Photographic Clichés

The Fine Art and Documentary photographers take great pride in thinking themselves superior to the other main genres of photography, such as the family snap shooter or the amateur photographer, as personified by camera club imagery. However, after 30/40 years of viewing our work, I have come to the conclusion that we too are fairly predictable in what we photograph.

I include myself in this, and have been very careful to try and think of new territories to explore, but recognise that very often I also indulge in the list outlined below. I am aware of the basic rules, which dominate our work, and want to now attempt to group some of the more dominant strands of contemporary practice.

This core subject matter and approach is also constantly shifting and changing as new photographers arrive and have an impact on our accumulative photographic culture and language. I have a rapacious desire to look at new work and do this through books, magazines, and of course exhibitions. Most of the work I see is generic; in so far I can read the influences. It is when the inspiration and lineage is not clear that my attention is alerted. I used this as a guiding principal for the recent curating of the Brighton Photo Biennial, and made freshness of approach to the subject matter a major criteria for selection.

Let me try and outline the basic genres that can be found.

1. The above ground landscape with people.

This is a relatively recent development with the major influence of Gursky, being the starting point. You take a high vantage and place people within the frame setting them in a larger urban or even rural landscape.

2. The bent lamppost.

You see this a lot in the USA, where they are blessed with many bent lampposts. The scene is urban and generally quite run down. This can be traced back to Stephen Shore amongst others.

3. The personal diary.

Nan Goldin gave this genre a major boost with the famous “ Ballad of Sexual Dependency ” project, but there are predecessors with the likes Larry Clarke and Ed van der Elsken.

4. The Nostalgic gaze.

Photographers love to shoot a factory, a shop, a club or some institution that is about to close. We, of course, welcome and praise the sense of community that is threatened.

5. The quirky and visually strong setting.

In terms of documentary we are much more likely to see a project done on a circus than say, a petrol station. The simple reason is that photographers love shooting situations where there is an inherent visual quirk. So we see plenty of this type of subject such as mental hospitals and animal clinics.

6. The Street.

Street photography has evolved in recent years, with many more humourous scenarios now making the edit, and of course the shift to colour. In Britain we also have the great tradition of shooting on the beach, but this has declined in recent years because it is tricky to do this now, without being accused of being paedophile.

7. The black and white grainy photo.

Daido Moriyama is, if you like the Godfather of this school of photography, and he combined the imagery of Andy Warhol and William Klein to arrive at this groundbreaking photographic language. The subject is combination of cityscape and personal.

8. The New Rich.

Think Tina Barney and of course all those rich kids who attend Yale who turn their cameras on their own families. Nearly always shot in large format, and often involve taking clothes off too.

9. I am a poet.

This is the riskiest school of photography of all as it takes real panache to pull this one off. Many of the images can find their roots in the likes of Bill Eggleston and Rinko Kawauchi.

10. The modern Typology.

The Bechers and the Dusseldorf school have had a major impact on our photographic landscape and naturally the success of these students has also had a major impact. Many of the B division Becher students shoot typologies and run down buildings, beach huts, whatever can be found frequently.

11. The Staged photo.

With the increasing difficulty of shooting on the street and the desire to control the photo and the people in them, staging has found a new wave of popularity. Gregory Crewdson has given this genre a major boost with his Hollywood style, staged scenarios.

12. The Formal portrait.

One of the great traditions in photography and recently revived by the likes of Reneke Dijsktra and Thomas Ruff. Smiling is banned and this genre often needs the structure of repetition. A tripod is also a prerequisite for this method of shooting.

13. The long landscape.

Panoramic cameras are the latest fad for shooting landscapes, and a good view of icebergs and, or, fjords are a perfect subject for this treatment.

I could go on, but I think you will get the gist of what I am saying. I know many of you will now be thinking, “ What a cynic”, but firstly there is much work that falls into these categories that I really respond to, indeed nearly all the work I like could have a grouping that feature in my list. I think the point I am making is that we need to consider our subject matter more carefully. When I am looking through student folios I often say these things, and usually people look at me as if to say “how dare you question what I am shooting.”

But if we think of what is going on in our world, there seems to be many subjects which are avoided, because we all need that echo of familiarity to help us have the confidence to make a body of work. We want to emulate the impact that these images had on us, and this can be as restricting as it can be liberating.

Martin Parr  Nov 2010.

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