Ways of Seeing • John Berger

‘Ways of Seeing’ was originally published in 1972, as a collaboration between the BBC and Penguin to extend and elaborate on ideas contained in the BBC series of the same name. My copy is the 2008 Penguin Classics reissue.

To say that it is a strange book is putting it mildly. It comprises seven ‘essays’, four of which comprise words and images and the other three are images only. Typesetting is unusual, in Univers bold script (quotes and emphasised passages in a lighter script) which is more normally used for headings, and each page or double-page spread appears individually designed. At times I felt that I was holding a piece of conceptual art rather than reading a book.

Therefore, it is unfortunate that production values have suffered. Cheap ink and paper mean that the illustrations are very ‘soot-and-whitewash’ and the shadows have bled into  the highlights. This is one of the reasons why I got nothing out of the illustration-only essays; I spent too much effort working out what the images are, to think properly about the way they are arranged.

The first essay deals with the importance of context and the distinction between the original artwork (the thing itself) and the reproducible image. The original artwork may have been commissioned for the space it finds itself in (gallery, church altarpiece or the drawing room of a stately home) and has a particular meaning in that place. However, once reproduced (for instance by photographing it), it can appear at various scales and in myriad forms: postcard, book, TV screen, Athena poster (OK, I know I am dating myself with that reference but I am reviewing a 1972 book). If seen on TV, or a podcast, it may be accompanied by speech or music, or have details extracted. It can be subverted for advertising – an idea that forms the basis of the final essay. Berger is particularly rude about the sort of art expert who spends 14 pages discussing the history and provenance of a painting, rather than the image itself, and of the obscurantist language used by some critics.

The second written essay deals with ‘the nude’ in art, noting that nude subjects are almost exclusively female. It starts with the proposition that a man’s ‘presence’ is chiefly external (it is about what he can to to or for ‘you’, the spectator) while a woman’s is internal (it is about what can or cannot be done to her) and develops to the idea, also expressed by Michelle Henning (Wells, 2000 Ch5), of men possessing the ‘gaze’ and women existing to be gazed at. Nudes appeared in notionally biblical or classical scenes but are clearly intended to interact with the Spectator (the viewer of the image) rather than the other figures in the painting – even when kissing a lover, her body is turned toward the spectator rather than the lover. I’m not sure that Berger comes up with any answers, he simply makes the rather disapproving observation.

The third written essay is the one least relevant to photography, except as a precursor to the fourth. It deals with the European tradition of oil painting between 1400 and 1900 and puts forward an argument that they were commissioned primarily to reflect the owners status, by reference to their possessions. The techniques of oil painting permitted a degree of realism unprecedented at the time which (according to Berger) was equivalent to owning the thing depicted. Photography also permits realism, but a photograph is reproducible and does not have the one-off status of a painting.P

The final essay deals with the use of imagery in advertising and publicity, and draws parallels with the tradition of oil painting. Artworks may be subverted or pastiched (p134 shows a pastiche of Manet’s ‘Dejeuner sur l’herbe’ ) or used as background (p135 suggests that Leonardo would have used a Parker pen for his doodles). Colour photography is used in a similar way to the oil painting described in the third essay, having an unprecedented realism and tactility. Berger sees the difference in the notion of ‘glamour’ (which could be an attractive quality, an enchantment or illusion, or a malevolent Scottish shapeshifter) which the photograph has and the painting does not need. The basis of publicity is that it engenders feelings of unease or discontent with the viewer’s present condition, or an envy of himself in an alternate reality where he has bought the product. While painting is rooted in the present, publicity invokes an alternate or utopian future.

The book is a bit of a period piece (but not so much as the TV series, with Berger’s hairstyle and shirt); for instance, it represents a pre-feminist age so much of the second essay appears dated. It was iconoclastic in its time, criticising the conventional way of viewing and criticising art (it was said to be a deliberate ‘counter’ to Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ series) and appears to be still valid, particularly the final essay on advertising.

References

Berger, J. (2008) Ways of seeing. London: Penguin Classics.

Wells, L (ed) (2000) Photography: A Critical Introduction (2nd edition) London: Routledge

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