Ways of Seeing (revisited)

I first read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing in January 2016 during my CAN course (see here). I was curious to see whether I would take anything new from a second reading, with the book appearing as recommended reading for IAP.

Looking back on my previous blog post (Fitzgibbon A, 2016), it is in the form of a book review, with the book summarised as follows:

The work is a series of essays that encourages us to see and read art, beyond the two-dimensional image, the interpretations of the traditional art establishment and those holding hegemonic interests. It encourages the reader to think from multiple perspectives about a work to allow more profound understanding. Berger explains how ‘the way people look at art is affected by a whole series of learned assumptions … beauty, truth, genius, civilisation, form, status, taste etc’ (Berger, p11) – importantly that these assumptions may not be relevant and ‘mystify rather than clarify’.

The form of the book review is a useful reminder of the contents of a book, but disconnected from my photographic practice and practical implications. As I’ve progressed through the OCA courses, it is reflecting on the link to practice that I realise is more valuable than just reading and reflecting in the abstract.

The main learnings in respect of photographic practice are:

  • Chapter 1, explores the ideas of seeing, ‘seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak’ (Berger J. et al (1973), p7). The emphasis is on what could be called analytical viewing; how one can read images incisively. This is not only in terms of the narrative within the image, but in the context of the time in which it was made, the purpose for which it was created and/or adapted, the commissioner of the work, the artist and the viewer. Multiple perspectives. Considering these aspects when creating our own work can bring greater awareness when communicating our vision, as well as when reading other work. Perhaps equally importantly, given the transmittability of imagery and resultant re-contextualisation, we can consider what might be missing from our reading; information that is simply not available or obtainable.
  • Chapters 2 (visual essay without words) and 3 focus mainly on the portrayal of women in images. In my previous blog, I was uncertain whether Berger’s reading of female psychology was as relevant today as in 1960s Britain. Anecdotally, I felt it could be, but hoped that we might have become more conscious of a culture of demeaning portrayal of women. The Misrepresentation Project in 2011 however, highlights the ongoing struggle. As a photographer, it is important to be aware of the engrained culture of the objectification of women, valued for appearance and sexual availability; this is shown in imagery through the gaze and signs within the narrative of images and also the gaze in relation to the viewer of the image. Berger discusses this at length. A look at female self-portraits on Flickr reveals some complexities in this area; sexualised self-portraits – exploration of sexuality or self-objectification / knowingly or unknowingly. It is perhaps not for us to judge how others decide to present their own body-image, but we can decide how and what we choose to photograph.

Flickr gallery of objectifying self-portraits (my perception):


During this research, I noticed CyanideMishka who dedicates her work to exploring her own sexuality through self-portraits; the photos are well-done but I wonder whether her 7.7k followers are mostly male and on what level they read the photos. See here (contains nude images) https://www.flickr.com/photos/cyanidemishka/. I will see whether she will comment on this post.

Berger does not deal with the portrayal of men in imagery to any significant extent, other than to mention they are mostly shown in positions of power and authority, their own person, not an object to be owned. In recent years, after Berger’s writing, issues with male depiction in the media have also gained some traction.

  • Chapter 5 deals with the genre of old paintings and their commissioners. For me, often confused by the merit of some oil paintings, this was a revelation. Berger says, ‘oil paintings often depict things. Things which in reality are buyable. To have a thing painted and put on a canvas is not unlike buying it and putting it in your house.’ (ibid, p83). Berger observes that the reason that many of the greats of oil painting died in poverty was because their work didn’t show things that would appeal to the vanity of wealthy commissioners (eg merchants in fine houses, with beautiful possessions). The work was not ‘commercial’. I am reminded of the story of Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) introducing the work of Picasso to America in 1911 and being unsuccessful in selling a single piece. In all art, including photography, the quality of the work does not necessarily relate to financial reward. Photographers motivated to make money from their work do well to separate their commercial and personal artist interests.

Berger’s work raises some fundamental considerations about the way we portray people in photographs and the way we read photographs that are so deeply engrained in our culture that they may go unnoticed or ignored as ‘just how it is’.

Reference

Berger J, et al (1973). Ways of Seeing. London, Penguin Books Ltd.

Fitzgibbon A (2016). Context.Fitzgibbonphotography [blog]. Ways of Seeing (5 January). Available from: http://context.fitzgibbonphotography.com/ways-of-seeing/ [accessed 24.10.16]

Vimeo. Misrepresentation Project. Available from: https://vimeo.com/86728310 [accessed 24.10.16]

4 thoughts on “Ways of Seeing (revisited)

  1. What people see in my images can’t go beyond their own intellectual and emotional level. Blame it on slow evolution that to the majority of men a naked female body is automatically seen as a sex object. On the other hand, consensual objectification is not a rare practise among adults. Living a bdsm lifestyle, I’ve been forever inspired by the idea of sexual freedom and the powerful rawness of naked skin. And yet, one can transmitt a whole range of feelings through it without necessary being sexual or having sexual release set as the goal. My own journey in erotic and nude photography is simply a documentation which I like to call “soul exhibitionism”. The 7.7k Flickr followers (as you accurately pointed out) are probably mostly male, indeed. And so are you, the person who wrote this aritcle. I have no control over that. And no problem either. I’m just happy when my photos can leave an impact on the viewer’s mind. The rest is meaningless.

    1. Thank you for replying to this. The phrase ‘consensual objectification’ seems a useful one to me. One should perhaps be more concerned about sexual objectification of women in the mass-media, which can shape cultural values and popular behaviour, than about how individuals choose to show themselves. I guess the challenge is that social media has blurred the boundary between the private and the public, the personal and mass media. So in case of famous celebrities, their individual stories have a similar reach to the mass media.
      I’ve commented in the reply to Holly (above) on the subject of evolution and biological response.

  2. I must admit that I too struggle with the idea of young women “taking back control of their own sexuality” – there is still a questionmark over who they are producing images for. Having said that, it is perfectly clear that women are still routinely objectified in images, particularly in advertising. Hollywood might say they have got over the “macho man, helpless woman” scenario, but they seem to have replaced it with one where women are treated as honorary men, at least in films that are aimed at the male market. How many recent films feature a woman, who is an active part of the assault team, and who routinely beats men to a pulp? How unlikely is this in real life? I believe that the more images, both static and moving, that have a more realistic and equal subliminal story, the better.

    1. I find this a difficult subject that often seems to lack rational discussion – it seems clouded by emotion and the sensitivity owed to those effected in someway by objectification. Cyanidemishka mentions below evolution and the majority of men automatically reacting to a naked female body as a sex object – there is truth in this and it is part of our biological conditioning to reproduce and survive as a species (Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape discusses human mating rituals and their evolutionary origins as if he were observing another species). So to a certain extent this kind of imagery triggers an instinctive biological response – the question then becomes how is it used and dealt with in the modern world of rapid image reproduction and transmission. There is often an inconsistency in value judgements made by some women I know; on one hand they will decry the objectification of women as sex objects but on the other hand, almost obliviously, they will comment on how they are looking forward to the next episode of Poldark in the hope he will show off his torso. So is objectification wrong per se? Or is it just part of the human condition and what is wrong, is the seeming dominance of objectified images / treatment of women at the expense of representations of women as leaders and influencers. The topic of male representation is a related topic but perhaps with a whole different set of concerns!

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