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What qualifies a body of photographic work to be classified as a typology?

This Oxford dictionary definition does little to articulate what defines a body of work as a photographic typology. This short essay discusses a conceptual analysis methodology, illustrated via a number of historical and contemporary case studies, and concludes with an alternative definition.


The photographic typology has the ability to reshape perception, heighten and focus attention, and transform everyday objects into a thing of art. Ironically the process and execution, often cold and systematic can be extremely emotive, and a powerful tool of communication when contextualised.

Arguably, in a world saturated by photography the more traditional photojournalistic approach has lost much of it’s influence. As a result the emergence of alternative methods could become more common place in modern photojournalism in order to capture the interest of a wider audience.

During my research and reading of a variety of photographic projects within this field, both historical and contemporary. I became interested in the idea of what qualifies a body of photographic work (or a single photograph) to be classed as a typology. This led me to develop a method with which to analyse related works consisting of a number of factors, intended to assess consistency and uncover intention though context and creative execution.

After briefly discussing the origin of the photographic typology, the essay focuses on a number of case studies, chosen in order to demonstrate these factors.


Arguably Bernd and Hilla Bechers’ water towers, steel furnaces, and coal plants are among the most well known examples. However, the photographic typology has a dark anthropological origin.

Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin, founder of Eugenics and Dactyloscopy (identification through fingerprints), created a number of photographic typologies in the 18th century, profiling criminals in a similar method to the contemporary mug shot (See figure 2). His work was an attempt to discover common visual characteristics within the facial features of the criminal, with the intention of being able to identify criminals based on their physical appearance. This work was obviously discredited, but it’s roots can be found throughout history. For example the anthropologist Dr. Josef Wastl study of Jewish faces and Nazi soldiers for the Austrian SS, in an attempt to compare and identify differences in facial features. Material from this study was found in the Austrian Natural History museum archives by Peter Forage’s who exhibited this work in Col Tempo at the Hungarian Pavilion.

Photographic typologies have had, and continue to have a strong presence within science, but throughout the decades have become an alternative; and in some cases more powerful method with which to communicate journalistic content. There aesthetic appeal draws in an audience, arguably provoking a higher level of engagement than more literal photographic representation.

For example, in one of the following case studies former death row prisoners were represented not by their portraits or more traditional photojournalistic documentation, but by their choice of last meal. We all unconsciously judge others based on visual stereotypes, ethical and cultural prejudices, and our unique experiences. Representing individuals by their choice of a last meal removes much of the subjectivity and noise that would otherwise distract the viewer from the primary intended message. This absence also provokes the viewer to relate to those individual, contemplate their choice, and construct ideas about those individuals, enhancing engagement.


As I studied the work of practitioners within the field, I began to identify common characteristics. Based on these discoveries I established a number of factors, and a method with which to discover intention and rate consistency. I then used this method as a tool to analyse historical and contemporary related projects.

The factors themselves can be grouped into three categories, , , and . Arguably, the primary reasons to create a photographic typology, would be to either create a connection between subjects that share no obvious visual . Or to and highlight differences and/or similarities between subjects that do share a visual relationship. Context frames the work. If creating a visual relationship was the intention, the context will then provide further confirmation. These three factors can be used to asses possible intention and enhance interpretation

In addition to being used to analyse the typology, the following four factors, , , , and , can be used to rate consistency within the typology. Based on my research, I believe a high level of consistency within a number of these factors is required in order for a body of work to be classified as a typology. Each case study rated high in consistency in the majority of these factors, however rating consistency is still some what a subjective process.The final two factors and focus on the creative execution and distribution of the project. Consideration of these factors can also help with the discovery of intention and/or interpretation.

All of these factors can be used to analyse any photographic typology, however some will be more relevant than others. To illustrate this point I have selected the following works from my research that I believe best communicate each of the factors.

Taryn Simon | Contraband |2010

Taryn Simon is an artist who works in text, sculpture, performance, and photography. Her work reflects her interest in systems of categorisation and classification, and is supported by extensive research which she claims makes up ninety-five percent of her work.

This project comprises of over a thousand photographs taken at a U.S. customs inspection site, and a U.S. international postal facility. During a single working week Taryn continuously photographed items seized from passengers and mail entering the United States.

For the exhibition items were grouped into categories such as animal parts, counterfeit branding, tobacco, pharmaceuticals etc. The neutral background enhances focus on the subject, all carefully arranged and presented. As there is no obvious consistency between the objects, the typology was likely used as a method with which to create a relationship between them.

Francis Galton |1883

As already discussed earlier in this essay, Francis Galtons’ attempted to identify common physical features of the criminal by photographing subjects in a highly consistent method, and then carefully comparing each subject. He also created composite photography made from multiple exposures. This example demonstrates his methodical process driven approach.

James Reynolds |2009

Arguably what is most interesting about this typology created by graphic designer James Raynolds, is its emotive transformation when given context. The apparent time and effort taken to photograph these unremarkable objects gives them significance, and provokes interest in the viewer to investigate the context. Once understood that these images are visual representations of former Death Row prisoners’ requests for their last meal before execution, they become incredibly powerful and communicate much about those individuals. The images create a strong human connection, arguably stronger than what a related portrait image would evoke.

Lalage Snow |2010

Lalage Snow has been covering conflict and unrest since completing her Masters degree in photojournalism at the London College of Communicaiton. Her work blends art and journalism, finding new ways in which to tell stories.

In this project Lalage photographed a number of soldiers over seven months, before, during and after their deployment in Afghanistan. Each portrait has an accompanying caption containing the thoughts and feelings of each individual.

It’s apparent that the use of a typology in this project was to facilitate comparison. Enabling the viewer to observe subtle changes in each subject over a relatively short period of time. A way of visually measuring the impact of their experience.

Donovan Wylie |2009

Belfast born Magnum photographer Donovan Wylies’ book The Maze was published in 2004, followed by British Watchtowers in 2007. This work elevated Wylie to international acclaim.

The photographic consistency in The Maze project mimics the repetitive and featureless environment of the two-hundred and seventy acre prison it depicts, previously home to over ten thousand prisoners, almost all convicted of terrorist activities. His method enhances the idea of the Maze. Every room virtually the same, every corridor leading to nowhere. The photographs appear to have been taken from head height, perhaps intended to put the viewer within the environment, helping them to empathise with former prisoners.

Bernd and Hilla Becher |1972

Arguably the most famous practitioners within the field of the photography typology, Bernd and Hilla Becher collected the European industrial landscape for decades.

In my view the most prominent factor in their work is process, which they executed religiously, even going to lengths such as removing trees that intruded on their frame.

The superb quality of their work adds significant value to the architecture and equipment they documented, drawing attention to the every day and elevating it to a thing of great aesthetic beauty.

Susan Barnett |2014

Questioning convention Susan Barnett interest in exploring an alternative to the portrait in order to capture or reveal the essence of individuals resulted in A Typology of T-Shirts.

Directing her subjects to stand with their backs to the camera, concentrates focus on the primary subject of the typology, the T-Shirt designs. However, the physicality and body language of each individual communicates secondary information about the subjects, as does the different environments.

Walker Evans |1936

Walker Evans, one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century has inspired several generations of artists including Bernd and Hillar Becher.

This example, a single image of 225 portraits from the Savannah photographer’s window, challenges the idea of what defines a photographic typology. Applying an additional contextual layer over the original intended purpose.

When analysing this photograph using the factors, one must consider not only the single photograph, but the many photographers contained within its frame.

Martin Schoeller |2016

Martin Schoeller is a world renowned portrait photographer, known for his extreme close up portraits of people form all walks of life. His methodical process is constantly used regardless of the cultural status of his subjects. In this impressive typology, Schoeller helps to raise awareness of an organisation that works with homeless people in LA.

The lighting is harsh and unforgiving, revealing any/all imperfections. Similarities can be drawn with the work of Bruce Gilden, but arguably Schoeller’s portraits evoke greater vulnerability and empathy, primarily through his direction of the subjects

The highly consistent way in which each subject has been photographed invites comparison. However the dramatic differences between the subjects suggest that communicating a relationship between them was likely to be the primary intention of the photographer.

Despite these strong representations of key factors, it’s the medium that makes this project unique. Schoeller uses his Instagram feed to publish and distribute these images, resulting in a living and evolving project, perhaps intended to communicate the continuing need for support.


Using this methodology helped me to dissect the visual language that defines the photographic typology, and uncover intention and interpretation in related works.

An interesting discovery during this process was finding a high level of consistency within each project, which I now believe to be critical to classifying a body of work as a photographic typology. Arguably a higher level of consistency contributes to greater aesthetic appeal, at least on the surface. This appeal helps to draw in an audience while competing with a world overwhelmed by photography.

Another interesting observation is how context can drastically alter perception, and without it, comparisons can be drawn with Galton’s 18th century criminal profiling and Schoellers’ contemporary altruistic portraits of the homeless. Similar in process and creative execution, but with very different intentions and interpretations.

To conclude, this analysis methodology is intended as a guide with which to provoke further reading of related works. Like any art form an absolute definition is not possible, but a more coherent one can be useful when attempting to understand and classify a body of work as a photographic typology. The following definition is based on the outcome of my research from this project, but will likely evolve as I continue to explore the subject.

This short essay introduces a conceptual analysis methodology forming the basis for a much larger project, requiring more extensive case studies, surveys, and more in depth research to determine its inherent value. I hope others attempting to understand the photographic typology will find it useful.



Fig 1. Simon, T (2010) [online image]. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 December 2016].

Fig 2. Galton, F (1883) Criminal profiling. [online image]. Available at: <> [Accessed 13 January 2017].

Fig 3. Reynolds, J (2009) . [online image]. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 October 2016].

Fig 4. Snow, L (2010) [online image]. Available at <> [Accessed 04 November 2016].

Fig 5. Wylie, D (2009) . Germany: Steidl

Fig 6. Becher, B Bernd, H (1972) . [online image]. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 December 2016].

Fig 7. Barnett, S (2015) . [online image]. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 October 2016].

Fig 8. Evans, W (1936) [online image]. Available at: <>[Accessed 02 January 2017]

Fig 9. Schoeller, M (2016) . [Internet]. Available from: <> [Accessed 26 November 2016].


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