Photography The Key Concepts – David Bate.

I missed the opportunity to take advantage of this book whilst writing my paper for the symposium, so I decided to revisit it as part of my research for my FMP. Fortunately, there was a whole chapter named ‘The Rhetoric of Still Life’. A lot of the chapter considered how still-life has become so apparent in advertising yet there were still a couple of points which took my interest relevant to my research.

Bate considers how “still life is one of the most neglected genres, not only in photography but in the history of art… yet paradoxically, still-life images are also some of the most highly rated and revered pictures of all time.” (Bate, 2009: 111). I wasn’t really sure as to why it is seen as neglected, but after realising the potential of the still life image from previous research and the control the photographer (or artist) has, it’s easy to appreciate how they can be admired in such a way. This point made me consider whether the art of still life is under acknowledged, as the book goes on to discuss how advertising has “substantially developed and exploited the still-life photographic category in its own way”. (Bate, 2009: 112). We see advertisements everyday, many of them still life set-ups. However I don’t believe it is fair to argue this is the reason it is considered a neglected genre, as advertising has developed still life in a whole new exciting way. In terms of my project, I am hoping to use the genre to it’s full extent of experimenting with all the possibilities of working with a particular object and creating a meaningful message.

Bate mentioned artists Irving Penn, Edward Weston and Robert Mapplethorpe, describing their work as “more elegant and celebrated still-life pictures by artists who worked in advertising” (Bate, 2009: 117) therefore I decided to research a little into their practice.


(Penn 1967)

Firstly, I came across a series by Irving Penn named Flowers, an assignment from Vogue USA in 1976, which continued every year with Penn focusing on one flower. (Hamiltons 2015). This project particularly took my interest with my focus on photographing the change in seasons/nature. Penn has used a plain white background to enhance the focus on the flowers whilst also photographing from a birds eye angle which I think works really well in terms of highlighting the different shapes and definition of the flowers, nothing is ‘hidden’. This isn’t really an angle which I consider shooting from, I am mostly always photographing from the front but this will be something to consider in future if it will help enhance my images. What I admire about this image is the decaying of the flowers rather than seeing them in full bloom and Penn has still captured the contrasting colours as well as the darker browns to show how they are dying. The textures in the image give a sense of the flowers being delicate and fragile, which is a perfect example of meaning through signs/symbols which I will be trying to capture in my images. If I was able to portray something like this in my images, it may be a good representative how suffers with SAD feel. I also admire the simplicity of the layout of each flower as it does draw the eyes to one more than another, they are equal and can be admired as a whole. This style of image reiterates what I appreciated through Craig Cutler’s work of how powerful a simplistic layout can be, and although the image is not so striking and overpowering, it draws you in subtly to admire all the beautiful detail of the flowers which is something I want to be able to do with my images.


(Weston 1931)

“Between 1927 and 1930, Weston made a series of monumental close-ups of seashells, peppers, and halved cabbages, bringing out the rich textures of their sculpture-like forms.” ( 2015). I find these images by Edward Weston fascinating, as I love textures in images and he captures this amazingly in this photo and those alike. It’s almost hard to believe that this is a cabbage leaf, as the beautiful detail and soft lighting brings out a silky texture, almost making it look like a piece of cloth. The lines throughout the cabbage are beautifully defined to lead the eye throughout the picture, drawing the reader through the contrasting heavy shadows to the lighter area on top, showing the light is coming from above/behind. The framing of the image is quite a close crop drawing the viewers focus tight into the centre of the cabbage leaf with a back background resulting in little/no distraction away from the subject. This has been quite a repetitive theme of simplicity in my research so far and will definitely be something I consider when photographing still life for my project. This work by Weston clarifies I certainly want to experiment with a macro lens to try and capture intriguing textures. What I also noticed with this image was how defining this ‘silky’ texture again suggests the cabbage leaf is quite delicate, similar to Penn’s work. This form of representation will be important to remember when deciding on particular lighting techniques for my own images.


(Mapplethorpe 1989)

I was pleased to come across an album of ‘Flowers’ by Robert Mapplethorpe, and actually found them quite refreshing. Although they are in quite a similar style to Penn and Weston, there was something about them that felt a little different which was intriguing me. I picked this picture of an Anemone out of the series as my favourite for various reasons. Firstly, the beautiful deep purple of the petals caught my attention which stand out dramatically from the black background and draw the viewer in. I think colour will play a huge part of the message I portray in my product as we associate different colours with different times of year, such as reds and browns for autumn, therefore not only will my images be sharing that message but the colour could also represent emotion such as blue for sadness and loneliness. Secondly what draw my attention in was the spike to the left of the flower, possibly the same of a vase, but the sharp geometric shape contrasts interestingly to the organic, angelic shape of the flower. This made me ponder it’s symbolic meaning and representation in the image, and lead me to question whether these type of flowers have thorns. Although I couldn’t seem to find that they do, I did come across the ‘flower meaning’ which explains an anemone “indicates fading hope and a feeling of having been forsaken.” (The Flower Expert 2015). It may possibly be that this sharp spike acts as a reminder of these meanings whilst the flower stands proudly for admiration. Even though this may be completely wrong, it demonstrates how different viewers can draw different messages from a still life image, but more importantly what is included in the frame influences this. This will be one of the most important factors when composing my images and how I can appropriately represent the feelings and emotions of an SAD sufferer and what may be drawn from these images by the viewer. I also like how the background isn’t solid black in this image, with it a little lighter in the lower half. This works effectively by making the purple petals stand out more, but also ‘lifting’ the photo and making it more relaxed. This may be something I want to experiment with when shooting in the studio. 

Bate goes on to explain how “still-life pictures are a little like portraiture: an ‘object’ is depicted from its best angle(s) in front of some sort of background with the camera positioned above, below, neutral or at an angle to the horizon line behind it.” (Bate, 2009: 118). This point really stood out to me as it considers how still life can become portraiture through the composition of the image but also how it is read by the viewer. Often with photographic portraits they are used to define a person, a personality, a story of someone or something, emotion – it has a number of interpretations very similar to still life. However these similarities highlight to me how a message shared through a portrait can also be depicted in a still life image, the emotion captured in a portrait can be captured through still life which is what I am trying to achieve with my project.

In this discussion of usage of simple backgrounds, Bate explains how “the object proposes itself against a background that has a symbolic emptiness…in contrast to this void, the object is made more meaningful and significant, even an object of fantasy.” (Bate, 2009: 119). Following my previous artist research, this point supports my own discussion of a plain background making the object stand out more. It enhances the attention drawn to it and its meaning and as Bate explains, the background pretty much means nothing. Something as simple as this can have a huge affect by the message the still life image shares, as a change in this colour of the background, or a busy surrounding can have quite an affect on it’s representation. This is supported by Bate through “the signs and codes of the photograph trigger connotative processes, which is where the status and value of any object ‘in itself’ is established.” (Bate, 2009: 125). As I have already appreciated, the choice of background will be important in composing my images.

Despite there being a lot of discussion of the use of still life in advertising, this particular chapter has been useful in drawing my attention to some photographer’s work and their style which has influenced my own ideas. It also highlights the importance of the meaning of the objects in a still life image, and how their representation can be influenced by the other aspects/items in the image. Even after shooting my images for my project, it will be important for me to still consider these aspects through the selection process for potential finals as I will be more aware of what message I am trying to share through the image and this may influence my choice. Finally, it intrigued me to consider how Bate argued that still life has become a neglected genre however he later explains how “photographers still have to exercise control over the arrangement of objects, lighting and background and employ the technological system of photography to construct meaning within images, an aim that is often less easily forthcoming than might be expected. Photographers have to use skill to control the rhetorical dimension of the picture, its symbolic meaning, just as painters did in the seventeenth century.” (Bate, 2009: 120). Even as Michael O’Connor discussed in Conceptual Still Life Photography how the trends are always changing in still life photography, the aspects and aim of the image are still very similar to how they were in the beginning of still life paintings.

Bate, D. (2009) Photography The Key Concepts. Oxford: Berg., (2015) Edward Weston – Edward-Weston.Com [online] available from <; [29 January 2015] 

 Hamiltons, (2015) Irving Penn – Flowers [online] available from <; [29 January 2015]

Penn, I. (1967) Flowers [online] available from <; [29 January 2015], (2015) The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation – Flowers [online] available from <; [29 January 2015]

The Flower Expert, (2015) Flower Meanings By Type, Name, Color And Occasion – The Flower Expert [online] available from <; [29 January 2015]

Weston, E. (1931) Cabbage Leaf [online] available from <; [29 January 2015]


~ by victoriasimkissphotography on January 29, 2015.

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