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Typology Photography + Tips to Make Your Own


A photographic typology is a body of work that visually explores a theme or subject to draw out similarities and differences for examination. Through the methodical photography and presentation of a specific subject or theme, a typological photographer makes a space that invites a viewer to simultaneously identify both consistencies and distinctions in a series, building up a more nuanced whole.

The typology is a genre built on differences and correlations. Visual classification according to a specific type has historically been applied in sectors ranging from architecture to botany, with carefully laid out illustrations distributed across a page to illuminate key aspects of a subject. As photography developed, so did the execution of photographic typologies - photographers gathered subjects and/or themes in a cohesive presentation deliberately designed for motivating comparisons within similar visual content for identification and insight.

Illustrated typologies from Goldsmith's Animated Nature (1774)
Illustrated typologies from Goldsmith's Animated Nature (1774)

When Nicéphore Niépce made the first fixed photograph in 1826 or 1827, photography was quickly recognised as a tool for harnessing time. With subsequent advances in photographic technology, many photographers started to focus on the scientific possibilities the camera could deliver.

What is photography other than collecting? - Hilla Becher

In June 1878, Eadweard Muybridge used a number of cameras rigged along a racetrack to make his photographic study of a horse's gait in a gallop. The resulting photographs demonstrated that all four of a horse's hooves rose simultaneously off the ground, an event that could not be discerned with the naked eye. The images were printed and displayed in a typological-like format, depicting each stage of the horse's locomotion for easy comparison and contrast.

Typological photographic work can also be developed without the use of the camera. English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins is often considered the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images. Sir John Herschel invented the cyanotype process in 1842. Less than a year later, Atkins was applying the process to capture the structure of plant matter by making contact-printed cyanotype photograms. In placing botanic materials directly on the cyanotype paper and exposing it to light, Atkins built up an evocative typological body of work depicting a vast number of natural specimens.

Botanical cyanotypes by Anna Atkins typology
Botanical cyanotypes by Anna Atkins

Another proponent of early typological photography was August Sander, a German portrait and documentary photographer. In the mid-1920s, Sander took on a project intending to document German citizens by taking their portraits with his large-format camera. Sander made portraits of people from a diverse range of societal standings and elected to categorize his subjects into seven distinct groups - The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City and The Last People.

Sander's book Face of our Time was published in 1929 and contained 60 portraits selected from the portrait work he called People of the 20th Century. Sander believed that the camera could reveal the essential characteristics of humans, his career-long undertaking recording a unique typological insight into Germany between WWI and WWII. Under the Nazi regime, Face of our Time was seized and banned in 1936. While many of Sander's photographic plates were destroyed, approximately 1,800 survived, as well as Sander's notes and plans. Together with existing vintage prints, the negatives and notes have formed the basis for the reconstruction of Sander's project in both book and exhibition form [1]. Viewing his books and photographs today, we see an uncertain cultural landscape, a diversity of people united under Sander's typological efforts.

The term photographic typology wasn't actually coined until Bernd and Hilla Becher began documenting German industrial architecture. From 1959, the couple adhered to a rigid aesthetic, executing their photographs at a consistent exposure, angle and distance. Travelling extensively to document subjects that were changing and disappearing from the landscape, the Bercher's studied the construction of these architectural structures with honesty, displaying them in what is now understood to be the standard of typological presentation - a neat grid of evenly spaced prints. On the nature of the ephemerality of their subject matter, Hilla Becher stated:

The photo can optically replace its object to a certain degree. This takes on special meaning if the object cannot be preserved

Taking on the task of artistically safeguarding ephemeral architecture, the typologies of Bernd and Hilla Becher preserve a moment, but they also prompt the viewer to consider the subject’s meaning and manifestation in a humanless landscape. As lecturers at the Dusseldorf School of Photography, the Berchers passed the concept and execution of the typology onto others, inspiring generations of international and German artists, photographers and viewers.

Typologies are manifestations of an enormous array of photographic interests and practices. From Karl Blossfeldt's organic black and white studies to John Cyr's documentation of famous photographer's developer trays, typologies reveal intricate patterns, differences and narratives.

When Karl Blossfeldt constructed his series of homemade cameras, he developed a way to photograph plant surfaces in unprecedented detail. His keen interest in the repetitive patterns found in nature culminated in a book published in 1929 titled Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature). Blossfeldt's book - populated with the abstracted photography of botanical shapes and forms - rapidly became an international best-seller, earning the photographer significant fame. Urformen der Kunst was quickly adopted as a seminal book on photography, and philosopher Walter Benjamin declared:

[Blossfeldt] has played his part in that great examination of the inventory of perception, which will have an unforeseeable effect on our conception of the world [2]

Karl Blossfeldt
Karl Blossfeldt

Today, many photographers apply a typological methodology to develop bodies of work. Photographers like Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky and Gillian Wearing, Olafur Eliasson, Martina Mullaney, Taryn Simon and Ari Versluis emphasize comparison, inspiration, observation, analysis and introspection. Both modern and historic examples of typological photography have come to be recognised as an important contribution to the general conceptualization of contemporary perspectives. Photographic reproduction is well-suited to drawing out the similarities and differences within given parameters, allowing photographers to evaluate and elevate that which sets apart and that which unifies.

Tips for Making a Photographic Typology

The process of making a typology can be loosely divided under three headings - subject/theme, execution and presentation. Subject/theme centres on the visual and thematic direction of the typology, execution dictates the method used to photograph the series and presentation is the way in which a typology is organized for display.

black and white typology of tactile textural path devices in Canberra Australia
Tactile Paving - © Megan Kennedy

Selecting a Subject/Theme

A subject can be defined as that which is presented in an artistic rendering, whereas themes are implied messages conveyed within a series. A strong subject or theme is the foundation for a typological series.

  • Abstract joins in the pavement, strangers in the street, fallen leaves, exhausted food wrappers, clouds, roadside signage - sometimes typologies have a way of finding us. Awareness of the ordinary is a vital link to building typological subjects or themes. Be receptive to repetition. Seek out detail as well as documenting a larger environment. Consider overarching themes. Keep a camera at hand. Often, subjects and themes can emerge from observations that grow into a working typology as trends accumulate naturally.

  • Drawing from research, experiences and personal interests, photographers can also execute a typology based on a premeditated concept. Immersed in a typological study, photographers tease out truths and forge visual bonds, becoming an expert in a subject or theme. Every visual perspective is unique, and working on a typology series that reflects a line of artistic enquiry can celebrate, inspire or motivate, appealing to our sense of order and disorder, comprehension and interconnection.

  • From formal inquiries to the consistently chaotic, typological photographers draw meaning through lines of artistic scrutiny. Explore personal interests and dialogues, observe everyday synchronicities and contrasts and review personal catalogues of photography to tease out organic parallels.

Executing a Photographic Typology

Generally, the two key reasons to create a photographic typology would be to either forge a connection between visually dissimilar subjects or to compare and contrast the differences and/or similarities between subjects that exhibit or convey a relationship. In both of these scenarios, a similar perspective, uniform lighting conditions and consistent gear and camera settings are common practices.

  • Uniformity (even in the form of the consistently chaotic) stimulates greater attention to detail. Both consistency and variety, which may seem incompatible at first, are the key to a successful photographic typology. The greater the uniformity or repetition of a subject or theme, the more that individual eccentricities and pleasing correlations will flourish.

Desire path photography typology in black and white abstract photograph texture bike mud footprints by Megan Kennedy
Desire Path - © Megan Kennedy
  • At its most basic, executing a photographic typology requires a photographic medium or device and a subject. Any camera setup or process can be used to make a photographic typology, but sticking to one particular format throughout the typology can help maintain consistency. Preliminary experimentation with subject matter, perspective, distance and scale as well as equipment and lighting conditions will help draw out the best course of creative action.

  • Camera settings for a photographic typology depend on the situation, the subject and the desired visual outcome. However, typological subjects are usually photographed from a front-on perspective with the majority of the subject in focus. To achieve this, start at an aperture of f/11, making adjustments as needed and bracketing to be sure. In addition, you may need a tripod to keep the camera steady - minimising unwanted motion blur.

  • Photographing a subject in the same conditions promotes balance - Bernd and Hilla Becher only made photographs on overcast days to maintain a homogenous-looking series. Take note of the time of day, weather and season as well as camera settings, equipment and subsequent editing techniques. Keeping a record of these variables will help maintain a repeatable practice.

Presenting a Photographic Typology

  • A typology forms a family of photographs that convey and reiterate a subject or theme. Typological photographers are collectors and organizers of visual information. While a photograph may operate on its own, a typological series is strengthened in a collection with equally themed or weighted components.

ICM typology photography how to abstract photograph Megan Kennedy
Grasslands - © Megan Kennedy
  • Bernd and Hilla Becher set the standard for modern typology presentation, publishing and exhibiting works grouped by function in grids of six, nine, or fifteen photographs arranged in a consistent portrait or landscape orientation. Adhering to this formula or building on it, most typological photographers today stick to this classic grid presentation, arranging content based on date and time, function, location or composition with regular spacing between each image.

  • Go with your instincts. To develop the presentation of a typology series, print cheap copies of the images and arrange them manually on a wall or floor to simulate what the presentation will look like on exhibit in terms of scale, design and cohesion. For digital media, open a photo-editing program and paste each picture into the one canvas, arranging and re-arranging to develop a working configuration on screen.

  • Assembling a body of typological works dictates the reading of the overall series, - a typology sequenced by date will present differently from a typology arranged in a sequence of hues. Maintaining a consistent landscape or portrait orientation will cultivate harmony in a typology. Mixing page orientations within the one series can create a more tumultuous reading.

  • Typologies push the boundaries of the interrelationships shared between subjects and themes. Effective typologies demand scrutiny on a gallery wall, in a book or on a screen. While a gridded gallery layout evokes a greater sense of cohesion, a book presentation with a lone image on each page will blend visuality with the potentiality of each page turn.



[1] Met Museum [2] South Bank Center (web archive)

Wikimedia Commons- Eadweard Muybridge


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Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or on Instagram.


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