Ways Of Seeing Essay By John Berger

“What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are time and light.”

John Berger

John Berger responding to Susan Sontag’s book “On Photography”

Susan Sontag’s book “On Photography” is a classic. Almost every photography student has probably read it. It’s an excellent analysis of the far-reaching changes photographic images have made in our way of looking at the world and at ourselves. In his essay “Uses Of Photography”, John Berger – author of Ways Of Seeing – replies to Susan Sontag.

The most striking aspect of text “The Uses Of Photography” for me is when John Berger talks about photographs replacing memory. In contrast to memory, according to the author, photographic images do not retain significance in themselves. They are nothing more than a record of an event that has occurred at a certain time in a certain place.

By the light that has left its footprint on the photosensitive material, we know something’s “been there” in front of the camera when the shutter button was presses. For a brief moment, a split of a second, there is harmony between the physical subject and the image, or if you want the material on which its representation is formed (film, paper, sensor). But soon after that the connection no longer exists.

Thus the interpretation of each image is subject to the personal experiences, beliefs and opinions of each observer. It’s these factors that ultimately give meaning to an image. Whether it matches or not what the photographer had in mind when he took the image. It’s precisely this mechanism that makes photography a powerful instrument of manipulation. To sustain an economic system, for example, as John Berger says in his short essay. He argues that an industrialized society needs images to keep running and sustain itself.

“Ways of Seeing” or how we perceive and process visual images

When replacing the memory that puts things in perspective and gives them a value subject to critical judgment, images make us believe that we live in a world where everything is a spectacle. Enticing products we should buy etc.

Images taken out of context often confuse rather than they help to shed light on an issue. A photograph will always be subject to the associations of each observer and his ways of seeing – therefore there’ll always be many different versions as to its interpretation. That in itself is not bad. But what’s important is to know about this mechanism when looking and interpreting an image. In other words it is necessary to develop the ability to “look at images intelligently”.

If you are interested to read the whole essay “Uses Of Photography”, you can do that on the homepage of the University of Northern Iowa (UNI).

For further reading on the nature of photography and ways of seeing you might want to check out the following article on this site: “Shooting Through A Pinhole”, “Train Your Gaze With Henri Cartier-Bresson” and “A Good Excuse To See The World”.

Chapter one, Ways of Seeing, is about how we see things before we can talk about them with words.  ‘Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak’. (J.Berger, 2009. Bookcover) The idea behind this is that the visual world is what creates the world that we describe with words.

Berger goes deeper into this concept and describes how photography is not ‘a mechanical record’. (J.Berger, 2009. P.2) We see the subject of the photograph through the photographer’s point of view. He points out that images eventually outlast what they depict therefore they represent ‘how the subject had once been seen by other people’. (J.Berger, 2009. P.3)

Berger also says that our view of something is coloured by our experiences and education. Because of this we judge art by our understanding of:

‘Beauty
Trust
Genius
Civilization
Form
Status
Taste, etc.’ (J.Berger, 2009. P.4)

When we view a painting we do not always see what the painter intended for us to see. In ‘Ways of Seeing’ Berger gives an example of Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Wheatfield with Crows’. When we view this painting we think of sun, a farmers harvest. Then he informs us that it ‘is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself.’ (J.Berger, 2009. P.21) This ultimately changes our point of view of the painting.

Chapter two is an eight page visual essay containing photographs, advertisements and oil paintings. The images mainly depict women. There are only few of still life. There are women from different eras illustrated in this chapter either painted or photographed. There are paintings of naturally beautiful women and then there are advertisements of products for women to enhance their appearance. I feel this is purposely placed. This visual essay is a great opening for Berger’s next chapter.

Berger now considers the existence of women in Art. He speaks of being Nude and Naked and how they are two different things. ‘To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself.’ (J.Berger, 2009. P.48)

In European oil paintings of nude women were painted with the spectator in mind. ‘…the principal protagonist is never painted. He is the spectator in front of the picture and he is presumed to be a man.’ (J.Berger, 2009. P.48) Berger compares an oil painting with a modern day photographed model. Both expressions are the same. They are to lure in the spectator. ‘It is the expression of a woman responding with calculated charm to the man whom she imagines looking at her.’ (J.Berger, 2009. P.49)

The woman is looking outwards from the image towards the spectator. Berger points out that from these paintings we see the inequality between sexes that is still present in parts today. Woman survey their own femininity just as men do. ‘They survey, like men, their own femininity.’ (J.Berger, 2009. P.57)

Chapter four is another visual essay. The images in these essays of the title and date along side them. It begins with religious themed works of art from the 13th century. This essay is bringing us through the history of art itself. It carries on with work from the 14th, 15th 16th century and so on. These images containing subjects such as dead bodies, still life, nudity etc. The essay itself is bringing us through the history of art and what was considered important during those times.

Berger’s next chapter is about European oil paintings. Berger refers to oil paintings as a way of showing off our riches. As economies grew so did peoples desire for material objects. Oil paintings at the time were the only source of visual imagery and each were unique. ‘Unique objects. A patron cannot be surrounded by music or poems in the same way as he is surrounded by his pictures.’ (J.Berger, 2009. P.79)

Not only was there a desire for oil paintings but paintings of a man’s riches. Berger uses the example of ‘Still Life with a Lobster’ by De Heem 1606-1684. He claims that ‘It confirms the owner’s wealth and habitual style of living.’ (J.Berger, 2009. P.93) Men wanted paintings of what they owned or could own to make others envious; Paintings of buildings, objects, animals etc.

Chapter six, my favourite visual essay in the book. The images used in this essay are in my opinion what make up the population. It displays people from different backgrounds, ethnicity, classes etc. There are images of families, animals, cultures and traditions.  These are images that I feel everyone can relate to in one way or another.

In the final chapter, Berger discusses the topic of commercialism. He connects how the advertisement business have used Art from the past as influence. For example paintings of nude women, advertisers still use this technique today. They use a beautiful woman and make other women think ‘you could be this’ only if they are to buy the product. ‘The publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product.’ (J.Berger, 2009. P.128)

Berger claims that the point of this publicity is to make one envious of what it does not have. ‘The purpose of publicity is to make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life’ (J.Berger, 2009. P. 136)

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