Thursday, October 4, 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.