Project 2 of Part 1 provides an insight into typologies through the work of the Bechers, Sander, Mapplethorpe, Arbus and Evans.
I was introduced to the work of Berndt and Hilla Becher earlier in my OCA studies. They were fastidious in building a large archive of industrial structures from all over Europe and North America from 1959 through the next four decades and included pit heads, water tanks and factories. Immediately prior to the start of their collaboration (and subsequent marriage) Hilla studied typography at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. Their work is unified through a consistent approach to framing, camera angle and position which brings the individual photographs together and highlighting the differences and similarities in subject matter.
Initially I struggled to artistic merit in the work, which are essentially record shots, while recognising the monumental effort in their production. Barthes warns of the dangers of over generalisation and simplification in his essay ‘The Blue Mile. Not only the ‘bourgeoisie’ fall victim to this human habit. But collectively they carry a rhythm and pattern when multiple images are displayed together on a single page. We only notice similaries and differences that we would otherwise have missed because of the cataloging and presentation. There are many examples of repeating patterns having artistic merit – while falling short of being typologies – e.g. coloured beach huts, receding mountain ranges, perhaps even a row of Cadillacs:
Although the Bechers are seen as early promoters of typologies who went on to promote it to future photographers through their teaching at the Düsseldorf Art College, August Sander held his ‘People of the 20th Century’ Exhibition much earlier in 1927. Sander’s work is covered in a previous post and can be found here.
His typology of the German public was highly ambitious in its scope and executed with meticulous attention to individual characteristics. Kosloff said ‘Sander takes into special account the age of sitters, the effects of their diet on their bodies, the state of their clothes, their mode of display and performance, their quirks, self-ranking and visible economic situation or disabilities.’ (Kosloff, 2007. P.180). Whatever their status, I note that all of Sander’s subjects appear to exude confidence – as though he has indeed captured the essence of who they believe they really are. Ironically, although at that moment it is Sander who has the power – directing them to pose at his will – this does not come though in the images. Like the Becher’s pit heads, they stand as proud and uprising examples within the typology. Arbus shows similar attention do detail in really getting to know her subjects and ensuring they too appear confident and authentic on the final image – despite, in her case, often coming from the less orthodox fringes of society.
Huebler went a step further and created a typology of the typologist. In his 1972 work he asked Berndt Becher to match ten portraits of himself taken some months previously to a list of people ‘types’ or states of being.
This typology relies on external context to be able to understand the work. To help with this Huebler mounts all ten images together along with a short note providing the story behind it and the list of the different faces he asked Becher to pull.
In more recent times contemporary practitioners such as JamescMollinson have also turned their attention to the typology. In Mollinson’s case to include, owls and apes:
I’m learning that typologies have several key ingredients if they are to be successful:
- Curiosity- the link may be very obvious (Becher, Evans) or more obscure (Huebler). But in either case there has to be a detail, a less obvious or literal aspect to them that invokes the curiosity of the viewer to explore the work.
- Consistency- certain elements must be uniform. This serves two purposes. Firstly it establishes and enforces the rhythm to the set. Evans has each Dandy in front of a semi-suburban house. The Bechers Choose overcast days and each subject is taken from a similar aspect and distance to fill the frame. Secondly it ensures the viewer is not distracted by differences that are not there, thus diluting the strength of the overall typology.
I wanted to reflect on the above in my blog before attempting Exercise 1.3 in order to ensure that I had fully internalised the idea of what a typology is. For portrait typologies this might extend to people that visually seem to have little in common until you learn they have a common role or background. Knowing this then gives the work an added level of interest. In an almost reversal of thinking, the viewer is invited to consider why they are all so visually different if they technically have so much in common. I will return to this theme in Exercise 1.3.
Kozloff, M. (2007) The theatre of the face: Portrait photography since 1900. London: Phaidon Press.
Mollinson, J (2016) [online] At: http://jamesmollison.com/photography/ (accessed 20/11/16)