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David Bate

Photography: the key concepts
David Bate

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Bate, D. (2016) Photography, the key concepts (2nd. edn.). London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Bate is a Prof Phot at Westminster U. and author of Photography: the key concepts, one of my Standard Six. But that is not why we are here.

There is an interview in the Summer 2020 edition of fLIP in which Prof. Bate reveals himself to be an entertaining and frivolous and no-nonsense photographer, as well as the photo-theoretician we already admired.

Here is a pdf of the interview - there is mention of an extended version on the LIP website but I have not found it yet.

There are a few quotes that I would like to share.

When asked about looking at photographs, he says,

There are probably three modes of looking. One is like everyone else: a transient casual everyday looking, that is, browsing across screens of one sort or another, the images that are part of something, a magazine, advertising billboard, gallery wall, etc. A second is that of a 'concerned viewer', someone who looks in a bit more detail because something about an image interests, fascinates and causes you to look twice. Then a third mode, which comes from art and art history, looking at an image more intently as a mode of analysis, following the way your own eyes and mind drift around it and, at the same time, thinking about what it is that you are looking at, how it is organised, what the eye is drawn to in the different aspects of the picture. There are all kinds of different techniques around this, but it is basically an 'analytic' vision. Some artists or photographers squint at a picture to increase its contrast and look at it for longer, art historians will look at the structure of an image, scrutinize the details and bring all these back together to the gestalt or whole meaning of the image. This last 'analytic' vision ought to be used in post-production work too.
Each of these three 'visions' have their own merits and uses, and none are probably only rarely ever completely separated in practice. Davud Bate, fLIP 46, p.25

When asked what inspired his current project, he corrects the interviewer,

I am not sure that saying what 'inspired' me will help anyone with the work, but I suppose you mean: how did it start? Davud Bate, fLIP 46, p.26

That leads us into the book he is working on (Photography as Critical Practice, due out in October, £45), a book of his essays, illustrated with his own photographs.

The start of the project was, simply a broken plate in his kitchen which he photographed, liked, and did it again when something else broke a while later. Observant readers will have noted that his Std6 book has one of these images on teh cover.
The photographs have evocative titles and the interviewer ask about these, specifically the broken wine glass entitle A Political Error. Bate replies that, essentially, the titles are just there to stimulate a reaction from the viewer. Mentioning the symbology of broken artefacts in Hogarth, he continues,

I am doing something similar with photography - without explaining it in the work. I use a 'text' or title to suggest a social dimension to the scene of breakage in the image.

So, the word 'A Political Error' and a broken wine glass - what kind of 'political error' might relate to the situation in which a wine glass is broken? Is it so difficult that the work asks the spectator to speculate on that? But a spectator can also ignore the title and just look at the picture and perhaps even enjoy just looking at it. I would say that is also a legitimate right in art. We have enough social situations already which dictate to us what a picture means or what we should do with it in advertising, newspapers, online and so on. It is legitimate to do what you want or like with an image in a gallery. It is also legitimate for me as an artist to add another level to the work for anyone who wants it, not to 'explain' the image, but to offer another space for reflection, for a social imagining about it. If someone wants to just look at the images, fine, they will see a whole set of broken objects - which is not so common to see in still life photography. They might just think 'this guy breaks a lot of things', or something else, like 'I like that one, but not that one'. I think this process in art of 'not-knowing' what something means, is often used to criticize art, as in 'I don't know what that means', which means either 'it is stupid' because it makes me feel stupid' or elitist because I don't know what it means. Art and the experience of it is really about becoming active as a spectator in relation to a picture, where we have to do the work to think about what it is for, which is something we are not encouraged to do elsewhere.

Of course, anyone is entitled to think or say anything they want; however, this is why art is also so important. Because of the fact that the meaning is not given in art, it is so alien to other areas of social life. We should not Jose this possibility to dream, as a political act of reflection.

So, I add the titles for those who do or don't want to read them, because I want the work to have several levels of potential meaning, if anyone wants it. In any case the text-titles do not add or fix the picture's meaning, they offer another space: for a day-dreaming, perhaps outside of capitalism.

Davud Bate, fLIP 46, pp.27-8

The interview ends with the question, 'What are some your favourite photographs?'

A difficult question ... there are so many and depending on when you'd ask me a different answer. Probably any of the classics, from Fox Talbot to Atget and Berenice Abbot to early Cindy Sherman. I have an image on my wall by Paul Nouge the Belgian surrealist from his work the Subversion of the Image. Davud Bate, fLIP 46, p.31

Time to look for Nougé.

David Bate David Bate David Bate David Bate David Bate David Bate
1. title n/k (book cover)
2. A Badly Handled Thought
3. The Wrong Idea
4. A Political Error
5. Forgetting a Foreign Word
6. Mistaken Memory
© David Bate


Bate, D. (2016) Photography, the key concepts (2nd. edn.). London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Misra, A. (2020) Where is Photography Headed? fLIP. Issue 46, pp.22-31.

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