If you ever tell people you are a photographer you will inevitably be met with the question 'what kind? Fashion, glamour, street..?' - as if you can be only one of these things. I always found the question to be difficult, because I never really specialised and my answer (“uhm, bit of this, bit of that”) seemed weak. The question seemed to diminish me. As I suppose, any kind of categorisation or labelling always diminishes people.
But then, photography is so very broad, that it is quite impossible to declare yourself a photographer of all things; one lifetime is simply not enough to acquire all of the specialist skills, techniques and tools to master every possible expression of the photographic pursuit. So it is important to understand what kind of photographer you are (or want to be); if you are to concentrate your efforts.
There are many hundreds of different 'types' of photography that arise from five fundamental concerns:
Depiction (falsity vs objective vs subjective truth)
Purpose (commerce versus 'art')
Subject (eg. People, Places, Events...)
Technique (eg. Noir, High-Key, Multiple-Exposure...)
Equipment (eg. Macro, Lomo, Analogue...)
These five concerns define a photographer's identity. Or identities. We are, after all, fluid creatures – most especially with regards to identity. You may well be many types of photographer, just depending on what's going on in your life at a given moment. But it is worth understanding your various identities; as that will allow you to develop appropriate skills – and purchase the right equipment.
These fundamental concerns are not really separate things, they can overlap partially or completely. Commercial work is certainly capable of artistic expression, just as artistic works can be highly commercial. They are not really about creating schisms, rather they help to be clear about what is most important in the production of a work.
That said the closest thing to a schism in photography lies in our approach to Depiction – the nature of truth; that the camera never lies. Except of course that it does. Or can.
cos there's no compromise
When the negative is dryBucks Fizz, my camera never lies. 1982
Actually, that's not fair. The camera itself is highly objective (in fact lenses are sometimes even given the noun 'objective'; although more often in telescopes and microscopes than cameras). Often this very objectivity is the precursor to a lie. Our belief in the 'fact' of an image can despoil our critical faculty. The camera cannot lie, so surely the images it produces must be 'the truth'?
Not so. Obviously the context in which we see an image (the associated newspaper headline perhaps) can twist the truth from the camera into a lie. But less obviously, the very decision on what to, or not to, include in the image can lead to deliberate misinterpretation of 'the truth'. As can point of view and lens perspective. Take a look at this article on diyphotography.net for a really clear case in point.
There are three possible relationships a photographer may have with 'photographic truth':
Falsity: Accept and revel in the power to create deceitful works
Objectivity: Suppress the camera's ability to present 'distorted' views – as much as possible
Subjectivity: Seek to present 'greater truths', using the camera to illustrate not replicate the world
Subjective or Objective Truth?
Jeremy Corbyn as you never saw him in the media despite photojournalists' many ethical charters.
The truthful or deceitful nature of any image can be debated at great length – as can the nature of truth itself. But that doesn't matter. What does matter is the photographer's intent. Or their identity.
The photographic avenues (purpose) open to a photographer are (to an extent) prescribed by their relationship with the truth.
Photojournlistic Paparazzi, Advertising and so-called 'spirit' photographers have perhaps a dsyfunctional relationship with the truth.
Other photojournalists, documentarians and 'street' photographers are supposed to greatly value objective truth (consider photo-journalisme's ethical examples). Reality often falls short of such ideals. Perhaps more so when the documentarian moves into fields that contain inherent agendas, such as the humanists and the conservationists; which is fine, as relationships – especially with the truth – are quite complex.
Perhaps macro, astro-, medical, science, forensic and post-mortem photographers have the strongest commitment to objective photographic truth (but then, they too are people, so that commitment will vary!)
Abstract, conceptualism, pictorialism and the best of erotic works seek to represent subjective truths.
Again, it should be clear that these distinctions (falsity vs objective vs subjective truth) are not hard and fast, the lines between them are pretty blurred. Which is as it should be, this allows each of us to find our own unique and personal position within the spectrum. And that position drives the Depiction and Purpose of our photographic identities.
Just about anything can be the subject of a photograph so there are as many 'types' of photography as there are things to photograph. It is very common for a photographer to be defined by what they choose to shoot – and finding an under represented class of subject is perhaps the easiest way for a photographer to distinguish themselves within the herd. The problem here is that a subject may be under represented simply because it has limited appeal – people may not care for such imagery. But in this internet age it is relatively easy to connect with like minded people who perhaps do want to pour over your collection of photographs of cast iron drainage covers...
Alternatively you can enter a crowded space (such as street photography) and aim to become distinguished by dint of mastery or else through the use of novel techniques and equipment within that field. For example the received wisdom with regards street photography is to shoot from the hip with a pre-focussed wide angle (35mm) lens under natural sunlight – so why not use a long lens and shoot at night under street lights?
Our photographic identities emerge initially from our relationship with the truth which positions us within one or more purposes. Our identities then distinguish us through choice of subject, technique and equipment.
I wish I had known even some of this when I were a nipper and folk would ask me what kind of photographer I am. But then it may have been somewhat precocious to answer that I am a subject agnostic noir photographer of artistic subjective truth; seeking to express the beauty of mundanity.
And just to wrap this up, here's my mega-list of types of photography; not all of which I have as yet tried my hand at: