David Bate – Key Concepts

I read ‘Key Concepts’ by David Bate to give me more of an idea about what portrait photography was about. It was recommended to me as a book that would lead to more research because there were so many artists and theorists mentioned in relation to portrait photography. It was interesting to read about the cause and effect that a time period had on photography and how it changed the conventions surrounding it.

‘all portrait photographs are typically made up of four key elements:
– face (including facial expression, hair, etc.) – personal appearance
– pose – manner and attitude, ‘upbringing’
– clothing – social class, sex, cultural values and fashion
– location (or background setting) – social scene of the person in the picture.’
Bate, D (2009) Photography : The Key Concepts, page 73

To put portrait photography into 4 categories brought together aspects that I do unconsciously as a photographer. Having them listed gives more direction and meaning to a portrait. If everyone were to have that list in their mind whenever looking at a portrait photograph, they would be able to read more into it, instead of being drawn into different aesthetics.

‘In his book Art and Photography, Aaron Scharf describes how painters, despite their general hostility towards photography, were more or less obliged to use photographs as the basis for painted portraits and in so doing began to change the conventions of posture and style in their own paintings.’

Bate, D (2009) Photography : The Key Concepts, page 69

This quote just interested me because it showed the use of photography as a referencing source. Even though there was and still is a lot of hostility to photography in certain contexts (the falling man, napalm girl etc), it is still something that teaches us about humanity. Each development in photography changes conventions and it is interesting to see the direct effect it had on painters in the 19th Century.

Sergei Eisenstein famously uses the close-up of a clenched fist (a general convention) to signify that a person is angry. In Eisenstein, this metonymical signifier expresses the anger, not only of that individual person but of a whole social group too (a body of revolutionary workers). In contrast, a relaxed, open hand might signify passivity, i.e. death or sleep.
Bate, D (2009) Photography : The Key Concepts. page 74

The question of how much can be ‘read’ from an image of a thing depicted is an ancient discussion and goes back to Plato and his distrust of surface visual appearances.
Bate, D (2009) Photography : The Key Concepts

In conclusion, this book provided to be a great research source to further my understanding of portrait photography throughout time, and to understand where certain convention like the clenched fist had on photography. I have found it incredibly useful to read around whatever I am doing because it gives more direction and more assurance that there is need for what I’m doing. Hearing about Plato’s distrust for visual appearances only makes me want to establish that trust even more, so that my collaboration in the portrait is one shows a true visual appearance, and inspires people to see their humanity, and become more interested in my project.


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