Reading task: The Key Concepts


Read the introduction from David Bate, Photography: The Key Concepts. Note down your thoughts in response to this reading.


I will offer my thoughts regarding Bate’s introduction and comment on his assertion that different genres have different functions. I will then outline Alain de Botton’s views on what he calls the ‘therapeutic’ functions of art.


Bate begins his introduction to ‘Photography: The Key Concepts’ by suggesting that one might conduct a study of photography by investigating the usage of photographs by different institutions. He rejects that method since different institutions use several categories of images. Instead, he decides to structure the book by genre – specifically documentary, portraiture, landscape, and still life – categories that ‘lend themselves to a diversity of applications’.

Bate then contrasts genre categories within cinema and literature – e.g. horror, romance, science fiction – with the broader photographic genres mentioned above. That’s all fair enough and interesting until he says ‘different genres have different functions’.

Different functions

What does he mean by ‘different functions’? What is the function of art anyway? Let me show three visually similar images, and see if I can unpick their respective ‘functions’ as determined by their authors.

Political – Sugimoto

Hiroshi Sugimoto explained the function of his Seascapes in a 2018 interview:

Resources are limited, so inevitably they will run out… In order to face a failure likely to happen in the near future, we should see once again the seascapes that the ancients saw to revert us to our innocent minds. So my work hopefully gives us an opportunity to think before destroying ourselves.

Sugimoto (1)

Hiroshi Sugimoto. Ionian Sea, Santa Cesarea, 1990 (Neg #345)

Abstract expressionism – Mark Rothko

I obviously realise that this Rothko painting is (a) not a photograph and (b) not a landscape but nevertheless the images are so similar as to allow me to compare their functions.

In the catalogue accompanying MOMA’s 1961 Rothko exhibition the Exhibition Director, Peter Selz wrote:

These silent paintings with their enormous, beautiful, opaque surfaces are mirrors, reflecting what the viewer brings with him. In this sense, they can even be said to deal directly with human emotions, desires, relationships, for they are mirrors of our fantasy and serve as echoes of our experience.

Selz (2)
Mark Rothko. Untitled (Black on Gray), 1969/70

Landscape as metaphor

The photograph below was taken in response to the death of a 30-year-old lady called Laura. It is obviously intended to be a metaphor for her short life and tragic death.

Laura, 2021

Alain de Botton’s ‘The Therapeutic Functions of Art’

In 2014 de Botton ‘curated’ an ‘Art Is Therapy’exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. He proposed that the rise of museums was linked to increasing secularisation during the 19th century (3). Using large yellow ‘Post It Notes’ his curation replaced an ‘unhelpful’ chronological classification with one highlighting the emotional impact of art. The ‘show’ (as he calls it) reflected the didactic visions of the artists. What were some of these didactic visions and therapeutic functions?

John Constable ‘Cloud Study’ (c 1821)

It helps us to remember. It ‘bottles’ an experience.

Claude Monet ‘The Water-Lily Pond’ (1899)

‘Pretty art can make us hopeful’

Edward Hopper ‘New York Movie’ (1939)

‘Can echo sadness and pain. Helps us not to feel alone.’

Korean Moon Jar, British Museum (18th century)

Propaganda. It makes an argument for what life is about. In this case, you don’t have to be perfect.


(1). Sugimoto, H., 2018. Hiroshi Sugimoto Interview: Between Sea and Sky. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 December 2021].

(2). Selz, P., 1961. Mark Rothko. 1st ed. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, p.10.

(3). de Botton, A., 2014. Art Is Therapy in the Rijksmuseum. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 December 2021].

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