Part four: Reading photographs Book review

Ways of seeing – John Berger (1972)

I have had this book for many years but thought that whilst working on reading photographs that this is the time to revisit it. It was with this purpose that I re read the book.

The book comprises of seven essays, though I reread the whole book I would like to focus on the first chapter where many of the ideas presented have been taken from a previous essay “The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by German critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin.

Berger proposes that “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled” (Berger, 1972, p7) as the way that we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe. So seeing is not just mechanically reacting to stimuli:

  • We chose what we look at
  • Can only see what is within our field of vision
  • Never just look at one thing
  • We look at the relation between things and ourselves (p9)
  • We are aware that we too are visible

He describes images as man-made objects that have been reproduced but detached from the place and time they were seen. Photographs are not accurate records as “the photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject” (Berger, 1972, p10). The photographer has selected “that sight from an infinity of other possible sights” (Berger, 1972p 10), though we know the object is affected by much more than this.

I have learnt that images were first taken to make up for something that was absent, rather like portraiture I guess, it was only later that the influence of the image maker on the subject was recognised. Berger also explains how images are beset by other assumptions when presented as works of art, concerning beauty, truth, genius, civilisation, form, status and so on. He suggests that these assumptions are often historical and may mystify our vision. In terms of paintings he suggests that it is the social and moral values that we hold that affect the way we see, rather that the painters skills.

Never having been an artist I found Berger’s explanation of how the understanding of perspective has altered historically. The original Renaissance convention of perspective was that everything was centred on the eye of the beholder, the single eye was the centre of the world with everything converging on the eye. There was no reciprocal vision, the visible world was arranged just for the spectator, just a God was the centre of the world, it was as if everything converged on the human eye. Apparently it was after the invention of cameras that the contradiction that spectators unlike God could not be in many places at the same time and that there must be reciprocal vision. The camera could change its perspective, and unlike paintings could separate time passing from the visual experience so that what you see is totally dependent on where you were when, so is relative to a person’s position in time and space. Berger asserts that “The camera changed the way men saw” (Berger, 1972).

This was taken into paintings, the cubists in particular presented views from all points around an object. Neither had I realised that the camera also changed the way in which historical paintings were seen. I hadn’t thought that originally paintings were unique due to the place that they were situated as they were integral to the design of their building. However with the invention of the camera where a painting could be reproduced and placed elsewhere they could take on different meanings divorced from their original context and placed in another. Reproduction can also transform meaning when paintings are partially reproduced and not shown in their entirety.

Berger summarises how visual art has moved from existing in sacred preserves, then a variety physical preserves and later particular social preserves in particular those of the ruling classes. Of course now reproduction has removed art from these preserves which he suggests may render them “ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free” (Berger, 1972). He concludes in chapter one that the authority of the art of the past is lost and in its place is “a language of images” (Berger, 1972) where what matters is who uses it for what and that visual art has become a political issue.

A revisit of this text was really useful at this point in my learning as it widens my increasing understanding of how photographs are read.

References:

Berger, J (1972) Ways of seeing. London. Penguin group.

Benjamin, W. (n,d) The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Found in (1970) Illuminations. Cape. London

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