mickyates Autoethnography, Critical Theory, Culture, Ideas, Media Theory, Mick's Photo Blog, Philosophy, Photography, Practice Leave a Comment

For the first few years of my life, Mum, Dad and I lived with my grandparents and great auntie, in a then very familiar social setting. After demobbing from the army, Dad was working as a salesman, and Grandad, after retiring as a police sergeant, was a bank guard. The toilet was outside, just like every other house in the row. Working class with petit bourgeois aspirations, I think. I found out later that we could trace one branch of the family to having lived within 10 miles of our home since the 1500’s. It was a big day for both families when Mum and Dad got a place on the council housing list, although frankly I have no memory of it. I do recall one toilet still being outside in our new home, although there was also a bathroom and w.c. inside the house. That was around the time that this seaside photograph was taken.

Doris Yates. 1954. Skegness Beach.

Dad was a self taught piano player, a keen photographer and a bingo caller at the British Legion. A prized possession was an LP player for the new vinyl records, which became popular in the 50s. The 33 rpm LP was developed by Columbia Records and marketed in 1948, and RCA Victor developed the 45 rpm format and marketed it in 1949. UK Trad Jazz was dad’s favourite, and Jim Reeves was Mum’s.

In the early 60s, Mum and Dad had saved up enough to put down a deposit on a house, and voted Tory. I won a place at the local Grammar school, via the 11 plus, as did my younger brothers, all of whom also became keen photographers. Entry into the ‘boomer’ middle class had arrived, just as the Beatles made it big. Dad still had a small library of paperbacks which, as a kid, he’d loaned out to friends for a penny a week. I guess he was a salesman all of his life, and he liked books. He bought the occasional new coffee table volume for the family, and in 1966, the big, glossy Travellers Book Of Colour Photography became our collective text book (I still have it in our library). The opening line is ‘Cameras don’t take photographs – people do’. As I didn’t travel outside the UK until after Uni in the 1970s, the book also opened a window on all the exotic places out there.

Despite years of Sunday school, I gave up the idea of being confirmed a Christian, and instead started to try to understand Nausea, The Plague and the writing of Alan Watts. Saturday trips to the library and one of my home town’s few bookshops were both exciting and routine. I used to paint and write poetry, and that combined with an emerging ‘eastern’ yearning like many 60s’ hippie wannabes led me to discover Chinese and Japanese art. Looking back, my interest in combining images with text started then, too, although I would never have articulated that.

Mick Yates. 1969. Heaven. Acrylic on paper.

I realised that I wanted to spread my interests broadly, which led to taking a combined honours degree (then a reasonable rarity) at the University of Leeds – Mathematics and Philosophy.. Thus, I became the archetypical first-generation of undergrad in the family, although I became far more interested in student politics, rock gigs and generally having a good time. The school swot disappeared. But I was also quite aware of my social background, both its good aspects and its limitations when viewed against my fellow students. I worked to pay my way. A university education was a great leveller – but it also highlighted social chasms. I developed a profound dislike for social and intellectual arrogance and inequality, which I have to this day.

Despite academic neglect on my part, I got a degree thanks to diligent tutors – and especially Jerry Ravetz who I am still in touch with today. He helped me find logical holes in Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art. Failing to win the Union’s Presidential election (thank goodness, in retrospect!), I serendipitously got a job with the American firm Procter and Gamble, in the marketing department, in Newcastle on Tyne. I guess ‘sales’ was also a family characteristic, despite my intellectual pretensions. I discovered art galleries, and the Sunday Times colour magazine was, like for so many others, my photographic inspiration. I bought my first SLR (a Praktica) on leaving Uni in 1972. Who didn’t want to be Don McCullin?

Ted Heath’s Three Day Week led to working by candlelight in the P&G offices for the first couple of months of 1974. Whilst never particularly profound in my politics, I joined the millions who voted ‘yes’ in the 1975 referendum, wanting that promised better life. I started calling myself European rather than English, and vowed to escape the country’s deep inequalities and class system. I managed to achieve that in 1981 when I gratefully accepted a transfer to the Netherlands.

I only came back to the UK to live in the early 2000s, including having spent 20 years living and working cross Europe, the USA and Asia Pacific. The great wheel turns, as it also does for our 6 kids, born in 5 countries, and on 3 continents, who are now spread across them world.

Looking back I had an ordinary lower-middle-class upbringing and education and then got lucky. I was unaware of ‘nature versus nurture’, and had no knowledge of the emerging discipline of sociology. And whilst I had curiosity, in my first two decades I had no practical experience of life outside my ‘homeland’. Looking back, I can see all the threads of my habitus, to coin the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s phrase. But what is it and why does it matter to photography?

For Bourdieu (1930 – 2002), habitus refers to the collective entity by which and into which dominant social and cultural conditions are established and reproduced. In Bourdieu’s words, habitus refers to:

a subjective but not individual system of internalised structures, schemes of perception, conception, and action common to all members of the same group or class‘. (1977: 86)


Bourdieu was one of the first to use broad-based statistics to analyse society. His views are succinctly summarised in the introduction to Distinction, probably his best known work.

Whereas the ideology of charisma regards taste in legitimate culture as a gift of nature, scientific observation shows that cultural needs are the product of upbringing and education: surveys establish that all cultural practices (museum visits, concert-going, reading etc.), and preferences in literature, painting or music, are closely linked to educational level (measured by qualifications or length of schooling) and secondarily to social origin [my emphasis]. The relative weight of home background and of formal education (the effectiveness and duration of which are closely dependent on social origin) varies according to the extent to which the different cultural practices are recognized and taught by the educational system, and the influence of social origin is strongest – other things being equal – in ‘extra-curricular’ and avant-garde culture.

To the socially recognized hierarchy of the arts, and within each of them, of genres, schools or periods, corresponds a social hierarchy of the consumers. This predisposes tastes to function as markers of ‘class’. The manner in which culture has been acquired lives on in the manner of using it [my emphasis]: the importance attached to manners can be understood once it is seen that it is these imponder­ ables of practice which distinguish the different-and ranked-modes of culture acquisition, early or late, domestic or scholastic, and the classes of individuals which they characterize (such as ‘pedants’ and mondains).

Culture also has its titles of nobility – awarded by the educational system – and its pedigrees, measured by seniority in admission to the nobility‘. (1984: 2)

To note Liam Gillespie:

Subjects internalise dominant social and cultural ideas [and thus] become particular kinds of subjects (e.g. raced, gendered and/or national subjects; citizens; subjects of the law). In turn, subjects support, reinforce and ultimately reproduce the habitus itself by subscribing to and propagating its dominant ideas and socio-cultural modes of being’.

So a habitus is a set of overlapping fields of interest, influence and education. I use field in a general sense rather than Bourdieu’s technical and refined position of fields being arenas of production, circulation, and appropriation and exchange of goods, services, knowledge, or status.

Power relationships are central to habitus, self-perpetuating the systems involved, often in institutional and invisible ways which make it difficult to change that system. It can therefore perpetuate some form of elite privilege. And that is where photography comes in – or, more correctly, the study, critique and discussion of photography.

Hilda Ogden’s ‘Murial’ in Coronation Street, with Three Flying Ducks. 1978, © Granada TV

Anyone who grew up in 1960s and 70s Britain will probably know both these characters and those ducks. Hilda Ogden was in the soap-opera Coronation Street from 1964 until 1984. And in 1976 she added three pottery ducks to her wall-sized ‘muriel’.  Today seen as the ultimate in retro-kitsch, at that time the ducks were in homes everywhere. They could be an example of what Bourdieu called the ‘popular’ in art, but actually were rather aspirational for many people. Mum and Dad had a set in our 1960s home. In a way, the ducks were transitional, not in the sense of a baby blanket but as a signifier of social arrival and confirmation through objects d’art.

Bourdieu distinguished between ‘legitimate taste’, ‘middle-brow’, and ‘popular taste’. His research suggested that Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and works by Goya and Breughel were associated with the taste of the more educated and professional classes – ‘legitimate taste’. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and paintings by Renoir and Van Gogh were quite ‘middle-brow’, with a fairly even spread of association across all social classes. And ‘popular taste’ included Strauss’ Blue Danube and Verdi’s La Traviata, alongside Raphael’s paintings.

He also discussed ‘camera clubs’ directly, on which his data suggested that they were relatively ‘lower class’ or middle-brow affairs. Whilst some of his points still seem right (such as a propensity to discus photo equipment), his conclusions on the class basis of such clubs seem outdated.

Times have changed, and Bourdieu’s work can be rightly criticised that it inadequately assesses race, gender and so forth. And reading his work today, the rigid social class definitions often get in the way of appreciating his insights, rather than explaining his ideas. But today we have a huge middle class across them world, and we have elites in all kinds of fields – cultural, political, intellectual, celebrity. And we have the mega rich. It is easy to translate Bourdieu’s ideas of class-driven culture to modern society.

Bourdieu’s research is did not really address social mobility, suggesting an almost deterministic loop that one cannot escape, which I think the global growth of living standards and the middle class proves wrong. In fairness, Bourdieu himself did not directly suggest that we are stuck in social contexts that we cannot escape. But, to give it all a neo-liberal twist, there is clear implication in his work that the taste of the middle classes is not defined as much by aesthetic appreciation as it is by wanting to compete – keeping up with the ‘upper class’ elites. Has that changed today?

It is fascinating to see some of his other data-based, class-driven distinctions. For example, when asked what they would make a beautiful photograph, the ‘working class’ suggested folk dances and sunsets, whilst the ‘upper class’ thought metal frames and tree barks would be cool (my word, not Bourdieu’s). His implication is that there is some form of class-driven elevated aesthetic taste, which includes ‘the right thing to say’ about art. A short visit to many social media photography groups proves that ‘arty bollocks’ is still very much alive and well.

Taking another approach to critique, Roland Barthes argued that ‘the author is dead’, and that the reader is central to the understanding of a given work. Subsequent writers suggest that Barthes did not mean this literally, but rather meant that in critiquing a work of art we should consider not just the author and his / her context, but most importantly the reader’s / reviewer’s context. Michel Foucault also argued against this ‘death’ by showing the important of context. Starting with a detailed analysis of what we actually mean by ‘author’, something Barthes did not adequately cover, Foucault went on to write:

‘The disclosure that Shakespeare was not born in the house that tourists now visit would not modify the functioning of the author’s name, but, if it were proved that he had not written the sonnets that we attribute to him, this would constitute a significant change and affect the manner in which the author’s name functions. Moreover, if we establish that Shakespeare wrote Bacon’s Organon and that the same author was responsible for both the works of Shakespeare and those of Bacon, we would have introduced a third type of alteration which completely modifies the functioning of the author’s name. Consequently, the name of an author is not precisely a proper name among others’.

Foucault is underpinning my own view of the importance of context and indeed intention in the evaluation and critique of photographs.

Returning to where this post started, my own biography suggests a fair degree of mobility, serendipity and education, all of which impact on the way that I make, curate and assess images. But I can still see the beginnings of some of my lifelong ‘likes’ and also pet hates in my original habitus.

One way forward might be to work with the Zen concept of ‘Beginner’s Mind‘.

‘Once, a professor went to a Zen Master. He asked him to explain the meaning of Zen. The Master quietly poured a cup of tea. The cup was full but he continued to pour. The professor could not stand this any longer, so he questioned the Master impatiently, “Why do you keep pouring when the cup is full?” “I want to point out to you,” the Master said, “that you are similarly attempting to understand Zen while your mind is full’.

The idea is to approach new situations and learning with an open (beginner’s) mind, otherwise one’s mind is so full of what we know that there is little room for new knowledge. Of course, ignoring what one knows is both hard and highly unlikely – even Zen masters have an encyclopaedic knowledge of  their subject matter. In the prologue to Susuki Roshi’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he writes:

‘In the Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few’.

We need to at least need to try at situations afresh, and balance that with what we think we already ‘know’. And that includes, I submit, having a good sense of our own habitus which, even as it evolves, is undoubtedly influencing the way that we ‘see’.


Header: Mick Yates. 1969. Grandparent’s House. Burton on Trent.


BARTHES, Roland. 1966 .The Death of the Author. In Image-Music-Text, 1977. London: Fontana Press.

BOURDIEU, Pierre. 1965. Photography – A Middle-Brow Art. 1990 Edition. Cambridge: Polity Press. Available at: https://monoskop.org/images/0/03/Bourdieu_Pierre_Photography_A_Middle-brow_Art.pdf (accessed 31/12/2020).

BOURDIEU, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice (Vol. 16). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

BOURDIEU, Pierre. 1979 (1984 English Translation). Distinction. 2010 Edition. London: Routledge. Available at: https://monoskop.org/images/e/e0/Pierre_Bourdieu_Distinction_A_Social_Critique_of_the_Judgement_of_Taste_1984.pdf (accessed 29/12/2020).

FOUCAULT, Michel. 1969. What is an Author? Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie, 63, No. 3 (1969), 73-104. Available at: https://monoskop.org/images/9/9b/Foucault_Michel_1969_1977_What_Is_an_Author.pdf (accessed 20/12/2020).

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GOODMAN, Nelson. 1968. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. 1976 Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

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SUSUKI, Shunryu. 1970. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. New York: Weatherhill.

TAMAIRA, Moata. 2015. Know your Kitsch: Three Flying Ducks. Available at http://www.moatatamaira.co.nz/2015/01/10/know-your-kitsch-three-flying-ducks-cake-oven/ (accessed 29/12/2020).