Musings on: categorisation and labelling in photography

I’m not a huge fan of categorisation: it has its place, but the results should be used with care. I’d like to explain my rationale for this aversion, and I’ll use the nature of the work of photographer Simon Norfolk as illustration. I won’t conclude that we shouldn’t categorise work into landscape, portrait, etc., but I shall suggest that

we should not use categories to determine what we look at; at least not exclusively.

So, what’s the problem?

This post is another in the series asking questions about why, and for whom, we make photographs, albeit one which is at a slight tangent, in that it’s about how grouping images by genre influences who looks at them, and with what expectation they do so. I’ve felt for a long time that categorisation, whilst necessary, effectively unavoidable, and often useful, is an inhibitor to fully appreciating whatever it is that’s being categorised; sometimes it may influence how we perceive the work, more often it may prevent us ever experiencing that work at all. This musing is on why labelling should perhaps be both applied and viewed with caution, as an adjunct to the work being labelled, not as an absolute.

The problem with categorisation applies to many things: consider music. It has long been the case that music, particularly contemporary music, has been pigeon-holed by reviewers, fans and shops; it is, after all, quite useful to be able to refer to liking a particular genre, and it’s helpful in searching for new music, whether physically, in shops, or on-line. That’s the good bit; the downside is that, if I’m told that a piece of music is in genre X, then I may well dismiss it out of hand simply based on that label. I certainly used to do that, though now I like to feel that I’m considerably more open-minded about what I may like, at least to the point of ‘giving it a go’ (perhaps thrash metal is now the one remaining genre whose mention equates to ‘don’t bother listening’, for me). I’d argue that approaching any set of work with the attitude of taking a look, or listen, to see whether it’s interesting, is better than dismissing things in advance due to their labels.

An additional problem lies in the margins, the grey areas of overlap where a piece of work falls into more than one category. With music, this often leads to simply adding the word ‘fusion’ to whatever two genres the labeller thinks are being fused. Again, useful in some contexts, but it can also lead to tiny sub-genres which will be either dismissed automatically, by certain parts of a potential audience, or followed to the exclusion of all else by others. Both of these effects narrow the range of things people are likely to sample, and perhaps to enjoy: it reduces potential experience. My contention is that this is not really a good thing in general.

In terms of photography, categories are useful for defining competitions, amongst other things; they’re helpful to some people who want to categorise themselves too, but they can be terribly exclusive. I know that, when I was choosing a title for my portfolio site, I started off having the word ‘landscape’ in there somewhere; then I realised that I’ve taken a handful of abstract shots which simply couldn’t be included if landscape was in the title, so I removed it. I then spent considerable time wondering whether to just say ‘photography’ or ‘fine art photography’ before electing to do the latter, with the conscious intent of excluding things I don’t do, such as wedding photography and architectural photography. Yet, those could be ‘fine art’ too, in some circumstances and from some viewpoints, so those two words become not quite meaningless, but at least potentially unhelpful. Again, I’m not saying that this is not useful in some respects, but it certainly is restrictive, and perhaps viewers need to be consciously aware of this inherent problem with selecting what to look at by its nominal category.

Simon Norfolk

This musing began when Malcolm Macgregor, prompted by my recent article on putting meaning into photographs, made we aware of the work of photographer Simon Norfolk. I’ve since spent considerable time looking at Norfolk’s work and reading his writing on his project-based photography. His current exhibition at Tate Modern in London, ‘Burke + Norfolk’, is particularly pertinent and led me to these thoughts on classification, as well as to others which I may consider in later posts.

Simon Norfolk’s work spans multiple categories, both over his career and within individual images and projects: he started out as a photo-journalist and now, somewhat reticently I believe, describes himself as a landscape photographer. Both those categories, however, conceal a much wider set of subject matter which melds photo-journalism with portraiture, landscape, contemporary political and social commentary, documentary and others. There are several interviews available on-line in which he explains his decision to call himself a landscape photographer, so I won’t seek to do so here; I’ll simply mention that he has stated in interviews that he would be happier not to be categorised. His work spans multiple genres and is not, to me, enhanced by any of the labels which could be, and are, applied, even though they doubtless serve to attract viewers and enable the galleries to present his work in a manner which both suits them and draws in some types of audiences, whilst simultaneously, I suggest, excluding the work from consideration by many people. The label ‘war photography’, for example, which I’ve seen used, would very probably deter some potential viewers who consider themselves only interested in ‘landscape photography’, whereas in fact the images are equally interesting, whether they are viewed as ‘of war’ or ‘of landscape’, as well as ‘of people’.

Considering solely the current Tate Modern exhibition and an earlier project from 2001, the subject of both of which is Afghanistan, any one label is wildly insufficient to describe the contents of these projects. The Tate Modern work juxtaposes Norfolk’s photographs with those taken by John Burke during the Second Afghan War of 1878-1880. The 2001 work, ‘Afghanistan: chronotopia’, illustrates in photographs the effects of decades of war on the people and the landscape. Both of these collections of images use predominantly landscape style compositions to create a ‘look’ which appeals to contemporary sensibilities by using colour, texture and structure to produce images which are strong and appealing, irrespective of content in many cases. Yet both also contain considerable narrative content as sets, plus social and political comment, as well as being of obvious historical relevance. They span, and use, numerous categories in order to attract viewers and to engage their interest. I feel that, in order to attract the full gamut of people who would enjoy his work, the list of categories would need to be unreasonably long. The work goes way beyond simply ‘landscape’, and it’s not conventional ‘war photography’.

That last point returns to the theme of my earlier musing on actively putting meaning into photographs: I deliberately confined that discussion to ‘fine art landscape photography’ and proposed that deliberate use of metaphor and allusion in ‘pure landscape photography’ was at best difficult. Simon Norfolk’s work is emphatically not ‘pure landscape photography’, however. Both in these Afghanistan portfolios and in his others covering landscapes affected by war and militarism (such as the Outer Hebrides….), he very effectively uses the tools of various photographic genres, in particular landscape, to engage an audience which might not be immediately interested in his observations and message but may become so through being drawn to the beauty of his work. Norfolk uses a large format camera and this, I strongly suspect, enforces a working method and pace which produces photographs that are as much ‘art’ as they are documentary and commentary. The messages he conveys through this combination of tools and methods is very much stronger for this inclusion of an artistic sensibility and they have, I’m sure, wider appeal as a result.


To return to the theme of this article: I’m not remotely suggesting that all categorisation is bad in photography. What I am suggesting, however, is that we should look beyond those labels which are given, inevitably, to particular bodies of work and consider the work on its own merit, not simply as ‘an example of genre X’. Inevitably, our emotional and intellectual responses to portfolios, or to individual images, are shaped in part by the genre-association they have been given by their creators, or by anyone involved in presenting them in a particular place or format; but it’s good to step back from that, when viewing a set of images, just in case there’s a wider, or merely different, context which makes them more significant, or more interesting. Beyond that, I feel that it must be desirable to avoid dismissal of any category, both because the label may have been attached inappropriately, leading to missing out on interesting work, and because the assumption that “I don’t like genre X” may itself be incorrect. (Not that this means I’m planning on being over-receptive to thrash metal in the near future, but I would listen to something if it was recommended – perhaps.)

So, the message from this, if there is a single message, is to

occasionally take a look at work which, on the basis of its labels, you don’t expect to find interesting; you may be surprised once in a while.

The best example I can find in my own work is the following abstract. I think of it as some grass, a boat and the Moon in Ullapool harbour, since that’s what it is and this image is merely what I visualised when I made it, but I’d really prefer to not label it as either, ideally!

Red abstract

The exhibition ‘Burke + Norfolk‘ is at Tate Modern until 10th July 2011, and various images from it, as well as much discussion, can be found on-line. Lastly, here is a link to Simon Norfolk’s site. As always, I’d welcome your thoughts on any of the above.

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