Photography Theories

Ways of Seeing – John Berger

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this BAFTA award winning documentary series about art and images. But every time I re-watch this again, something new inspires me. This is the magic of really great work.

Episode 1 – John Berger talks about the reproduction of images due to the invention of photography and new media e.g. television. How this has an impact on how we appreciate art from the past.

In summary, he talks about how art was appreciated within context – the frame, the place displayed which creates the whole aesthetic experience subject to that piece of art. And art was unique in that sense – one piece one place one time. With the invention of photography, art becomes trasmittable – we no longer need to go to a particular place or travel to a certain country to have this experience. The art pieces can be delivered on prints, on television, in the context of our home. But will this experience be the same?

Berger argues that how we see the original art piece is entirely different to how it is being transmitted and displayed in front of our eyes. In some way, you are able respond to the original art piece by choosing how to see and appreciating the authenticity of it; in contrast, with the transmitted work, how the art work is arranged (e.g. zoom in or out, panning left or right, what music to play in background) is entirely coded to what the presenter wants us to see. The art can become easily manipulated and diverge from its original meaning. It has become like words rather than holy relics. He emphasised at the end that we need to be sceptical of how these images and meanings are arranged.

 

Episode 2 – he talks about the differences between being naked and nude – where the former is about being seen as oneself, whereas the latter is presenting oneself as an object, being on display without clothing. This refers to the portrayal of the female nude, an important part of the tradition of European art. Berger examines these paintings and asks whether they celebrate women as they really are or only as men would like them to be. Photography has elevated this issue to raising beauty in the public image of women and how this influences how women see themselves today.

 

Episode 3 – in this episode Berger examines where the value of art comes from. Before photography, art was somehow raised above life, turning it into a kind of religion. He said that when you buy a painting you also buys the look of the thing it represents. Early paintings were representations of private possessions, and some how possessing these paintings deduce a form of pride – because the sense of what you can put your hands on became closely connected with the sense of ownership. The celebration of merchandise began.

 

Episode 4 – the last episode he talks about the publicity of images. Where traditional art shows private possessions that consolidates the owner’s sense and value, the public images share a message of what we don’t have. The sight of it makes us want to possess it so to be envied. Publicity is a way of manufacturing glamour. It plays upon fear. Objects themselves are neutral, only publicity and images that raises or demolishes their values.

“In the urban world, we are surrounded by images of an alternative way of life. We may remember or forget these images – but briefly we take them in. And for a moment they stimulate our imagination, either by way of memory or by anticipation. But where is this other way of life?”

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