Understanding a Photograph, 1972 - John Berger
After my initial reading of this essay I decided there was a need to understand more about John Berger and who was influencing him. In the introduction to the book Understanding a Photograph, 2013 the editor Geoff Dyer explains that Berger is heavily influenced by Sontag's On Photography and how Barthes is"the only living critic and theorist of literature and language whom I, as a writer, recognises". All three had been influenced by Walter Benjamin's A Small History of Photography, 1931.
An essay written in 1972 and influenced by such eminent writers and theorists as Sontag, Barthes and Benjamin will to some extent be out of date in 2014 when compared to contemporary thinking and practices, especially around the work of museums and their curators.
Analyse the various paragraphs, in one sentence.
1.Photography, in the view of most people is not Fine Art and those that argue otherwise do so academically.
2.Few museums have space for photography and therefore only a small number of photographs are preserved in isolation away from the public.
3.Art (Painting, Sculpture) cannot survive and not become valuable as property, whereby it gives protection to the owner.
4.Photographs cannot be art as they have no rarity, they are not unique and as they are not valuable as property they cannot be considered.
5.Photography is a record of what the photographer wants to record and is a human choice.
6.The photograph has a message and the photographer's decisions during its making render it memorable or banal.
7.Composition when considered in photography is different to composition in painting and fine art because painting is an art of arrangement.
8.A photograph relies upon the viewer to have some knowledge and understand its meaning.
9.The photographers only choice is to photograph when not what, thus determining absence versus presence.
10.Photography is a moment in time, recorded in isolation while a painting is made over time and has a different language.
11.A photograph is an image of isolation, recording a moment and is valuable for what is not shown as for what is.
12. There is value in a photograph if it portrays truth, a decision however that remains with the viewer.
13. The message within a photograph may be more complex than first attributed.
14. Photography, due to its truth is powerful when used as a weapon.
What is Berger's Argument ?
He is arguing that photography is not fine art because as an object it is not unique. He believes it to be a means of recording a moment in time and as such is devoid of artistic arrangement.
John Berger is well known for his socio-political stance. How is this reflected in the argument that he presents in this essay ?
Berger is an artist, author, art critic, poet and self confessed Marxist. He argues quite strongly that photography is not art but as a weapon in an ideological struggle that can be used for and against us. In 1972 he wrote that photography was not in museums and therefore had not been preserved in isolation away from the masses. If photography were to held in museums it would be hidden. This is not correct and in 2014 photography is in museums and being seen and witnessed by the masses.
Are you convinced by Berger's Argument ?
As an ideological piece of work there is much of Berger that is still relevant despite the 40 or so years that have passed. The world of museums and their curators have moved away from his thinking and most collect and display photography as fine art although the commercial gallery is more often interested in the value of the work rather than its artistic integrity. As a photographer I do not feel violated when photography is not seen as art, so in that respect I agree with Berger and I abstain from the argument when amongst artist from the more established disciplines. Its lack of uniqueness and rarity is an overwhelming argument one would think. However the value of sales of photographs has risen into six figure sums which displays an appetite amongst collectors for this medium.
What is your opinion of Berger's writing style ?
Berger writes in an academic style and that initially made it difficult to understand. I was often wondering if there were just too many words but after reading this essay and others in Understanding a Photograph 2013 I begin to understand his argument not only at a superficial level (the words) but within the words there is more of Berger. From an initial skepticism I am prepared to read more from this highly respected artist and writer.