Photographic typologies are a unique and interesting form of photography. Have you ever made a collection of something? Stamps, buttons, figurines? If so, then you’ve made a typology, without even knowing it!
Here’s how to translate your collecting skills into creating a mini photographic typology. It’s a fascinating way of comparing and contrasting almost anything visually!
What is a Photographic Typology?
A photographic typology is a study of “types”. That is, a photographic series that prioritizes “collecting” rather than stand-alone images.
It’s a powerful method of photography that can be used to reshape the way we perceive the world around us. In fact, I’ve often heard viewers exclaim that they hadn’t looked at a subject that way before viewing it in a typology.
By extracting visual elements and presenting them in a similarly consistent series, we can create a visual analysis of objects and the larger environment and its inhabitants – often without featuring the occupants themselves.
Photographic typologies are believed to have originated from August Sander’s 1929 series of portraits titled “Face of Our Time.” His work depicted portraits of Germans between World War I and II. Sander used typology to record social groupings and classes and the relationship between the different human experiences within. He photographed a wide selection of people including farmers, children, factory workers, upperclassmen, and actors to create a comprehensive example of German society. In fact, his work had such an impact that it was seized and the photographic plates destroyed by the Nazis in 1936.
Sander recognized that displaying his portraits together as a collection revealed much more than stand-alone photographs. His work emphasized the similarities and differences between subjects by maintaining consistency in his overall theme, with all his subjects looking directly into the camera.
The term “typology” was first used in 1959 when Bernd and Hilla Becher began documenting their architectural photographic series. Depicting decaying urban landscapes, each photograph was taken at exactly the same angle, from the same distance, with the same exposure settings. With the aim of recording a landscape in flux, the Becher couple described their subjects as “buildings where anonymity is accepted to be the style”.
Their work influenced generations of photographic typologists. Jeff Brouws, a well-known photographer uses typology to explore “historical, contemporary [and] everyday aspects of the American cultural landscape”. And John Cyr’s series depicting the developer trays of famous photographers has become a prime example of photographic typology.
Each typology begins with a single photograph. But deciding on a subject is easier said than done. To get started, pick a simple subject that will be easy to find in numbers. It’s funny how things become scarce once you begin looking for them. Some good ideas might include:
- A rock collection or any collection with a similar concept or subject isolated on a white background.
- Urban details like cracks in the sidewalk or drain-covers.
- A variety of doors and windows.
- Scenes or objects of a particular color.
Of course, going for a walk and selecting a subject you encounter is a great way to get started too. Typologists go to great lengths to seek out subjects for a series. Focusing on simple details and objects that are often taken for granted is an effective way to get into the mindset of a typologist.
Shooting a Typology
Typological studies can span over years and include hundreds of photographs. Creating a miniature typology of nine photos makes the task both easier, and more difficult. Because you are creating a mini typology, you want a project that clearly outlines the comparisons and contrasts within your subject of choice. Try to look for bold designs, sharp lines, or unusual subject matter.
One of the golden rules in typological photography is consistency. Not only do you need to photograph a certain type of subject, you need to create a body of work that clearly points to the differences and similarities between each one.
To eliminate distractions, try and maintain the same camera angle, lighting, and background. I find that for photographing objects, a clean white background works best. Try photographing at the same time of the day to maintain the same color temperature and lighting conditions.
Displaying a Typology
Once you have collated a consistent body of work, it’s time to arrange your typology. Open a Photoshop document and begin dragging your photos onto the page. You want to adjust them so they are exactly the same size as all your other images. To help maintain even spaces between the images I use the New Guide tool.
Once evenly spaced, your mini typology is done!
Photographic typologies are a distinctive and unusual genre of photography. By classifying and combining images of similar subject matter, you can highlight the building blocks that form a cohesive image.
Why not complement your collections with some photography? Or head out into the world and visually process an environment into types? I would love to see the results in the comments below.