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Subject-Oriented Classification of Photography

Joe Jackson , Jul 23, 2008; 01:55 p.m.

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 often 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 example...?

Any thoughts...?


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Fred G. , Jul 23, 2008; 04:53 p.m.

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 abstractions 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.

Randall Ellis , Jul 23, 2008; 04:54 p.m.

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

Don E , Jul 23, 2008; 06:00 p.m.

"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?

Joe Jackson , Jul 23, 2008; 06:31 p.m.

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.

Joe Jackson , Jul 23, 2008; 07:08 p.m.

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.

Joe Jackson , Jul 23, 2008; 07:25 p.m.

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.

John Kelly , Jul 23, 2008; 07:38 p.m.

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.

Joe Jackson , Jul 23, 2008; 08:03 p.m.

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...?

Steve Swinehart , Jul 23, 2008; 08:57 p.m.

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.

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