Bechers, Gursky,

November 17, 2006

I’ve recently come across, and I think it’s a fascinating evolution of typology in images. Riya has developed the site from their existing image search engine. It’s a nice provocation to think a bit about how visual typologies have developed through photography.

Bernd and Hilla Becher have been photographically indexing distinct types of industrial architecture, including watertowers, industrial facades, blast furnaces and so on, for the past forty years. They have a rigorous standard for the type of architecture they photograph, point of view and quality of print. Their groupings, such as the one below, gather variations into a typology and enable an all-over view of an architectural form. The mind can play at abstracting form by way of the grouped individual images.


Andreas Gursky, perhaps the most renowned of the Becher’s students, has moved away from the Becher’s rigorous method of working in series, but I find his photograph Untitled V to be pretty relevant here. Two hundred and four different sneakers face the same direction, lit identically. Gursky condenses the Becher series into a single image.


To my knowledge, this display was fabricated for the photograph – an abstraction of a store. Let’s try a little contrast here: the Bechers travel (Europe, America) to photograph on location, and then arrange their separate prints together in books or on the wall to create a typology. Gursky internalizes the process – here he creates a set in which variations can be displayed together as a typology. Not only that, but Gursky has chosen product as his subject, and brought his variations together in the spectacular moment of commercial display. Still, it’s a photograph. introduces an entirely new dimension to the visual typology. The underlying search technology developed by Riya is actually mathematically analyzing each image. This is a way of quantifying the image and objectively determining relationships between images. The new, beta version of is a commercial website, you can search for and purchase shoes, handbags and jewelry. The screen shot below is an example of my search for red high heels.

red high heels

Cute. What I find so exciting is the power of searching via images. You can start your search from a keyword, or from a photo of a celebrity. Let’s say you start from a picture of Tyra Banks wearing those knee high boots you’re really lusting after. A grid of possible boots will come up, like the screenshot above. Clicking on any image will search for images “like” your choice – say, you want to focus on ones made out of tan pleather with more of a stacked heel. There are scads of designers churning out zillions of different variations of this type of boot, so your search returns hundreds of slightly different results.

This is perfect for shoes: you know there’s a ton of similar-but-different options out there, at all sorts of price ranges, levels of coolness and colors. But usually there’s no way to get a sense of this field of possibilities except by schlepping around to the shops. With you can visually identify the qualities you are after, and by clicking on examples steer the search in different directions. Kind of an uber-Gursky-sneaker-shop, functional too.

Dear Bechers, methinks the web is taking your work a few steps further. What if we could click on one of those cute German houses to search ONLY for houses with chimneys down the center of the façade (bottom right house)??? Let’s not worry about the frivolity or cheese factor of It’s fitting to start with shoes (!) and clear that this technology can be eventually extended to many different types of applications. All sorts of image information can be analyzed and made available in a database. This is the visual typology in an expanded field – it is finally becoming possible to search, process, and think our own typology for our own ends.


One Response to “Bechers, Gursky,”

  1. Yannig Says:

    very good post about photography. I just come back from a Pinault exhibition in Dinard (Brittany, France) in which UNTITLED V was displayed. The photography is very impressive, not only by its size (185,5*442,6cm) but also by it’s power of attraction. People are familiar with shoes, with the brands of the shoes and with this shelf-like presentation. The parallel you make with online stores is very relevant.
    Just to precise your thought about the way the artist proceded : actually he set up the “shelf”, shot several photos and assembled the photos to a single one. At the end, he destroyed the “spot” (I don’t know what he did with the shoes actually).

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