‘Understanding a Photograph’ is the title of both a 1968 essay by John Berger (2013, pp17-21) and the more recent Penguin Classics collection containing it. As with any collection of essays in which this device is used, the book is both more and less than its title suggests. More, because the book ranges much further than the scope of a single essay. Less, because the student looking for an in-depth discourse on interpreting individual photographs will not find it here.
Penguin have collected together a group of Berger’s essays spanning 40 years from 1967 to 2007. For a book ostensibly about photography, there are very few photographs (a point also regretted by Geoff Dyer in his introduction (ibid. xvii)) which makes some of the essays difficult to follow; Berger refers peripherally to images with which he is familiar but I am not. Nowadays, I could make a Google search and find the image – an option that was not available to the original reader in most cases. Many of the photographs which are presented have suffered in the printing process, with shadow detail lost and spreading into the highlights.
In the title essay and elsewhere, Berger argues against trying to shoehorn photography into the fine arts, seeing it as something different (and apparently seeing the fine arts as morphing into expressions of valuable property, inimical to his left-wing views). What sets photography apart from the other visual arts is its characteristic reproducibility (I wonder if he views daguerrotypes and Polaroids differently); a photograph does not have ‘property value’ but, instead is witness to a human choice exercised in a given situation.
He is dismissive of the idea of ‘composition’ in photography (and scornful of arranged still-lifes), regarding composition as something that painters do when creating an image from a blank piece of paper. Instead, a photographer is faced by the world and has to select from it through the viewfinder. More importantly, ‘The true content of a photograph is invisible, for it derives from a play, not with form, but with time.’ (Berger 2013, 19). The photographer selects the instant at which he presses the shutter button. This part of the essay is an alternative take on Cartier-Bresson’s notion of ‘the decisive moment’, although without HCB’s regard for the ‘geometry’.
There are two other essays, ‘Appearances’ and ‘Stories’, both from 1982, which deal with photography in a theoretical way. The others could best be described as extended rambles triggered by particular photographs or photographers. For instance, a photograph by Sitka Hanzlová triggers a riff on the nature of forests. Berger has said, in this book and elsewhere that having the text describe the image, or the image illustrating the text, are tautologies which he tries to avoid. He seems to have succeeded in this collection.
In summary, this is a book to be read for breadth rather than depth. There is not a lot of instruction but it is an insight into the mind of one of the important figures in the 20th century art world.