Understanding a Photograph – John Berger

‘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.


Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. Edited by Geoff Dyer. London: Penguin Classics.

‘The camera never lies … huh?’

Last month, I gave an after-dinner talk to a local Rotary Club on the subject ‘tweaking your holiday snaps’. The vote of thanks included the hackneyed phrase “… and they say the camera never lies”. This is odd because apart from 5 minutes on using cloning to remove distracting elements, nothing I demonstrated (minor crops, global and local exposure/contrast adjustment, waiting for the light, foreground interest, etc.) altered the essential truth of the image. I then reflected on how often I hear similar sentiments expressed, often with the word ‘photoshopped’ in the same sentence.

The phrase ‘The camera never lies’, or variations thereof is almost as old as practical photography itself, dating back at least to the 1890s (phrases.org.uk) and early photography was used as a reference for artists in improving accuracy, for instance Muybridge’s sequence of the galloping horse. (Harry Ransom Center). Photography is evidential, the photographic image is taken as evidence that the subject matter existed, in that place in front of the camera, at least for the period the shutter was opened.

However, we live in an age when fashion images are routinely retouched, impossible scenes are created by CGI on our television and cinema screens and in advertising, we are suspicious of the photographs that we see in our newspapers, sometimes rightly so (Wikipedia 2016), and the winner of a prestigious photographic competition is disqualified for manipulation. (Cheesman, 2015). Although the layman may blame this on Photoshop, we should remember that retouching occurred in pre-digital days and was considered matter-of-course by the Victorian Pictorialists such as Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson.

An 1982 extended essay by John Berger, ‘Appearances’ (Berger 2013, pp61-98) suggests an essential difference between photography and other visual arts. He says that painting or drawing ‘translates’ the scene whereas photography ‘quotes’ it. This concept of ‘quotation’ gives me a metaphor for a broad taxonomy of ways in which photography can  appear to lie.


The camera may quote the scene accurately but the image (quotation) is then altered in post-production. Spot the differences (not to mention the incompetent use of the clone tool) between the original and altered versions.

‘Selective quotation’

Apocryphally, the newspaper review, “If you want a riotous new comedy, avoid this like the plague.” becomes “… a riotous new comedy … (Daily Blah)” on the theatre posters.

Selective quotation can happen in camera or in post-production. The photographer can select his decisive moment and his framing to show his version of the story. Alternatively, an editor can change the emphasis and meaning of an image by selective cropping.

‘Quotation out of context’

Context is important to understanding. If you hear a person wanting to buy ‘a large farmhouse’ it is relevant to know whether they are talking to a baker or an estate agent.

Words and pictures reinforce each other. A false impression can be given if the words and photographs have different sources.

This image was used to illustrate and authenticate a viral hoax about snowfall in Cairo. The sphinx is actually a miniature from a Japanese theme park (Boese 2015)

Accurate quotation of a lie

I can do no better than quote John Berger on the subject of publicity images, a subject that occupies the fourth programme of Ways of Seeing (tw1975 (2012d)). The following quotation is from Understanding a Photograph (Berger 2013, 69)

‘The lie is constructed before the camera. A ‘tableau’ of objects and symbols is assembled. […] This ‘tableau’ is then photographed. It is photographed precisely because the camera can bestow authenticity upon any set of appearances, however false. The camera does not lie even when it is used to quote a lie. And so, this makes the lie appear more truthful’

A relevant variation on the original phrase is ‘The camera does not lie; photographers do’ (various sources, all unattributed) to which could be added, ‘… and so do art directors’


Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. Edited by Geoff Dyer. London: Penguin Classics.

Boese, A. (2015) Snow-covered Sphinx. Available at: http://hoaxes.org/weblog/comments/snow_covered_sphinx (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Cheesman, C. (2015) Photographer loses £10k crown; Claims editing ‘not major’. Available at: http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/latest/photo-news/photographer-loses-10k-crown-claims-editing-not-major-11228 (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Encyclopædia Britannica (2016) ‘Henry Peach Robinson | British photographer’, in Encyclopædia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Peach-Robinson (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Harry Ransom Center (no date) Horse in motion, Eadweard Muybridge, ca. 1886. Available at: http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/permanent/windows/southeast/eadweard_muybridge.html (Accessed: 30 October 2016)

phrases.co.uk (no date) The meaning and origin of the expression: The camera cannot lie. Available at: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/camera-cannot-lie.html (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

tw1975 (2012d) John Berger / ways of seeing , episode 4 (1972). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jTUebm73IY (Accessed: 22 October 2016)

Wikipedia (2016) ‘Adnan Hajj photographs controversy’. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adnan_Hajj_photographs_controversy (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

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.


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

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