Blog | Architecture of Seeing

A blog about architecture photography, art,  and conceptual issues that I hope will help photographers reach beyond their technical skill set to become better artists, writers, and thinkers.

Typologies and Seriality

© Lane Barden 2017, 21 Catchers Masks, Large Grid. (from 23 Catcher's Masks, ©Lane Barden 2017, Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

© Lane Barden 2017, 21 Catchers Masks, Large Grid. (from 23 Catcher's Masks, ©Lane Barden 2017, Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Typologies are classes of things with common characteristics. In architecture, a typology is a set of details or designs that may be applied throughout a building to address a particular use or solution to a problem. It could be a kind of hardware, a window treatment, or a style of light fixture.  They appear sometimes, like footnotes, at the bottom of an architectural drawing – or a typology can be an entire building, industrial installation, or facade that is designed for a common set of conditions and purposes.

Photographs can be typologies and there is a particular resonance between architectural detail deployed typologically, and photographs that follow the same conceptual strategies. The great modern German photographers and typologists Berndt and Hilla Becher, early in their career, began exhibiting their work categorically in grids as a single piece, so that all the images in a set of industrial installations – mine heads, or water towers, for example – could be seen and compared at once.

In these grids, each image became a document that showed how a single mechanical problem could be solved in an infinite number of ways. Images that share a common set of characteristics yet differ from each other, serve as the perfect model for the way ideas in still photography are expressed through exploration of a single subject in a series. The series is one of the most important tools for photographers who want to build their artistic vocabulary as artists and creative thinkers.

While teaching at SCI-Arc I gave a typology assignment to my classes every semester. Immediately I saw its excellence as a learning tool for gaining skill and conceptual understanding of how we elaborate on ideas in still photography. The assignment required students to shoot at the same camera-to-subject distance in each image, which in turn meant learning to use a tripod, a cable release, or possibly the bulb or T shutter setting. It required consistent lighting and exposure, which meant they had to use a gray card. Usually they were shooting objects that needed sharpness and detail to succeed, so lens and darkroom technique came into play.

In effect, it was a project that required discipline and the acquisition of skills. In our critiques, it revealed how their choice of subject for the typology had determined the richness and success of the project, or its failure. One of the memorable student projects was a series of twelve wire coat hangers, each with its own unique shape photographed carefully on a white background.I highly recommend this exercise to any student who is serious about developing their skills and aesthetic sensibilities in a single project.