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.
Photographs can be typologies. At some point early in the career of Bernd and Hilla Becher, a curator 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 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 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 seriality. 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.