John Berger, “Ways of Seeing”, 1972

I remember watching the TV series in the 70s and finding it very interesting.  My memory is of lavish colour shots but maybe I was wrong.  I borrowed the book from the library and was really surprised.  It’s a paperback and very small and thin with only black and white pictures inside.I was also immediately struck by the font (monophoto univers), which I don’t remember seeing before.   It’s very black and square somehow.  Also the book itself has very narrow margins, so the whole impression was of words leaping out at me from the page.

A note to the reader states that the book was made ‘ by five of us’ (the five men, including John Berger, who created the television programme.). It consists of seven numbered essays but there is no mention as to whether each of them wrote an essay or if it was a combined creation.  Whichever it was the tone of the book seems didactic to me as it makes statements rather than inviting a dialogue between author and reader, even though the note also states, “Our principal aim has been to start a process of questioning”.  The very fact that they are ‘essays’ makes this more of an academic treatise.

The television series was mainly about art but I want to pick out as much as I can which also relates to photography.  The first essay establishes that , “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled” (p.7).  We see before we know and speak and,  “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe” (p.8).  Additionally, “ We are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves”.  So, the culture into which we’re born and the world we experience, affects how we view anything. In relation to photography, the point is made that the photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject just as the painter’s way of seeing is reconstituted into marks on paper..

Berger et al also make the point that cultural assumptions about art include a mystification of the past and so works of art are made unnecessarily remote.   I think they’re taking a political standpoint as well  in stating that this mystification occurs because a privileged minority is, , ‘striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes’. A later essay expands upon this point.

There is a comparison between art and photography which hadn’t occurred to me before and that is concerned with perspective. According to the authors, the convention of perspective in European art centres everything on the eye of the beholder , so that the eye becomes the centre of the visible world and there is no visual reciprocity.

This changed with the introduction of the camera.  They quote from an article by Dziga Vertov, Soviet film director in 1923 (see p. 17),  where he writes of the camera as being an eye in constant movement, and so leading to a fresh perception of the world. Drawing or paintings which use perspective proposed that the spectator was the unique centre of the world, whereas the camera, particularly the movie camera, demonstrated that there was no centre.  To me that seems a very general statement and I’m not sure I can agree with it.  If I am standing in my own house and looking at painting of another house, then I know that the other house is in a different place. A film engages me more because, I think, my imagination comes more into the forefront and, if it’s a good film and I’m enjoying it, I become a part of the action so that it becomes my world.

Another comparison is made between a painting and photography.  Although a painting is transportable it can never be seen in two places at the same time,.  If a camera reproduces a painting it destroys the uniqueness of the its image and its meaning multiplies and fragments into many meanings.  There is something in that for me.  I’ve often found that the original painting can be so different from its reproductions.  In fact it is often smaller and so its impact can be diminished somehow, especially when it appears amongst many other painting which all compete for my attention. Not to mention the fact that I’m unable to hold it in my hand and examine it more closely.

The second essay is a series of images of women  – photographs,  reproductions of paintings and a statuette –  which focus on their bodies and the next essay puts the view that women are seen as objects which are owned by men. “The ideal spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the women is designed to flatter him.” (p. 64). This made me think of “Portrait of my British Wife” the photograph of his wife by Panayiotis Lamprou, which came second in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize.  There was something for me about – she is mine, you can look but not touch. (see other post),  The authors also suggest an experiment – choose an image of a traditional nude from the book, transform the woman into a man and, “notice the violence which that transformation does”.  For me, the reverse happened.  The photograph that won first prize in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize was of a beautiful young huntress.  I don’t think it would have had the same impact upon me if it had been of a young man.

Another essay (No. 5) p. 83) discusses the fact that oil paintings often depict things which are buyable and if you buy a painting you also buy the look of the thing it represents.  Transfer that to photographs and all the lifestyle magazines that contain them.  Essay No. 7 (p.129) compares paintings with modern publicity images and provides illustrations of similarities that show a continuing use of historical, mythological and poetic references. The essay also states that the invention of cheap colour photography, “ can reproduce the colour texture and tangibility of objects as only oil paint had been able to do before” (p. 140). Whereas an oil painting showed what a person already owned,  publicity  images make you want what you don’t currently own.


23rd February 2011