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’.
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]