Using history to shape the ‘now’

My project for this week is focused on typologies and swanky shops in Tokyo, air-conditioning the streets by leaving the doors open, could be the perfect subject to focus on.

History has lessons for us all. Japan is living through a large one right now. My hope is that the right people can learn from current events and plan a way forward for the country to properly learn from them, avoiding the same mistakes being made again in the future. We’ll see.

As far as how the history of photography can teach us 21st Century snappers about interesting ways of capturing the world around us, this week I want to introduce to you the concept of photographic ‘typology’.

Typology is by definition the study of ‘types’; types of building, people, dogs, types of chicken, types of irresponsible business-owner and their shops…… etc etc

Good article on typology here.

Oddly, or not perhaps, the three greatest exponents of the photographic end of typology were all German: August SanderBernd and Hilla Becher. The Bechers are widely credited with having coined the term ‘typology’ in a photography context but Sander’s work came earlier and is undoubtedly a typology. Sander was concerned with people. The Bechers with things.

Sander’s portraits – shot to a set of hierarchies he drew up – offer a cross-section of society in the Weimar Republic of inter-war Germany. If he shot farmers, Sander would have a list of the types of farmer subjects he wanted to cover in his pictures: the head farmer, the junior farmers, the farmer’s son, the junior farm-workers. He photographed notaries, porters, chefs. Many of his later works are such that the person in the picture occupies the same amount of space, shot from the same angle, in every picture… thereby creating a set of pictures which can easily be visually cross-referenced and judged for similarities and differences.

August Sander

Two shots, above, by August Sander: gamekeepers. There are better ones but they are hard to find on the web. Have a hunt around for his shots of the chef and porters.

Berndt and Hilda Becher are our more our models for this project and here is some of their work:

Here’s a more contemporary approach to the typology, from EveryThing Freezes Photography in the UK.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it is to create a typology in Tokyo. It could be manhole covers [but that’s sort of been done to death by people already], or road cones, or vending-machines, or the recycling bins that go next to the vending-machines. It could be love hotels, Nissan Cube cars, mums pushing prams.

Or, it could be of shops who leave their doors open and the air-conditioning on… despite us being on the brink of blackouts and after having been asked to use our electricity sparingly.

This piece in the Economist yesterday brings the matter nicely into focus. And I can confirm, having walked through Marunouchi yesterday on my way to a shoot, that a lot of those stores do in fact have their doors wide-open and are blithely air-conditioning the street. Nice for a split-second as you walk past, to get a blast of cool air. But then, a split-second later, you stop: hey, wait a minute, why should some swanky boutique be getting away with behaving like that when my family are sweating our arses off at home and feeling guilty every time we use an appliance? Our youngest son is 16months old. I finally caved-in the other night and used the A/C for an hour, as Charlie had a heat-rash from sleeping in a room that was too hot.

And yet shops selling handbags for $2000 think they are above all of this hideous sweating? Erh, how awful. Only poor people sweat. Well, Ralph Lauren: screw you.

So, totally up to you what subject matter you choose but I am keen to have someone out there do a typology of these establishments.I’ll even try and get some publicity and an exhibition for whoever does it.

Here’s the brief and the guidelines for the Photographic Typology project:

  1. Pick a subject, could be people or things. Pick something that you can find readily enough in Tokyo.
  2. Try and shoot each example in the same way. The Becher’s shots above serve as the best example of this I could out in front of you.
  3. Lighting, exposure, framing… all these things should be consistent. Decide on colour or black and white and stick to it for every shot. What we are looking for here is a way to compare and contrast the subjects without the vagaries of style and individual techniques for each shot getting in the way. What was so special about the Bechers’ work was that it, for the first time in photography, took the clinical, forensic approach outside of the Police crime lab and into the world. Their photography is dispassionate, even bland – as some have suggested.
  4. How to send in your shots: please make them JPEG and no bigger than 1280 pixels on the long side. You can email them, up to a limit of 8mb on one email please, to

No time limit but whoever decides to do the Air Conditioning the Streets version of this project; please get the images to me as soon as you can.

Here’s one Paul Church shot in Koenji yesterday: local shops, all with their air-con at full blast and the doors open. Point of note is that, to be fair, a lot of these shops don’t have doors… i.e. the whole front of the shop is open to the outside. Nicely done though, Paul. Not an easy project to tackle to the point of making each shot feel the same, so that we compare the shops and so that composition, framing, colour, style of the shot becomes immaterial.

Click to see it large.


Thanks folks. Have fun.

About Japanorama

Japanorama is run by British professional photographer, Alfie Goodrich, and provides practical photography teaching in Tokyo. Weekly workshops, group and one-to-one lessons bring together photographers of all ages and abilities.

We also welcome submissions of photos and articles for this site, so please get in touch via our contact page. Thanks. © 2015 All Rights Reserved

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