nine photos in a three by three grid) that allow the viewer to see both the similarities and the differences in the chosen subject matter.
Famous Photographic Typologies
The most famous photographic typologies are likely those done by the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. During the mid-1900s, they photographed industrial structures and buildings across Europe. Photographer and blogger Cara Phillips notes that their typology “is arguably one of the most important developments in the history of photography.” The Bechers sought to document a world they saw was disappearing; many of the structures they photographed have since been destroyed or torn down.
Phillips explains, “Their grain silos and exploration of the post-industrial revolution world created an entirely new conceptual framework for the fine-art photograph. No longer was is it about recording a moment of beauty, or a emotional human experience, but to document a world, where the cold, ugly and mammoth blight of human technology had taken over the landscape. The typology form became an almost ubiquitous conceptual tool.”
Why Create a Photographic Typology?
Photo typologies put similar images side by side, allowing easier comparisons and creating greater interest in the subject by highlighting similarities and differences. A subject matter that may seem mundane or boring, such as sink or bathtub drains, becomes unique and fascinating when one views nine pictures of sink drains and sees the variations and likenesses in all the drains.
In discussing the Bechers’ typologies, Ulf Erdman Zieglar explains, “By grouping photographs of similar structures in grid configurations, the Bechers seek both to establish that these structures constitute a distinct category or ‘typology’ and to show the range of variation that occurs within any given typology” (Art in America, June 2002). The Bechers photographed buildings in winter months, under grey skies, so that the background in the photo is always consistent and the “essential physical being” of the building is revealed (Zieglar).
How to Create a Photographic Typology
Most photo typologies are similar photos of certain people or objects—for example, the above photograph of children playing in the snow. The Bechers’ work actually “included three basic variations: similar views of similar objects, similar views of rather diverse objects (city water towers, mostly), and different views of a single object. The Bechers even blended these approaches, using, for instance, mainly similar views of different blast furnaces in one panel but slipping in just one or two examples taken from differing vantages, thus asking the viewer to look very closely” (Zieglar).
Before creating a photographic typology, consider the works of the Bechers or other photographers. Flickr now has a section devoted just to typologies.
Try to ensure that you are taking all your pictures from the same angle and at the same distance from the subject. Like the Bechers, consider the influence of weather if photographing outdoors; the background and lighting should be the same in each picture of the typology. Look for subtle nuances in your subject matter. When arranging the photographs, consider how they complement each other.