The Genre of Photography: A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words
Malibu Creek State Park is cold at night. Despite the gloves, beanies, several sweatshirts and Under Armor attire we packed, the icy breeze slipped into our collars, cuffs, and between the stitches in our coats.
We travelled an hour inland in the middle of the October night to capture an interesting art idea I had read about online, called steel wool exposures. What you do, is take steel wool, a material used for cleaning and sanding, and insert it into a cooking whisk. You then tie a string to the end of the whisk, and light the wool on fire. What happens next, is the best part: steel wool reacts to heat by bursting with sparks. When you spin steel wool over your head, sparks shower all around you into a majestic rain of fire. If he times it right, a photographer can create the illusion of an explosion of fire-rain.
We were going to Malibu Creek to get a reflection of the sparks off the water. We helped my roommate into my 3mm thick wetsuit, and he dove into the cold, dark abyss. I balanced the $1200 camera on a half-submerged rock, and snapped away. Many hours of broken equipment, chapped lips, bruises, and burns later, we emerged with a few great photographs.
The key here is that I used the internet to figure this out. Without the use of online forums, photo examples, camera specs, advice, and countless of other sources, there is no way I would’ve been able to accomplish anything that night. The photography community mentored me.
Moments like these will come to be shared by tens of thousands of others who too call themselves photo-takers. Different types of photography occupy different ‘genres’, these ones are called long exposures, while another kind may occupy one called portraiture. As a discourse community, a group with shared values, goals, lexis, participation methods, and expertise, it is obligated to occupy a genre of communication (Swales 24-26). Photography makes up a discourse community, inherently named a community of practice, as it is brought together by the practice of photography.
All discourse communities occupy ‘genres’ of communication, and by genre, I mean any classification you may encounter. As Kerry Dirk, a genre theorist, simplifies: genres are things we encounter and are quite familiar with, not from what they are, but from the response they illicit from us. She uses the analogy of a chick-flick versus a horror movie, as one will give us dreamy sighs and another will give us nail-biting fear, respectively (Dirk 254). Genres serve a purpose of managing our expectations as readers, viewers, appreciators, and other types of -ers.
That being said, genre is being discussed by many as more than just a form of classification. Amy Devitt, a professor at University of Kansas, writes “text and textual meaning, whether literary or rhetorical, are not objective and static but rather dynamic and created through the interaction of writer, reader, and context” (Devitt 699). What this means is that genre transcends the simple ‘chick-flick vs. horror’ idea, and towards the idea that genres are created by writers, readers, and its context. But how does this apply to the way photographers communicate?
To be completely frank, most photographers communicate like so:
Or like this:
Instagram and Flickr are some of the most common photography sharing websites out there, which often times incite a lot of conversation. What is unique about Flickr, is that it shares the specs and settings that the camera used while the photo was taken, using data taken from the photograph’s ‘metadata’, essentially it’s extra unnecessary information. David Crandall explains in an article outlining Flickr’s social ties using GeoTags, “photos uploaded to Flickr include the time at which the photo was taken, as reported by a clock in the digital camera, and many photos are geo-tagged with a latitude-longitude coordinate” (Crandall 22436). It often looks like this:
This type of information occupies a genre within photography that outlines the specific goal that is: photographers aim to improve by basing their work off of others. The settings at which a camera captures a picture determines how a picture will look through how bright/dark it is (also called a photo’s exposure), it’s depth of field (how flat or deep does the picture appear), and it’s grain (the noisy little dots that pop up when a camera’s sensitivity is bumped to high levels). This information is critical to finding the quality and the equipment necessary for capturing a good image.
Sounds simple right? Maybe so, or probably not, but how does this play into genre?
Camera specs are normally given in a very technical format. Here is an example from an online forum called Reddit, where photographers share and discuss their images:
Notice the text “f/3.5 774.4 sec 28 mm ISO 100”. This kind of text is common among photography discussions, and it, similar to what Devitt says, is dynamic in the sense that it invokes several things: it gives the reader a sense of what was necessary to take the picture.
He now knows that the photographer left the shutter open for 774.4 seconds in order to capture the shot, and was likely standing pretty close to his subject, as 28mm of focal length (the size of the lens) is relatively small. He knows that the picture would have very little grain, because ISO 100 is an extremely low setting of sensitivity, and f/3.5 means the lens was open wide.
While this would occupy a genre that you could call “photography talk”, what it does is transcend to give the reader a visual for what was necessary to capture an image. The overall goal of photography is to create art that invokes a response. The art within itself has its own genre, but from a literary point of view, I can now see what lengths the creator went to, to capture the image that he has shown me. A linguist and anthropologist named William Hanks notes about communities of practice, “a key element in any practice-based theory of discourse is the grounding of generic works in their indexical context”, and continues to say “indexical centering is a primary part of the interpretation of discourse because it connects the evaluative and semantic code with the concrete circumstances of its use” (Hanks 682). By pointing out the “indexical context” of the works, being the time, place, and conditions of the work, he insists it is pivotal in connecting the work itself to its purpose.
Let’s take my own, quite recent photo as an example:
I took this photo in Joshua Tree National Park. I sat in the ice cold desert until 4:30AM, when the moon had disappeared to give the sky the most amount of clarity I could get. I placed my camera beneath a large Joshua tree, and set my camera settings to f/3.5, 30 sec at 28mm and 1600 ISO.
What this tells a reader within the photography community, is I opened my lens wide, and sat behind my camera for 30 seconds beneath this large tree in the middle of the night. What this will give a fellow photographer is an opportunity to capture a similar image of a tree and the Milky Way with similar settings. He now knows what it takes to create the same amount of art.
This information, when coupled with a photograph, exemplifies some interesting points. It shows the art; the photograph is the most important part, it is the primary medium for the creator to communicate with his/her subjects. The information itself, is like a ‘behind the scenes’ of the creation. Many photographers spend tens of thousands of dollars for great equipment, travel thousands of miles, and endure brutal conditions to capture images.
Pointing out the ‘behind the scenes’ really exposes several goals and values of photography. For one, to experience the world. There are many travel bloggers who take pictures and write about their adventures to give people a sense that they could too experience incredible places. They do it to show perspective. While a certain view of a subject may not really show its beauty, another can give it a sense of scale, or show its inner workings. Many times, like a painting, it is to create something from nothing. An ugly view of a Los Angeles skyscraper enveloped in smog can embody a blank canvas, the camera can be a paintbrush, and the person behind the lens can be the painter.
What goes into a piece of art transcends visual art like photography, painting, dance, etc. An English composer named Alexander Brent-Smith says it himself:
“Is there any man so entirely lacking in curiosity that he has no desire to go behind the scenes and find out how the trick is done? If you plant a young tree in a field, before you have had time to fence it round, a clumsy cow, prompted by a desire for knowledge, will have pushed it down, to discover, I suppose, how it managed to stand upright” (Brent-Smith 214).
What’s interesting, is a simple couple numbers and letters of technical writing, such as f/3.5 1/250 sec at 35mm ISO 400, Joshua Tree NP at 4:00AM can tell an entire story on its own.
Just as Ansel Adams himself said, “a good photograph is knowing where to stand” (Min P.1)
The ability to adapt and evolve is a fundamental skill in photography. Adaptation is the embodiment of a primary goal of the photography community: to be progressive. Pushing the envelope to face new challenges and accept new technologies is pivotal; as a result, criticism is a major genre in photography, as both an improvement mechanism and a form of intercommunication between members.
There are hundreds of photography forums, however as Reddit is a great open-source forum for all members. Here is a screenshot of an image and a response:
The feedback here reads: “Slightly crooked horizon is distracting, but I love everything else!”
This one came as a bit of a shock to me. The original photo is absolutely breathtaking–the subject is almost perfectly center with incredible colors and great contrast, easily enough to make anyone do a double take. So why should there be feedback?
A technical part of taking photographs is maintaining a ‘horizon’, the line in the background that makes a picture appear flat (Rowse P.1). In this photo, it is just slightly crooked. However, with such an amazing photograph, what is the purpose of this correction?
It maintains a few important goals of the community, in this case, maintaining the artistic aspect. While it’s easy to say the picture’s good enough, the horizon can distract from the subject, in this case the sea turtle. Maintaining technical aspects of photography through group consensus and criticism is what keeps common goals standard throughout the community.
Here is another photo, this time exemplifying a progressive touch of photography called a lens flare:
The criticism reads: “Tried and true type of photo, but probably because of that quite boring to look at. Try alternate framings and different angles. The lens flare is a nice touch, but shooting against the light lowered your contrast and the skin tones look a bit off, kind of pasty.”
Similar to the last example, this criticism addresses the creator’s framing, angles, and technical mistakes. However, he mentions the lens flare; lens flares are when a bright light hits the lens in a certain way that it makes the picture look foggy. Similar to what you would see in a bright explosion. This is visible behind the subject’s head, where the sun is behind the trees.
Lens flares in the past have been notoriously regarded as a mistake by the camera operator or directors in movies, although in recent times have been seen as artistic and creative (Wakeman P.3). Here is a recent picture by famous surf and travel photographer Chris Burkard:
Lens flares are relatively new to being regarded as a creative illusion, and in recent times are being used more often. This shows that the genre of criticism goes beyond simple technical changes to being a massive contributor to the community’s goals, both outlining the importance of technicality in shooting photos and bringing forth progressive ideas into the medium.
Photographers, like all discourse communities, have to find a way to communicate on a bigger stage and more tangible medium other than photos themselves, so using formats such as online forums does wonders for the community as a whole. In forums, photographers can organize goals, recognize art, and form progressive movements all throughout simple numbers and phrases.
Just like how a kid with a little too much free time on the weekends can do a simple google search to find a new photography idea, a community can turn a few simple characters of letters and numbers into an entire backstory, a pallet of goals, lists of standards, and a movement to follow.
Brent-Smith, Alexander. “On Going Behind the Scenes.” The Musical Times 66.985 (1925). 214–215. Web.
Crandall, David J. et al. “Inferring Social Ties from Geographic Coincidences.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107.52 (2010). 22436–22441. Web.
Devitt, Amy J. “Integrating Rhetorical and Literary Theories of Genre.” College English 62.6 (2000). 696-718. Web.
Dirk, Kerry. “Navigating Genres.” Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing. Eds. Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky. Parlor Press. (2010). 249-262. Web.
Hanks, William F. “Discourse Genres in a Theory of Practice.” American Ethnologist 14.4 (1987). 668–692. Web.
Min, Min. “A Good Photograph Is Knowing Where to Stand.” Photography Tricks. Photography Tricks, 14 February 2015. 17 April 2016. Web.
Rowse, Darren. “Getting Horizons Horizontal.” Digital Photography School. Digital Photography School, 2016. 27 April 2016. Web.
Swales, John. “The Concept of Discourse Community.” Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. 21-32. Web.
Wakeman, Gregory. “How Many Lens Flares Are In J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Movies?” CinemaBlend. CinemaBlend, 2015. 27 April 2016. Web.