Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The dangers of genre photography

I had an interesting discussion online recently with Mike Jackson, Lucy Telford and Tim Parkin. Mike posed the question "why do I think of myself as a landscape photographer?". Mike expressed the opinion that the most successful photographers in landscape like Michael Kenna have their own unique style and are simply thought of as "photographers" rather than "landscape photographers". Tim's argument was that landscape is big enough to embrace everyone from the most creative to the most conventional.  At the time I thought this has considerable weight, but having had some time to ruminate over it, I'm no longer so sure and this is because of how genres work in practice. I shall explain...

In case you haven't noticed landscape is what I do, it's is my creative impetus, subject and something I have a very strong personal relationship with. But does that qualify me as a landscape photographer? I have also dabbled in street / social documentary, so obviously I already straddle a number of genres, but realistically the last 3-4 years have been purely landscape. There's still a nagging doubt though that I'm doing something which is mine alone, not really conforming to any particular genre anymore.

Photographers rarely start out as identifying themselves  with a particular genre, they probably don't even think of themselves as photographers in the early days. Most just think of themselves as people using cameras. For the vast majority this is enough, they don't progress any further. But it does seem that most of us who take photography seriously end up saying "this is me, this is what I want to do" at some stage in our photographic progression.

So why do we sign up to genres? Why do we choose to associate ourselves with particular genres, be they landscape, street, social documentary, portraiture or whatever? Obviously starting out as a photographer is a difficult place to be, there's a whole world of possibilities to choose from, subjects to choose and styles to be chosen. It's much more comfortable to focus our energies in one particular direction, or subject, once we've found what interests us the job becomes that much easier. The creative choices have narrowed and a great deal of creative energy is usually stimulated by having creative focus.

Often within each genre we find there is a community of like minded individuals who are happy to share their knowledge insights and passions. Choosing a genre is a good place to be, supportive, sometimes challenging and inspirational. We find other photographers doing things  we aspire to, we learn a great deal. As we progress further, deeper into our chosen area we may even begin to find something more personal to express, our own angle, our own take on that genre.

So what can possibly go wrong? Well as any truly creative, original visual artist will tell you (or should tell you!) the real value in art is having ideas of your own. For the very same reasons as we sign up to a genre - the comfort of finding something we associate with, the narrowing of creative focus and the choice of a subject area - we are discarding much of our artistic potential.

Most genuinely imaginative artists I talk to exist in very much the same state as the beginner, the constant doubt, self criticism, and wondering how to express themselves in a way that is both personally satisfying and reaches out to a potential audience. They don't have a ready made yardstick to measure themselves against, it is about their personal motivation and satisfaction. The act of questioning is perhaps the most important part of that journey, it's why they push boundaries and create unique work.

Genre photographers of all sorts, have to a large extent bought into a way of seeing and expressing, they find unwritten rules and codifications about how they should fit in, conform and what, why and how we take what we have chosen. This isn't to say there isn't potential for those working within genres to produce original, striking and creative work, but it is partly why the vast majority will always be derivative, sterile and lacking in creative weight.

The real problem in associating ourselves with a genre is that the intellectual heavy lifting has been done for us. By buying into a way seeing we are buying into a way of thinking. It's as if we don't have to think very deeply anymore, we have given up part of the struggle, and yet struggle and internal conflict are key to the creative process.  Unless we are willing to cross boundaries, stretch possibilities and be true to ourselves then our work will inevitably suffer.

I have often said and heard it said by people I admire that much of the creative possibilities lie in the "gaps between", exploring crossovers, combinations and ideas that others haven't yet found. I'm not really sure these days if I actually think like that as part of my creative process, but I will admit it has some weight in abstract intellectual terms. This is because even that way of thinking doesn't represent the motivations which drive me, the concepts that I develop are becoming far more personal and specific. Genres don't matter anymore.

Perhaps being a genre photographer should only be a stage we go through until we find ways of expressing ourselves, not others' perspectives? Could it be that after dabbling in genres the only true route to creativity is to return ourselves to the state of the beginner, albeit with a considerably high technical and creative skill set? To be able to see beyond the genre, to create work which is honest to our own imagination probably means we won't end up working within a genre anymore. We will become just photographers again.


  1. Isn't a genre really a way of post hoc identifying things? For instance, if I go to a bookshop and all the books were just laying around and I had an interest in 'crime fiction' then it would be an absolute pain.

    Also if I say to someone "I'm a photographer" (genres again. tut) then their next question is usually "what do you photograph?" - it's often easier to get it out of the way and say "I'm a landscape photographer".

    Of course if we were self define ourselves through the genre then things become more difficult but I know of few landscape photographers who don't take family photographs and abstracts and I'm sure street photographers like to show the great views they saw when they went on holiday.

    The danger comes when you become part of a 'herd' and then let the herd genre define us. However, it doesn't take a genre to do this - just a lot of people being dismissive of the 'other' (a typical, sad human trait).

    Most artists try to avoid genres because they come with pre conceptions and - like the genre science fiction - landscape photographer often isn't the pre conceptions they want. I notice that people don't have the same genre embarrassment about street photography or portraiture for instance.

    Genres become most damaging when used to limit the acceptability of things - for instance a landscape photography exhibition that doesn't include abstracts because they don't fit that person's particular preconception. This isn't the genre's fault though - it's the preconception's.

    So instead of avoiding genres perhaps we should be avoiding preconceptions of any sort. The preconception that 'art' has to be different and new for instance or that working with old processes gives a work any more validity or that black and white is inherently more intellectual than colour. These are the thoughts that damage creativity the most.

  2. Interesting musings Rob, and something I've been wrestling with too. I reached a point where I decided I needed a genre, a label, something to box me in. Then I realised this was inhibiting me, not freeing me. It's one of the reasons I still only have a blog and now a fully-fledged website as I struggled with what to put up within a particular category. Now I want to photograph what I'm interested in and hopefully my style, treatment, or whatever it is will be evident across the range of my work.

    Preconceptions, unfortunately Tim, seem to come hand-in-hand with genre labels though. But if someone asks me what I photograph I will say just "What I am interested in" and hopefully it will lead to a deeper discussion of a current project, past projects, a subject, or even a single photograph, rather than just reducing it to a genre. This mindset has made me more enthusiastic about my photography again. I'm not stymying myself and I am comfortable that my photography can, and likely will, evolve.

  3. I found this a very interesting read Rob. As you know, I've only been taking pics for 3 or so years so I consider myself fairly new to this game. And, as always, I can only speak for myself. I was naively unaware of photographic genres when I started out and I actually count this as a blessing. I sort of knew that some folk took photos of people, some of the countryside and some of artfully arranged pieces of cheese on rustic wooden boards with a few grapes thrown in for good measure. None of that interested me and still doesn't. I don't really "get" genre photography. There are photographs I like and those I don't. End of story.

    People photograph (in their personal not paid work) what they want to. I assume. I know I do. I am still uncomfortable saying I am a photographer, let alone a portrait photographer or landscape photographer etc etc. Rob - you are spot on as far as I am concerned with everything you have said this paragraph particularly -

    "Most genuinely imaginative artists I talk to exist in very much the same state as the beginner, the constant doubt, self criticism, and wondering how to express themselves in a way that is both personally satisfying and reaches out to a potential audience. They don't have a ready made yardstick to measure themselves against, it is about their personal motivation and satisfaction. The act of questioning is perhaps the most important part of that journey, it's why they push boundaries and create unique work."

    Tim - I have to say that I think you are being slightly simplistic. In all your points. I think that what Rob is talking about is art. Yes, of course we all take a huge variety of photographs. I photograph my kids because I love them and want to document their growing up and I may photograph something I want to capture - but I won't make those photographs public. And you are talking again about science fiction - why do you have this pre-conceived idea that the literati "look down" on SF? And who are you basing this on?

    It's all about doing your own thing. Isn't it?

    1. My point is that it isn't just about genres - it's about any form of self contraint. The genre isn't the problem it's the thought processes that allow us to be circumscribed by them.

      We use definitions as part of language because they are useful - we call ourselves human and then male or female and then we call ourselves married or single or British or English. If we allow these categories to bind us or to label things outside those boundaries as 'other', this is where the problem begins.

      As for literati looking down on science fiction, I used to work interviewing people for a magazine in Manchester and along the way I interviewed Jeff Noon, Iain M Banks, Iain Banks (see!), Ken MacLeod and they all pointed out that great science fiction gets removed from the scifi section. Witness Cloud Atlas, Time Travellers Wife and many more. This doesn't happen with Crime Fiction.

      Most of the authors I interviewed talked about dismissal of science fiction, regardless of it's quality. Iain M Banks is really only just beginning to get recognised for the quality of his science fiction stories in the literary world whereas Iain Banks has had a lot of success.

      Categories are useful for us in describing the world - they're just adjectives in disguise really

      And the risk is that you throw away a 'known' category only to land yourself in one of your own making (or at least the category of 'people who reject the category landscape photography'

    2. Ok. I think that I just have a problem with categorisation. If you want to start discussing semiotics, that's great! Of course things are either a signifier or that which is signified - ie: the form which a 'sign' takes and the concept it represents. To me, photographers are photographers. Just as Rob says in his last paragraph here.

      I suspect that you are right in saying that people will often just categorise themselves because it's easier than going into complex explanations of what exactly they do photograph. But don't most people just say 'I'm a photographer?'

      But, you see, I think what Rob is getting at goes much much deeper than this. I think he's saying that to be truly creative and to be true to oneself, one has to go beyond any notions of categorisation. I mean, really - what the heck do these things matter anyway?! And only a fool would have the preconceptions about old processes and b&w etc which you mention in your first comment, surely?

      And, again, I don't believe in categorisations within literature either. It makes it all too easy to pigeonhole writers. I have a degree in Literature and used to work in publishing and am sad to hear that some writers feel as you have described. Great works in any artistic endeavour are not to be dismissed.

      Oh, and I don't think the category of 'people who reject the category landscape photography' is going to catch on anytime soon! ;-)

    3. "To me, photographers are photographers" - surely photographers are just people with everything that goes with it - or do we take it back further and say that photographers are just macro cosmic effects of quantum probability fluctuations. It's all a matter of scale.

      "what the heck do these things matter anyway?!" - well it's language and obviously language matters. Otherwise we should never ever say anything about our work because everything we may say has preconceptions

      "And only a fool would have the preconceptions about old processes and b&w etc which you mention in your first comment, surely?" - tell that to the large numbers of fine art students taking up various alternative processes or just choosing to shoot in black and white. Digital colour photography isn't seen as 'artistic' by many in the artistic fraternity - you need to have some connection with the material and some obvious abstraction from the real.

      "Oh, and I don't think the category of 'people who reject the category landscape photography' is going to catch on anytime soon! ;-)" - I've just been chatting to someone in America who was trying to put on a contemporary landscape photography exhibition and some people who originally wanted to exhibit finally turned it down because they didn't want to be associated with the 'landscape' label.

    4. Yes, of course photographers are just people...was I disagreeing with this?! I see no point in taking things back further ad absurdum.

      I meant what the heck do notions of categorisation matter? Surely no one has the mantra "I am a landscape (or insert appropriate word) photographer" in their heads while they are in the moment, out in the field. We don't (I hope) set up such limitations and barriers in our minds while we are indulging in personal work, so therefore do they really matter? I am more than aware that language matters and of course we should talk about our work if we want to.

      I use old processes and shoot mainly in black and white - but not because I think these things are inherently more artistic. A technique is just a technique, a means to an end. Perhaps the fine art students you mention feel the same way...? My understanding is (certainly up in my part of Scotland) that many photography departments of colleges are (or have already) getting rid of all their darkroom gear, for them digital is where it's at.

      Re: the last paragraph - my tongue was in my cheek a little there Tim. I meant that I couldn't see the label catching on, ie: Interviewer - 'So, how would you categorise your photographic oeuvre?' Photographer - 'Oh, I'm one of the people who reject the category landscape photography people...' ;-)

  4. "...struggle and internal conflict are key to the creative process" - this for me is the point that resonated the most.

    If you are sitting comfortably in what you're doing because it works, it sells and it's popular, then to my mind, that's when you are no longer striving to be creative -you're reproducing to a formula, you are a 'juke box' photographer. But isn't it so easy to fall into that state? You get labelled, pigeon-holed. Generally, you don't label yourself, society does. So you have to stay true to yourself, your vision and if that means blurring landscape, documentary and a bit of abstract thrown in, taken with a pinhole and losing 'fans', sales and annoying Rob no end then so be it. :-)

  5. Despite the Twitter trail your blog failed to upset me Rob. I recognised and agreed with almost all of your points.

    I must say I would love to sell a couple of images just to offset the costs of the photographic path I have embarked upon, but that is in no way influencing my choices when creating (at least not at a concious level). About 18 months ago I bought myself a view camera because I had started to identify myself as a landscape photographer and that's what they use?! I was identifying with that genre primarily because the work I was doing was outdoors and deliberately avoided obvious human-made artefacts most of the time (although, of course, you have travel much further afield than I have ever done to find a landscape that shows no sign of human interference). I love using a view camera and, at the moment, use nothing else (I'm even failing to capture my kids growing up!), but since I have had it I can count on one hand the number if images I have created that I would think of as being classic landscape images.

    The three principles that do inform my photography are is this new (I'm sure it rarely is despite my best efforts), does it capture something the casual observer will have failed to see, and does it leave the viewer asking questions? (The last one is Rob's fault.)

    So, to my point, my attempt to add to the conversation...

    I have not had a formal artistic training, in fact until recently I had only a limited interest in art and artists. Since my photography has headed down what I would like to think is a far more artistic path, I find myself drawn to the art of others, and when I have had time to "dig deep" I have learnt things that have heavily influenced my own image making. Consequently, I'm not sure we can ever return to the state of "beginner" and effectively ignore all those giants whose shoulders we walk on and who have shaped each of our own individual journeys.

    I agree we shouldn't be constrained by genres, but I don't think we can avoid being shaped by them, albeit that those genres themselves are nothing more than an artificial construction arising from our natural desire to make sense of the world through ordered patterns.

  6. Genre's are a result of quantity, when something starts and there are only a few people involved its simple and the umbrella description is sufficient. When Mr Talbot started he was an inventor not a photographer, as a general rule we like to pigeon hole like librarians for ease of access and with the WWW we now have tags and search engines pointing us to our destination. How we react to these tags is a result of what we are searching for in our artistic journey, for many in photography its the pat on the back by fellow photographers who then return the favour in the continuous circular gratification game. Sticking to a genre that results in guaranteed positive reaction stifles creativity while sticking to a genre for personal creativity such as Jackson at poppit sands is something that should be applauded.
    To sum up if you are thinking about the reaction to your image in relation to a genre while pressing the shutter then you have failed, if it just a tag attached afterwards to satisfy the librarians then I see no problem.

  7. Very interesting post Rob - and great comments too. It seems to me that mostly everything has already been covered so I'll just spit out what is in my head and see if it fits in.

    I think that an important part of being an 'artist' - be it a painter, photographer, sculptor or whatever - is to strive for one specific thing. And that is to be 'creatively distinctive'. I can't think of one painter that has done well who isn't creatively distinctive. I can't think of one painter that painted the same as he did 10 years ago. They seem to change, to study and to look harder. The results they get become more unique to them (be they good or bad results) and they move in different directions to others. They often then find a creatively distinctive style that they were almost born to do - and they are either happy to stay and play with that for the rest of their lives or move on again and again changing over and over and over.

    However, doing this searching is not for everyone. It can take ages, it can mean commitment that is often impossible to give and more often than not a lot of people don't actually want to do things that way. They don't want the self-doubt, the angst and the dead-ends (understandably). They want to enjoy what their specific art is - not be consumed by it.

    All this brings me to being 'creatively distinctive' in a genre. Lets take landscape photography. There are few landscape photographers that have managed to become this distinctive - so distinctive that we can recognise their style from across a room. I expect that to get there they followed their hearts and produced something new. But what about the photographers who are looking for something new right now? Where can they go? What direction do they take? How do they produce creatively distinctive work that is theirs and no one elses? This is where I think a break away from a genre helps - don't hold back - try anything that excites you. It may end up to be rubbish - but then you just step back into your genre and try again. And when something does click - when you have branched away from, say, portraiture to photograph abstract images for a while - then you can go back into the genre you initially loved and produce something that relates to your experiences outside it - but is still part of that genre and is completely yours. I think there are a lot of fine artists who have a 'first love' - a genre that they were born to do - and use work outside that genre to produce unique work within it.

  8. In reply to Michael how should you stand when you see a style you like and want to copy the mechanics, I have been shooting multiple exposure swapping lens and merging the images in camera in woods and forest. Recently Rob has started his songs of travel with multiple exposure while moving, I saw the images and like many others were impressed with results and wanted to try. After I had the finished image I felt I had to apologise to Rob for a blatant copy of mechanics but with what I felt was a different style of image. Sometimes you are searching and a genre appears that you want to use as it fits with what you have been doing, but still it feels wrong to copy the mechanics. Standing in the same spot as others before taking an image that's been taken before feels better than copying the mechanics, copying the soul of the image. I won't feel bad for long so Rob will have a head start.

    1. Rob's not the first to use this technique! It's what he's doing with it that's unique. (Although it's a big world out there, so who knows?)

    2. Hi bigtalljohn! Anything that excites you is a good step forward. I would have thought that Rob would be chuffed that his work is inspiring others! And it doesn't mean that you will photograph in this style for ever - it may be a nudge that will show in your other work - which will make it more your own.

    3. Absolutely. I think Rob will be pleased that he is causing people to think and debate too. There is nothing new under the sun and if someone is inspired by someone else, that's great! It will never be a carbon copy (oh, I'm such a Luddite ;-) and is just one of the myriad ways to learn and experiment.

  9. Photographers are an interesting breed. They're not really artistic yet they think they are, and they think too much about the meaning of things that don't matter. Not insulting anyone. People stick to a genre to become better at it. Anyone that tries to learn multiple genres at once will become mediocre at all of them. Why not become great at one? If you're spending your time traveling, hiking, exploring, and going to the extremes to find the best possible landscape photo, then you have dedication. But you probably won't have time to sign up models and do portrait photography and get good at it. It's just life. You can't do everything. There's nothing wrong with identifying yourself with a genre. I see Ansel Adams as a landscape photographer and Henri Cartier Bresson as a street photographer. Nothing wrong with that.


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