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Zsolt Bátori: Towards a Theory of Photographic Genres

The 19th Congress of the International Association for Aesthetics, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland, July 21-27, 2013.

ABSTRACT. Photographic genres seem to be unproblematic for at least two reasons. First, we can easily enumerate a number of photographic genres, such as documentary photography, fashion photography, fine art photography, landscape, cityscape, portrait, nude, abstract photography, experimental photography, lomography, photogram, and the like. Second, we usually encounter photographs that are already categorized into one or another genre in the context of their use; therefore we rarely have to ask ourselves whether or not they are in the right category.
In my talk I  argue that once we reflect on the system of photographic genres, the issue becomes considerably more complex. The usual photographic genre categories used by photographers, galleries, critics, art historians, various agents of the creative industries, and even aestheticians, are, for the most part ad hoc. The categories are based on quite distinct criteria. For instance, there are categories of subjects (e.g., landscape, cityscape, portraits), categories based on the method of execution (e.g., experimental photography, lomography, photogram), categories based on the emotion elicited by the photographs (nude, nature photography, shocking photographs), categories based on the cognitive content of the photographs (e.g., glitch art photographs and conceptual works), and there are categories that are based on the intended use of the photographs (e.g., fashion photography and photojournalism). There may well be further types of categories, based on other aspects of the contemporary photography scene, but even the short list above demonstrates that the genre categorizations are – for the most part – ad hoc, formulated in the course of various developments in the history of photography. It is also apparent that many photographs may belong to several categories at the same time; therefore, ascribing a genre to a given photographic work may be problematic at times. The status of photography as art (or fine art photography, as some may call it) is not easily fitted in this list of categories or category types either.

In my talk I rely on a number of examples to illustrate the problematic nature of the received genre categories of photography, and I  suggest a new method of formulating a system of photographic genres. The suggestion is based on some of the early attempts of extending the theory of speech acts to pictorial communication. With the help of the initial types of categories mentioned above, I  argue that a developed theory of picture acts may provide us with a more relevant framework of genre categories in photography.


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