Interview with Professor David Bate

ART.ZIP: I have to admit that the concept of studying photography in China still limits it to its techniques and commercial functions. Can you tell us what are the key concepts of photographic studies and what is the importance of understanding photography history and theory?

DB: Photographs are a crucial component in the way a society sees itself. The complex technological origins of photography in chemistry, optics (mathematics) and image composition has meant that teaching photography has inherited a rather technical orientation. Yet today it is possible to be a photographer with very little technical knowledge, or even none at all!

Automated cameras replace many of the skills that were taught before. Certainly, teaching the electronic components of photography are important as ‘how’ photographs are made, but the other important questions are ‘what’ pictures you make and ‘why’? What are they for, what is their purpose? This is not a purely technical question.

Most amateur photography is still governed by nineteenth century ideas of ‘good composition’. These ideas in photography, were first developed through reference to theories of European ‘pictorial’ painting, and worked out in Pictorialism, the first global movement of art photography. These ideas spread across the world from Europe and the USA in the late nineteenth century, along with the technology of photography. From this brief excursion into history, you can see that the history of photography as a history of ideas about photography is surely important.

These questions about what the photographs are being made for (and why) relate to this wider historical and cultural environment of photography, the history of ideas about photography, notably realism (journalism and documentary), of persuasion (advertising and propaganda) and all of these along with ‘personal expression’ in art. If education is to mean anything it is to develop a knowledge and understanding of the forms of practice that a student may encounter in day-to-day life. These practices form a general context for students to consider their work. By understanding the context, they can understand better how to act in it or even against it. Photographs appear within specific contexts, the family, the state, the media, the street, via different cultural institutions or even across all of these. These ‘contexts’ have an important relation, both in terms of the types of meaning given to photographs by them, but also in the image-language relations. Surely, to understand how photography is enmeshed in these different uses and functions, along with their histories, is a crucial part of photography education.

Theory is distinct from criticism. Theory attempts to identify structural features, whereas criticism is primarily evaluative, often personal and emotive rather than analytical. In this sense the general aim of theory is to establish how ‘meaning’ is communicated (or not) with photography and in particular how specific types of meaning are circulated by photography.

ART.ZIP: 我們不得不承認,中國攝影學習的理念仍然局限在其技術和商業的用途之上,您能告訴我們學習攝影理論的關鍵是什麽?同時,學習攝影史和攝影理論的重要性又在哪裡?

DB: 照片是一個社會自我認知方式的重要組成部分。攝影自發明起便涉及了化學、光學(數學)和圖像組成上的復雜技術,這就意味著攝影教學在一定程度上傳承了這一技術方向的討論。然而,如今人們並不需要很多的攝影技術知識便能成為一個攝影師,即便一無所知也沒有關係。







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