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Saturday, August 19, 2006


Svein-Frode continues on the post below: "Categories can be a pain for sure, but some great names in the field of Psychology claims categorization as the fundamental principle behind all mental activity. They just might be on to something. Categorization/systematisation does create efficiency on many levels. Our lives would be even more complex, if possible, without categorization. Just think about a supermarket that doesn’t put similar products in the same neighbourhood of shelves. On the other hand, how to best categorize/systemize something is open to debate!"

...And think of some of the great photographic projects that were organized as categorizations or surveys. Think of Edweard Muybridge's great sequential studies of Human and Animal Locomotion; Timothy O'Sullivan's landscapes of the American interior, done as part of several geological survey expeditions; Bernd and Hilla Becher's mini-surveys of numerous examples each of numerous types of industrial architectural structures; and of course the shining example, August Sander's monumental Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts (People of the 20th Century), was organized and realized as a typological study, almost a taxonomy. Our objections to Sander's precepts today are the opposite of Hitler's—Hitler disapproved because Sander's types (farmers, tradesmen, women, classes and professions, city dwellers, artists, and "the last people," his miscellaneous category) didn't conform to Aryan racial archetypes; we object because we're not so sure any more that you can tell what a person does for a living by their appearance, or that one hod-carrier, say, can stand for many.

A picture of Timothy O'Sullivan's horse-drawn darkroom, in which he first coated, then developed his large glass plates. (And you thought RAW was hard.) His photographs for King's geological surveys were the first systematic visual exploration of the American West.

It's always been debated whether Sander's work has such power because his idea was so strong or because he was just such a great portraitist anyway. Certainly, a number of "surveys" of certain types of people done since then have not been shown to have nearly the power or the richness of Sander's pictures. It was probably a bit of both: probably his belief in his categorization systems lent energy to his work and his project.

In any event, we don't seem to see ambition on such a scale any more. At least not extended over such long periods of time. What photographers take on lifetime projects these days? Maybe a dose of the documentation of massive categorization systems could be good for contemporary photography.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON with thanks to Svein-Frode
Above right: August Sander, Varnisher, Cologne, c. 1930

Featured Comment by Gerard Meijs: Catgorization is key to the work of the Dutch photographer Are Versluis. Since 1994 he collects samples of "groups of people." Most of them are from the Netherlands. His weekly series of nine portraits on the backside of one of the leading Dutch newspapers gives a sometimes haunting insight in the way we behave. Well, at least in the way we dress and conform ourselves to what we think is "appropriate."

Take a look at his website and be amazed.


Blogger Svein-Frode said...

Very interesting indeed Mike!

Funny thing is, I was on a photoshoot last weekend and had to travel to my location by boat. It just gave me the time to enjoy a few cognacs and read "On being a Photographer" by Jay/Hurn for the third time. Having grown as a photographer (my own humble opinion) since I read it the first two times, me and the book just cklicket. It surely must be one of the greatest books ever written on the subject, and I decided to write a quick review on it which I published on my website today (

Yada yada aside, "On being a Photographer" contains one very very important chapter, the one about selecting a subject, which brings us back to categorization. How important a tool isn't systemizing your approach to what and how you want to photograph?

Learning how to set goals for your image making is the most important factor in “making it”. Too many photographers, especially those who are self taught, fail to make it because they are simply snapshooting in the dark. Unless you can focus and set goals that are in tune with your vision you will end up wasting your talent.

To illustrate this concept I provide a link to a fairly unknown Norwegian photographer who finally "made it" when he decided what and how. His categories are people, houses and interiors of the Norwegian Arctic. Well worth a look at:

1:30 PM  
Blogger Andy Frazer said...

"In any event, we don't seem to see ambition on such a scale any more. At least not extended over such long periods of time."

Wow! That really sums up one of the problems with photography these days. In pursuit of the instant project gratification, too many photographers are spending too much energy shooting too many different things. It's like a universe full of well-rounded dabblers.

11:38 AM  
Blogger the blind spot said...

With regard to content and sticking to an on-going subject for my money Edward S. Curtis was the man.
Check out this link to get an overview of his life and times and the incredible effort and sacrifices made to accomplish such an in-depth body of work:

9:21 AM  

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