Photography The Key concepts – David Bate (2009)

David Bate presents an in depth wide view on photographic theory across the past 150+ years in a way that whilst as a whole is daunting, and frankly now I have come to the end hard to remember, it is also very well structured and developed throughout. I found myself being able to grasp each of the discussions, insight and theories well before Bate develop that further with each chapter building on the previous. The only disappointment was that I felt it was building to a Summery chapter that would bring all the ideas together and recap in away that cements the themes in mind.

For me, I feel that one of the biggest takeaways from this book is the natural cyclic and iterative development of the arts throughout the ages. Bates brings in concepts from Art History, Psychology, Sociology and various other sources to build a network of sources to support the points he raises on the development off art in different times and regions.

Another benefit has been the ‘naming’ of different types of theories and supporting sources for concepts I had encountered previously or absorbed from a variety of places but which I couldn’t articulate or reference. I found that extremely helpful and encouraging as I read through the book that I would start making notes about ideas and then find I had pretty much grasped the very concept he was communicating before he had summarised it, whether that is down to past experience or the writing skills of Bate I couldn’t say.

Essentially, and this is a rather long and detailed book to try and summarise, David Bate is introducing the main skills and knowledge required in the ‘Reading’ of images.

Bate writes about the introduction of genres as a systematic way to catalogue and categorise images whilst also controlling the reach and use of a medium, and relate it back to painting. Bate also recognises that genres help the viewer understand the narrative of images through our understanding of that label as context, one which is mutable across time and culture.

Historic understanding of art is also another large part of Bate’s writing, the frequent reinterpretation past ideas, homage, influence and cultural understanding influenced by the past all play parts in the understanding of the intention of an artist. Also the history of the medium itself and the purposes for its creation or curation at that point in time.

Another substantial aspect of the book is the reinterpretation of language through photographic mediums. Such as, the concept of semiotics referring to the signifiers, what the sign is, and signified, what the sign referee to. Essentially a referential visual language which is based in the cultural context of the artist, universal in ways and highly localised in others. Also, Codes and Rhetorics, our preconceptions about what we see based on icons or tones etc but also how these are arranged to influence the viewer.

Psychology also plays a large part in Bate’s writing, mainly referencing Freud and his theories referencing voyeurism, desire, narcissism, recognition, repetition and scopophilia, but also touching on early photographic theories of identifying traits through facial features and similarities, leading in part to eugenics theories.

Tying all these different aspects together into one coherent theory of photography is now easy task and maybe that is why we don’t see a defining chapter, here I only covered the very basic foundations as Bate writes extensively about how each of the different interpretational theories apply to main genres and sub-genres alike. This in a way unifies the concepts as we see repetition of the points across each chapter.

Essentially Bate’s is outlining key points of understanding for the reading of images;

  • Cultural, historic, geographic, and contextual understanding of the medium and genre
  • The same understanding but of the artist
  • The same understanding but of previous works within the medium and genre
  • The same understanding but of art outside the medium or genre
  • The knowledge of key connotations and associations of the techniques of the medium
  • The knowledge of key connotations of the artworks placement
  • The knowledge of the objective of the project and curator/producer
  • The knowledge of the objective of the creator
  • The knowledge of how the artwork was created
  • The ability to combine the knowledge into an understanding of the rhetoric or narrative
  • the awareness of the viewers own biases

Bate’s does not proclaim that all these requirements must be fulfilled to understand artwork but, as I myself have found, that more diverse and developed the viewer’s understanding is the more they can take from the image and, in some ways, the gaps in knowledge allows for a more personal connection with the narrative.

Overall I have learnt so much from this text, I have a better understanding of the different paradigms, genres and sub-genres of art, a better understanding of the historical importance and influence of different artists and images and more confidence in my ability to read and create an image.

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