PART FIVE: CONSTRUCTED REALITIES AND THE FABRICATED IMAGE

RESEARCH

The Fae Richards Photo Archive. (Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye)

Fae Richards is a fictional character, invented as Leonard and Dunye drawing on historical records founds a lack of information about African-American women, so they invented one. Their fictional archive is to question the truthfulness of the archive and how history is recorded. Who gets included in our written histories and why? More importantly, who is left out? And who is in control of this information? Do you have any archives that you could have access to? Might you be able to use it for the beginnings of a project? Blog about some ideas that you could come back to someday.

In an excerpt from a lecture about the archive, the questions that were the starting points for the project were raised:

  • Who writes history?
  • How are historical narratives established
  • Do we have an obligation to tell the truth as far as we are able or are we allowed to manipulate that truths?
  • How a museum does chose to collect and present what it does?

This an area that I will ponder on and return to in the future, especially as I have just inherited  a photographic  archive along with some documentary evidence, but I am not yet ready to decide what I might do with it; it definitely has possibilities though.

Bibliography:

Archives and Creative Practice. (2017). Zoe Leonard & Cheryl Dunye. [online] Available at: http://www.archivesandcreativepractice.com/zoe-leonard-cheryl-dunye/ [Accessed 23 Jul. 2017].

 

Part 5: CONSTRUCTED REALITIES AND THE FABRICATED IMAGE

Exercise

Record a real conversation with a friend. (It’s up to you whether you ask permission or not!).

Before listening to the recording, write your account of both sides of the conversation. Then listen to the recording and make note of the discrepancies. Perhaps there are unfinished sentences, stammers, pauses, miscommunications etc.

 Reflect upon the believability of re-enacted narratives and how this can be applied to constructed photography. What do you learn from the conversation recording process and how can you transfer what you learned into making pictures?

I recorded a conversation that I initiated with a travel consultant. The conversation was around a possible holiday to Laos and lasted 31 minutes. I had written down my key questions before I made the telephone call. My recall of the conversation was that I asked questions about possible itineraries, flights, holiday duration and places to visit. I told him what activities we like when travelling. He listened, a lot, and made suggestions. As is my usual I interrupted him often.

Having listened to the recording these were the discrepancies:

  • It began with the travel specialist listening to me predominantly, rather than a conversation.
  • I clarified his answers to my questions often.
  • I reemphasised my needs/point often.
  • He was a good listener and built on the information that I gave him.
  • I did listen well when he was talking and I didn’t interrupt as much as I thought I had.
  • I punctuate my listening frequently with “Yes” “ok” “go on”.
  • I used intonation in my punctuation to show interest and keep his conversation going.
  • Only when put on the spot and thinking on the hoof did I stammer or falter.
  • There was a difference in the tenor of our speech; I was quite formal, clipped and confident whilst he was more informal and came across less confident “umming” and seeking my approval/agreement often.

Learning points:

I would have struggled to re-enact this conversation had I not been able to listen again to it, not the content, but the tone and nuances of our individual voices and manners. So it underlines the importance of getting the detail absolutely correct right, when representing something, most especially a constructed reality. There are many layers to a reality, the words in this case were one layer but our voices, behaviour and tones gave a greater layer of meaning. Of course any re-enactment will always be subjective to a degree.

Part 5: CONSTRUCTED REALITIES AND THE FABRICATED IMAGE

Project 2 The archive

Exercise

Question for Seller re-situates images in a different context and in so doing allows for a new dialogue to take place. Reflect on the following in your learning log:

  • Does their presence on a gallery wall give these images an elevated status?
  • Where does their meaning derive from?
  • When they are sold (again on eBay, via auction direct from the gallery) is their value increased by the fact that they’re now ‘art’?

 Question for seller (2004-2006) Nicky Bird

The project was motivated by her own interest in family photos. Bird purchased photos from e bay that nobody bid for, so she saw them as unwanted. She then asked the sellers “how did you come across the photos and what, if anything, do you know about them?”(Bird, 2017). She says that these responses were as important as the photographs.

Does their presence on a gallery wall give these images an elevated status?

I guess this will depend on what point you are measuring their status from. At the time they were taken they must have had status to the photographer/subjects but seem to have lost their status when sold on e-bay. Of course if status is measures by exposure to a wider audience then it has been enhanced by the exhibition.

Where does their meaning derive from?

Their meaning has changed over time. Their original meaning came from the photographer, though it seems that at the point of Bird buying them they had already lost this. However Bird has given them new meaning firstly by buying them, then questioning the sellers about their motivation for selling them and lastly by putting them in a gallery.

When they are sold (again on eBay, via auction direct from the gallery) is their value increased by the fact that they’re now ‘art’?

One would think that their financial value would have increased by making them “art” however when Bird resold them at the end of the project their value was still low, though she had raised their value slightly.

What I found interesting was Bird’s original motivation for the project, her sadness at the low value put on a representation of someone’s life, her intention to bring them more attention, and to question the value of “found photos”. Her work often “combines photography and interdisciplinary work often investigates the theme of photography and hidden history, portraiture and genealogy” (Villarreal, 2017), such as her project “tracing echoes” (2001)where her starting point was a photograph of a woman taken about 1885 and her longing for more information about them. She certainly seems to provide new meaning for old photographs.

Reference

Bird, N. (2017). Question for Seller (2004-2006) | Nicky Bird. [online] Nickybird.com. Available at: http://nickybird.com/projects/question-for-seller/ [Accessed 21 Jul. 2017].

Villarreal, I. (2017). Question for Seller – Nicky Bird. [online] Artdaily.com. Available at: http://artdaily.com/news/18960/Question-for-Seller—Nicky-Bird#.WXStNojytPY [Accessed 23 Jul. 2017].

COURSEWORK: PART FIVE CONSTRUCTED REALITIES AND THE FABRICATED IMAGE

Research point 1 

Look up the work of Gregory Crewdson online. Watch this YouTube video about Gregory Crewdson and his work and consider the questions below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7CvoTtus34&feature=youtu.be [accessed 24/02/14]

  • Do you think there is more to this work than aesthetic beauty?

Yes. Crewdson says himself that though it is most important to make a beautiful picture, but that ascetic alone is not enough, “it needs to have an undercurrent of something dangerous or fearful” (Youtube.com, 2017). His pictures are not beautiful to me, but they are certainly interesting and whilst some would find them beautiful many would not; I do think that most would find them interesting and perplexing and possibly disturbing.

  • Do you think Crewdson succeeds in making his work ‘psychological’? What does this mean?

           Yes his work is definitely psychological. It sets out to interest you in the uncanny, the dark side, invites you to consider the “disturbance” in the image and to make sense of it. As Iles says “His genius is to insert that highly charged strange anxiety a sense of a moment having just irrupted or something disturbing about to take place.” (Youtube.com, 2017). The psychological for Crewdson is ordinary life but with a disturbance beneath the perfect order, an undercurrent of the dangerous or fearful, combined with emptiness and loneliness.

  • What is your main goal when making pictures? Do you think there’s anything wrong with making beauty your main goal? Why or why not?

I don’t think I know currently what my main goal is in making pictures; it used to be ascetic, pattern, shape, balance, proportion, colour, however I do feel that there needs to be more now. Quite what my “more” is I’m not sure right now.

Notes from the interview:

Chrissie Iles (Curator, Whitney museum of American Art)

  • He has shifted the language of photography, interest in the uncanny and the psychoanalytical made evident.
  • He takes on the mechanics of the cinema.
  • His work is never a single image but collaged from different shots.
  • Elaborate sophisticated rich unique and thought through.
  • He is interested in the dark side, concerned with creating uncanny moments.
  • He “came of age” in the early 90s when dramatic psychological became important for artists, giving artists permission to explore the psychological within photography in a theatrical cinematic sense.
  • He’s a complex person, good at working with a team, warm, open interested though interested in the dark side in a psychological complexities.
  • His father was a psychoanalyst, he used to listen into his father working, was very influenced him.
  • Inspired by Diane Arbus, the Paintings of Edward harper – deals in the American vernacular, ordinary, an emptiness.
  • Photos of Walker Evans interested in the ordinary life, indigenous architecture
  • His genius is to insert that highly charged strange anxiety a sense of a moment having just irrupted or something disturbing about to take place.
  • If you could freeze a moment in your dream and go into it in minute detail.

 Crewdson:

  • Most important is to make a beautiful picture, but just purely aesthetic is not good enough, it needs to have an undercurrent of something dangerous or fearful.
  • Early in career shot from the perspective of the aerial crane.
  • Twilight was the first work that put everything together, cinematic lighting in a choreographed way, which was a huge shift in the work, telling the story through light and colour.
  • He drives around scouting for ordinary nondescript locations, until he finds something that’s seems right and responds to something in the architecture.
  • In his work tries to create the ordinary but pointing to what exists beneath the surface, beneath the perfect façade.
  • Creates stories, Likes to project emptiness and loneliness with a quiet tone but on the scale of the operatic.
  • Likes to feel connected to the characters private moments.

Reference:

Youtube.com. (2017). YouTube. [online] Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7CvoTtus34&feature=youtu.be [accessed 24/02/14] [Accessed 10 Jul. 2017].

Link to my exhibition visit to The Cathedral of the Pines: https://nkssite2.wordpress.com/category/cathedral-of-the-pines/

Coursework: Part Five Constructed realities and the fabricated image

Project 1 Setting the scene

Mise-en-scène; this literally means ‘to put in the scene’ and refers to the process of setting a scene or a stage for a story to be enacted upon. Props, costumes, locations, actors, and even colour and tiny details, can all be part of the story. It’s important to remember that every aspect within the frame is there for a reason; things therefore adopt a heightened meaning because we know they’re there intentionally and serve a purpose.

Exercise

Watch this famous scene from Goodfellas directed by Martin Scorsese in 1990: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJEEVtqXdK8 [accessed 24/02/14]

 Don’t read on until you’ve answered the following questions

  • What does this scene tell you about the main character?
  • How does it do this? List the ‘clues’.

Make some notes in your learning log

 The main character – Clues

  • Rich – Gives big tips
  • Masculine – guides the woman, emanates power
  • Confident – moves positively
  • Well known/popular – talks to people and is acknowledged, others want to say hello greet him, actions are normalised by others, sent drinks by others
  • Important – as above.
  • In control – shown respect by others, gets what he wants
  • Gets what he wants – the table being set up especially
  • Likes to impress – unusual/special entrance into club, gives big tips, makes sure the girl knows he’s a regular at the club
  • Protective or possessive of the woman – constant holding/body contact

 

 

Part four: Reading photographs Assignment 4 draft

Student number: 514516      Nicola South

A Picture is worth a thousand words

REFLECTIONS AGAINST ASSESSMENT CRITERIA

Demonstration of technical and visual skills:

  • I spent much time reading around the technical, and semantic terms it was necessary to understand for this assignment- I believe that I understand them and have demonstrated this.
  • I tested my visual awareness and observational skills when learning how to read photographs and when reading my chosen photograph.
  • I would guess that the compositional skill needed in this assignment are in the pulling together all of these thoughts and material in a coherent manner
  • I am sure that I should continue to read widely to broaden my knowledge of these areas
  • It will be very interesting to use these enhanced skills when I visit my next exhibition. I am sure the exhibition notes that I wrote in this part of my coursework would have been much shaper if I’d viewed it before working through this section of the course.

Quality of outcome: 

  • I hope the content is both broad and relevant.
  • I believe I have applied the learning from the exercises and coursework whilst shaping and writing the essay and been discerning in my choice of material.
  • I trust that I have communicated my concepts clearly.

Demonstration of creativity

  • My imagination was needed both when choosing the photograph for the assignment and when reading the photograph, as ultimately there are assumptions to be made.
  • I believe that my interpretation of the photograph was original and unique and this was shaped from thinking laterally around the evidence and being imaginative.
  • I hope that my Personal voice is beginning to show in my analysis of the photograph.

Context:

  • I spent a lot of time researching the background before I began to draft the essay and have published a summary this research on my learning log.
  • I believe that the critical thinking and reflection that I did on this image shows in my analysis of the photograph.
  • I did talk to others about the image, non- photographers which was useful, however it may have also been useful to talk to my peers about my ideas. I have just joined an OCA photography group who meet monthly and this will add to my reflective process.

 

 

 

 

Part four:Reading photographs Learning log

Assignment four: A picture is worth a thousand words

Preparation

Image:

Gandhi at the spinning wheel. Margaret Bourke-White (1946)

bourke-white_margaret_6_gandhi_india_1946_L_large (1)

(Gallery M, 2017)

Mind map of brainstorm of image:

mind map prep

Reference:

Gallery M. (2017). Margaret Bourke-White | Biography. [online] Available at: https://www.gallerym.com/pages/margaret-bourke-white-biography [Accessed 28 Jun. 2017].

Part Four: Reading photographs Learning log

Assignment 4: “A picture is worth a thousand words”

Background research

Gandhi:

gandhi spinning not MBW(Anon, 2017)

  • Born 1869 Mohandras Karamchand Ghandi
  • Middle class family in Gujarat (Westcoast of India).
  • Vaishya Hindu caste, known for being hard bargaining salesmen.
  • 19 years to London trained as a lawyer
  • South Africa, worked as lawyer, 1st experience of colonial racism, campaigned for equal rights for Indians in South Africa, “The Mahatma, whose twinkle of compassion concealed a steely-eyed cunning” (Keay,2010:486)
  • Personal philosophy that God is Truth and anti-materialistic and abstinence values (from Hinduism, Christianity and Jainism). Convinced that any type of physical pleasure was degrading and lived out his idea of “Truth force”, powerful but non-violent argument.
  • 1915 returned to India
  • Campaigned for Indian independence from British rule
  • Confronted the moral behaviour of society, wanted India to move away from western ideals of progress and technology back towards a simple village life. and wished to return India to “godliness, simplicity and humility” (Von Tunzelmann, 2012:27).
  • He was famous for his tactics of passive resistance, civil disobedience, logical non-violent argument. He associated pleasure with self-destruction and lived a life of self-denial and discomfort.
  • He lived modestly in a self-sufficient community wearing the traditional Indian dhoti and shawl, woven with yarn hand-spun on a charkha. He ate simple vegetarian food, and also undertook long fasts as a means of both self-purification and political protest.
  • Adopted hand-spinning on a wooden wheel as a symbol of this simple life “Gandhi’s manner of dress and commitment to hand spinning were essential elements of his philosophy and politics. He chose the traditional loincloth as a rejection of Western culture and a symbolic identification with the poor of India” (Anon, 2017)
  • “Charkha was given a new meaning and novel interpretation by Mahatma Gandhi… To him spinning was like penance or sacrament, a medium for spiritual upliftment, a symbol of dharna, of self-help and self-reliance, of dignity of labour and human values. Besides, it was an emblem of non-violence” (Tribuneindia.com, 2017)
  • He was against industrialisation “Machinery in the past has made us dependent on England, and the only way we can rid ourselves of the dependence is to boycott all goods made by machinery. This is why we have made it the patriotic duty of every Indian to spin his own cotton and weave his own cloth.” (6(p48)(The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Vol 48 (September 1931–January 1932). Ahmedabad: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India; 1971.(anon2017)
  • Led non-violent protests, such as the 1930 salt marches and fasting to speed political agreements and end religious violence.
  • 1948 assassinated by a Hindi fanatic who thought Gandhi’s methods too passive and compromising

References:

Anon, (2017). [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2156064/ [Accessed 2 Jul. 2017].

Keay, J. (2010). India. London: HarperPress.

Nehru, J. and Khilnani, S. (2004). The discovery of India. Penguin Books; London.

Tribuneindia.com. (2017). The Tribune…Sunday Reading. [online] Available at: http://www.tribuneindia.com/1999/99aug15/sunday/head2.htm [Accessed 2 Jul. 2017

Von Tunzelmann, A. (2012). Indian summer. The Secret History of the End of an Empire. Kindle edition. UK. Simon & Schuster ltd.

Margaret Bourke-White                  

116091753.jpg      margaret_bourke-white13       Welding-tire-rims-International-Harvester-Chicago-IL-1933

(Time.com, 2017)        (Bourke-White, 2017)      (Monroegallery.com, 2017)

  • Born 1904 New York
  • Early career industrial advertising and portrait work in Cleveland, wanted to earn enough from architectural photos to pay for her experimental industrial photos. “Her stock trade was a form of modernism, strongly composed but visually simplistic” (Golden, 2013:36).
  • 1929-1936 Chief photographer Fortune business magazine, however 762 job offer from fortune “I was not the least bit interested in photographing political personages” (Bourke-White, 1972:762)
  • 1936-1969 Staff photographer Life magazine: Worldwide photojournalist, covered: most wars, witnessed German invasion of Moscow (1941), accompanied bombing missions (1942), liberations of concentration camps, unrest in South Africa, Gandhi’s fight for Indian independence
  • “The technical side of photography always interested her, and in her books there are many passages on cameras and lighting equipment” (Jeffrey and Kozloff, 2008:102)
  • “Bourke-White had an excellent sense of simple, poster-like design, and a sophisticated photographic technique, both perhaps the legacy of her apprenticeship in the demanding field of industrial reportage. She was excited by the new opportunities presented by photoflash bulbs, which made possible clear and highly detailed pictures under circumstances that would otherwise have been difficult or impossible for photography”. Bourke-White, M. (2017).
  • 1930s social documentary style
  • 1937 “You have seen their faces” book which documented the human aspects of the depression a Collaboration with writer Erskine Caldwell
  • Wrote books on places she’d worked on assignments (Germany, Soviet Union, Italy and India).
  • Autobiography “Portrait of myself” (Bourke-White, 1972)
  • 1957 contracted Parkinson’s and abandoned career
  • 1971 died

Interesting quotes from her biography:

  • “ a man is more than a figure to put into the background of a photograph for scale”…I was learning that to understand another human being you must gain some insight into the conditions which made him what it is” (Bourke-White, 1972:1746)
  • I was awakening to the need of probing and learning, discovering and interpreting. I realized that any photographer who tries to portray human beings in a penetrating way must put more heart and mind into his preparation than will ever show in any photograph” (Bourke-White, 1972:1756)

 References

Bourke-White, M. (2016). Portrait of Myself. Kindle edition. San Francisco, UNITED STATES: Lucknow Books.

Bourke-White, M. (2017). Margaret Bourke-White | ND Magazine. [online] Ndmagazine.net. Available at: http://ndmagazine.net/photographer/margaret-bourke-white/ [Accessed 2 Jul. 2017].

Golden, R. (2013). Masters of photography. London: Goodman.

Jeffrey, I. and Kozloff, M. (2008). How to read a photograph. London. Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Monroegallery.com. (2017). Master Photographers | Black and White Photojournalists. [online] Available at: http://www.monroegallery.com/photographers/detail/id/1865 [Accessed 2 Jul. 2017].

Bourke-White’s relationship with Gandhi

Her first assignment in India in 1946 for Life magazine was to cover the prelude to the partition of India; her stark photographs were taken in the aftermath of the riots, a “first-hand account of India’s struggle for independence in the late 1940s” (Johnson et al., 2005:591)

Then in 1948 post partition of India Bourke-White returned to capture more stories and photographs for Life magazine. “After the war, she documented the final years of Ghandi’s life, producing the iconic image of the proponent of non-violent protests with his spinning wheel” (Time.com, 2017a).

She was a friend to Gandhi:

It’s hardly surprising, really, that Bourke-White would be drawn to a figure like Gandhi…Gandhi’s emphasis on liberty and dignity in the face of brutal resistance and oppression spoke directly to her own passion for both justice and adventure”. (Time.com, 2017b)

She describes how she was with Gandhi during his last fast and how ten days later she was able to talk with him as he spun, “While frequently I did not agree with Gandhi’s point of view, talking with him helped me understand it” (Margaret Bourke-White, 2016:4015). She said “he was an extraordinary complex person, with many contradictions in his nature” (Bourke-White. 2016:3704)

References:

Johnson, W., Rice, M., Williams, C. and Mulligan, T. (2005). A History of photography. Köln [etc.]: Taschen.

Margaret Bourke-White. (2016). Portrait of Myself. Kindle edition. San Francisco, UNITED STATES: Lucknow Books.

Time.com. (2017a). See the Classic Cameras Used by LIFE’s First Female Staff Photographer. [online] Available at: http://time.com/4355162/margaret-bourke-white-cameras/ [Accessed 30 Jun. 2017].

Time.com. (2017b). Gandhi: Quiet Scenes From a Revolutionary Life. [online] Available at: http://time.com/3881206/gandhi-rare-photos-of-the-pioneer-of-nonviolent-civil-disobedience/?iid=sr-link9 [Accessed 30 Jun. 2017].

Please note: Any images by other photographers used on this site are accredited and are being used for personal research and educational purposes only.

 

 

 

Part four: Reading photographs Book Review

Book review: The Photographer’s eye. John Szarkowski.

I am reading this book at the point where I am studying how to read photographs which seems extremely pertinent. So I rather than a standard book review this is a summary of my learning in relation to this.

Szarkowski sets out his intention for his book as “an investigation of what photographs look like, and of why they look that way” (Szarkowski, 2009).

I found it interesting how he makes clear that photography invaded the territory of art, could not work to old standards and had to find its own ways of making its meaning clear. Photography was invented by scientists and painters but the professional photographers it produced were varied in their skills and had increased vastly by the early twentieth century. There was a deluge of pictures, describing new things and in new ways, most especially the ordinary. Photographers learned from other photographers and photographs.

Szarkowski lists five issues he believes are inherent in photography and organises his selected images in these groups:

  • The thing itself: That the photographer deals with reality, though much of the reality can be filtered out by the photographer and as the photographer makes choices. He points out that our faith in the truth of the camera may be “naive and illusory …for though the lens draws the subject, the photographer defines it”. (Szarkowski, 2009).
  • The detail: The photographer could only record as he found it and had to “force that facts to tell the truth” (Szarkowski, 2009). He could however fragment details as well as put the details into a narrative. I hadn’t realised myself that the rise of photography freed painters from having to paint narrative stories. The images he chose for this section show a variety of significant detail and symbols, though these images I think could have equally have been placed in his groups of the thing itself.
  • The frame: Szarkowski considers that the central act of photography is the choosing and eliminating, which “forces a concentration on the picture edge…and on the shapes that are created by it” (Szarkowski, 2009). The frame he explains, edits meaning and patterns. Interestingly he poses the question whether painters’ use of the frame creatively was born from photography. Here the images that he chooses to illustrate seem to ideally do this, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Callejon of the Valencia Arena” 1933:
  • W1siZiIsIjE0NDM3MyJdLFsicCIsImNvbnZlcnQiLCItcmVzaXplIDIwMDB4MjAwMFx1MDAzZSJdXQ.jpg

  (The Museum of Modern Art, 2017)

  • Time: All photographs are time exposures, some shorter some longer, catching slices of time and movement. Szarkowski, helpfully explains that the new beauty of “seeing the momentary patterning lines and shapes that had previously been concealed within the flux of movement” (Szarkowski, 2009) as decisive moments not as dramatic climaxes but as visual ones. Many of the images that he shows here show time blurred such as Rene Groebli’s Nude dressing (1952) which was a new image to me.

rene-groebli-nude-dressing-1952

 (Curiator, 2017)

  • Vantage point: He points out that it is photography which has taught us to see from different vantage points, challenging our notions of reality. So pictures can reveal the clarity and the obscurity of things. He also suggests that this has influenced modern painters. The images he has in this section of his book illustrate this well such as Clarence John Laughlin’s The fierce eyed building (1938).

fierce eyed building.jpg

 (Harvardartmuseums.org, 2017)

Szarkowski has certainly set out his idea of what photographs look like, and why they look that way.

My learning points:

  • I have discovered another way to read photographs, to look at The thing, the detail, the frame, the time, the vantage point; have any of these influenced the photographer more than the other and how?

References

Curiator. (2017). Nude dressing by René Groebli. [online] Available at: https://curiator.com/art/rene-groebli/nude-dressing [Accessed 25 Jun. 2017]

Harvardartmuseums.org. (2017). From the Harvard Art Museums’ collections The Fierce-Eyed Building. [online] Available at: http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/art/155284 [Accessed 25 Jun. 2017].

Szarkowski, J. (2009). The photographer’s eye. The Museum of Modern art. New York.

The Museum of Modern Art. (2017). Henri Cartier-Bresson. Callejón of the Valencia Arena. 1933 | MoMA.

Please note: Any images by other photographers used on this site are accredited and are being used for personal research and educational purposes only.

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