I regard genres as a starting point of expectation. But perhaps the specific use of genre as a concept is in a historical context, to acknowledge what has come before. In a similar sense to citations and references, it is a self-awareness for the artist and subsequently the spectator that works of art one has created have origins from elsewhere. In having established a genre it helps to know that the work of art is a continuum of a point of view that has been crafted or explored before in order to expand the spectrum of possibilities.
Genres also allow the artist to differentiate one body of work from another to establish a certain philosophical perspective the photograph will be produced from. A genre helps to ground the viewer as the operator seeks to "encode their concepts of the world into images." (Flusser, 1983/2000, p.45). It is in the knowledge of images containing codes, a genre offers a sense of familiarity to the viewer that allows the interrogation to focus on decoding the image.
One example of a photographer who utilises conventional genres to establish a base in which to investigate a subject is Thomas Ruff. His work has frequently altered course over the years since his initial Portraits series (see fig. 1.). This first body of work takes the genre portraiture which predates photography and on first glance there is nothing 'new' going on here. The lighting is not dynamic, expressions are flat. But Ruff's encoding is to embody the conventions of passport-like photographs. Using a large format camera allows the normally thumbnail print to upscale to fit into the museum/gallery space. I have never seen the series in full scale but that will potentially create an imposing stature of the photograph and the subject.
More recently for the series ma.r.s.(see fig. 2.) Ruff sourced images directly from the NASA website. Here Ruff is working with the archive and creating a new context to scientific documents. While the series' greatly diverge in genre, appropriation and context, Diane Smith for BJP says the common thread in his work is that he "probes the structure of images" (Smith, 2017). I would add to that a strong sense of craftsmanship is a commonality so that concept doesn't dominate the end result. Ruff, I could propose has a similar way of working as Hiroshi Sugimoto who I have earlier acknowledged. My only criticism of both would be that the work tends to be conceived with filling the white wall in mind. Large prints that suit institutional museology create in my mind the perception that this is the purpose of the work, not what it is exploring.
Having a broader purpose in artistic practice allows the chance to utilise genre as a technical choice in creating a series. I would suggest that the more successful work such as Ruff and Sugimoto show a deep level of appreciation of what has gone before in a genre in order to offer a useful variation to the catalogue of possibilities.
Flusser, V (1983/2000) Towards a Philosophy of Photography. London: Reaktion.
Smith, D. (2017) ‘From the BJP Archive: Thomas Ruff’ In: BJP [online] At: http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/09/from-the-bjp-archive-thomas-ruff/ (Accessed on 04.09.18).
List of illustrations
Figure 1. Ruff, T (1988) Porträt (P Stadtbäumer) [Photograph] At: http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/09/from-the-bjp-archive-thomas-ruff/ (Accessed on 04.09.18)
Figure 2. Ruff, T (2012) 3D_ma.r.s.04 [Photograph] At: https://www.gagosian.com/exhibitions/thomas-ruff--march-08-2012-2/exhibition-images (Accessed on 04.09.18)