Time to read John Berger (art critic)

Discussion in 'Casual Photo Conversations' started by ajhingel, Jan 3, 2017.

  1. John Berger, the British art critic, author, poet, actor etc died yesterday in Paris (Anthony) after having lived in France since the beginning of the seventies, mostly in the Haut Savoie.
    A few of my quotations from his writings:
    He said of himself the he "always hated being called an art critic. It wasn't as bad as an art dealer, but he was a pain in the ass".
    "For the artist the truth is variable. He deals only with the particular version, the particular way of looking that he has selected"
    "The (visual) story teller hopes that the telling of the story can transform a nameless event into a familier and intimate one".
    It was "painted like the inside of a dress touching the skin"
    "The image shapes a text, which then goes on in shaping our understanding of an image".
    "Is it possible that the courage not to shut one's eyes can offer another kind of redemption ?"
    "Painters search for messages which cross the frontier: Messages which come from the back of the visible"
    Everything he writes is relevant for all visual arts.
    For those who have still not read his publications, it is time to start now.
    "Portraits, John Berger on Artists", Verso, 2015
    "Landscapes, John Berger on Art", Verso, 2016
  2. Thanks for the link Anders. I was saddened to hear he had died.
    Coincidently I had just started reading "Ways of Seeing"(1972), which has been in my library for a while but I hadn't got round to reading. The BBC documentary that came out with the book is also worth seeing - you can find it if you do a search.

    I would also suggest "Understanding a Photograph"(2013)
  3. Thanks Laurie and Anders. Amongst only partially read or unread books in my library (there should be a public penalty instituted for that, a bit like that for not mowing your grass in the suburbs in summer) are others on the ways of seeing (Patterson, Zakia, Arnheim, Kandinsky...). In addition to other unbought unread books are those by Berger you quote and also one of his sources of thought, the German art critic Walter Benjamin. Ah, between art practice and art theory, each day I have to question "where to start?"
  4. I can also recommend "Understanding a Photograph" by John Berger (1967, latest version Penguin 2013), very thorough and practical analyses, which I read too sporadically between activities on vacation in 2015, but which I will appily return to. I got as much or more out of it than in the books on the similar topic by Rolande Barthe, Susan S., or Janet Malcolm). A book that it is worth going back to for inspiration from time to time.
  5. Other ways of seeing?
    From how I taught myself it had a lot more to do with doing the work to make people see in other ways. Reverse engineering just from examining/interpreting a finished piece will tell you nothing on how to create with a new vision of an idea from thin air and move forward to a finished piece that will control or influence how someone interprets that new way of seeing. It will always be viewed by others in hindsight after the work has been done that no one has a clue about.
    If you could learn this new way of seeing from examination of the finished piece then it would be copying at best. Did Kandinsky, Patterson, Zakia, Arnheim (I have no idea who these people are except Kandinsky) write thoroughly detailed books on how to do what they did that helped others create images that showed a new way of seeing? I haven't seen any evidence of it, yet.
  6. Some Berger for Tim:
    Nothing in the nature around us is evil. This needs to be repeated since one of the human ways of talking oneself into inhuman acts is to cite the supposed cruelty of nature. The just-hatched cuckoo, still blind and featherless has a special hollow like a dimple on its back, so that it can hump out of the nest, one by one, its companion fledglings. Cruelty is the result of talking oneself into the infliction of pain or into the conscious ignoring of pain already inflicted. The cuckoo doesn’t talk itself into anything. Nor does the wolf.​
    He's an interesting read. I disagree with Berger on most of what he has to say about photography, but that's all the more reason to read him: he's interesting (terrible writers are just boring).
  7. Tim, Freeman Patterson is a photographer from Nova Scotia who has written several books. He therefore is not just using words but showing results of what he teaches.

    Richard Zakia, Prof. emeritus at Rochester Institute of Technology, has written several texts, at least one with Minor White. Perception and imaging is an interesting text (art and photography).

    Rudolph Arnheim (Harvard, Univ. of Michigan, Univ. of California) educator on psychology in art , has published several useful texts including "Art and visual perception" and "The Power of the center - A study of composition in the visual arts".

    These people are not just art critics but art or photography practitioners and theoreticians. Their lessons may not always make it into all of our photography, but knowing where they are coming from can help us in defining our personal approaches.
  8. "I disagree with Berger on most of what he has to say about photography" (Julie)

    That is indeed interesting, Julie. I tend to read especially what he writes on painters and I rarely disagree with him. For me, he has strong eye for the unexpected and most of it is relevant for anyone engaged in visual arts, including photography.
    I must admit, I never read his novels and neither his book (1967) on photography that Arthur referred to.
  9. I like many things he writes but not what he says about photography (with a few rare exceptions). He reminds me a little of Barthes: I truly love Barthes' writings (I think he's far better, more interesting than Berger) with the one exception being Camera Lucida, which I think is just asinine.
  10. Interesting about cruelty. The assumption Berger is making is that animals have no idea of such concepts as torture, being cruel and experiencing love (unlike humans). Personally I am not at all convinced this is true. He mentions the wolf - I suspect the wolf may be more aware and even emotional that we currently know. Humans need to downgrade animals to allow our often appalling treatment of them. Irrelevant to photography I realize, and we also have to recognize that Berger was writing this quite some time ago.
  11. I think you guys have not read his very last book of essays: Confabulations (essays, 2016), in which he has a very long dialogue with his cows walking them down from the mountains for the daily milking at his farm in the Haute-Savoie where he lived for 40 years. A deep intimacy between nature, animals and humans.
  12. Let me quote John Berger when he writes about Turner's famous painting: "The snowstorm" (1856):
    "If one really allows one's eyes to be absorbed into the forms and colours on the canvas, one begins to realize that, looking at it, one is in the centre of a maelstrom: there is no more a near and a far. For example, the lurch into the distance is not, as one would expect, into the picture, but out of it towards the right hand edge. It is a picture which precludes the outsider spectator" ("Portraits" (2016) p. 207)​
    For me, such writings and analysis is relevant for visual arts in general and cover also our ability to look into a photographical work.
  13. So, let's take another quote from John Berger's writings.
    This time on moral and truth and still from the same source in his essay on the French painter Jean-François Millet (p.217) concerning his most known painting 'The Angelus" (big, small) which hang(-s, -ed) on hundred of thousand of walls in rural France and elsewhere :
    Millet, without a trace of sentimentality, told the truth as he knew it: the passive acceptance of the couple in the Angelus was a small part of the truth. And the sentimentality and false morality afterwards foisted upon the picture will prove - perhaps already has proved - to be temporary.
    In the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art the same story is repeated again and again. The artist, isolated, knows that his maximum moral responsibility is to struggle to tell the truth; his struggle is on the near side, not the far, of drawing moral conclusions. The public, or certain sections of it, then draw moral conclusions to disguise the truth: the artist work is called - Balzac, Zola; or requisitioned for false preaching - Millet, Dostoevsky; or, if neither of these subterfuges work, it is dismissed as being naive - Shelley, Brecht. (p.217)​
    Again, he could have referred to certain examples of photography.
  14. The artist, isolated, knows that his maximum moral responsibility is to struggle to tell the truth; his struggle is on the near side, not the far, of drawing moral conclusions. The public, or certain sections of it, then draw moral conclusions to disguise the truth​
    This is interesting to consider. And thanks to Anders for bringing Berger to my attention.

    To what extent do we owe the artist looking at his or her work as he or she intended and to what extent does the artist have to let go of control after he or she makes the work public? There will always be tension. People ought to be allowed to respond to art in very personal terms and, if they read something in that the artist didn't intend, so be it. That's what much of art is about. It goes beyond the control of the artist and most artists know that. At the same time, artists will often prefer their work not be manipulated to suit some political agenda, and I can certainly see the rationale in that. It will always be a dance, and I'd be very careful before coming down universally in favor of the artist's interpretation over the public's interpretation or vice versa for that matter.

    Artists often do tell truths as they know it or are not telling truths at all but simply presenting their view of things, their opinion, or one of many possible perspectives about things. It's probably not a great idea to assume that artists are always striving for universal truths, which is why I like what Berger has to say, especially "For the artist the truth is variable. He deals only with the particular version, the particular way of looking that he has selected".

    Interesting to consider Georgia O'Keeffe in this regard. She had a lot of problems, and made this clear, with those who were interpreting her paintings in a certain way.
    “Well—I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.”
    While I admire her tenacity and her willingness to speak up, I always remind myself and others that there are often things in our work we didn't intend or consciously impute that are nevertheless there. Not everything an artist, or anyone else for that matter, does is conscious or intended. Maybe O'Keeffe has to learn about herself through her paintings rather than demand that she already knew what they were about or what they would show! Or maybe she's exactly right and none of it should be hung at her doorstep. Who's to know? Not necessarily even O'Keeffe herself.
  15. Thanks Fred. For the artist, truth is surely variable.
    John Berger has in his essay on Rembrandt a long analysis on the known observation, that in most of Rembrandt's portraits, hands are often painted out of natural proportions or in non-natural positions, making them the central items telling the story, like in The Jewish Bride (1669 - the story of Isaac and Rebecca). Look at the Bride's hands and the left hand of the bridegroom holding her. The faces becoming secondary to the telling.
    Another example, not from Berger, would be Ingres's "Grande Odalisque" (1814) and its lack of anatomical realism (no shadows, too long dorsal line....) which hangs in Louvre with a note describing the painting as "abstract". Again; the artist's truth.
  16. Anders, I took Berger to be speaking in the moral realm in the quote you supplied and I referred to. ("The artist, isolated,
    knows that his maximum moral responsibility is to struggle to tell the truth. His struggle is on the near side, not the far, of
    drawing moral conclusions.")

    I would say, with the Rembrandt and other such examples, we're talking more about accuracy than we are truths in a
    moral sense. I'd agree that an artist need not be accurate and that sometimes inaccuracies can provide more effective pictures.
  17. Fred, you are right The case of Rembrandt and Ingres are of another order, but still relevant to the "true story", as the artist sees it.

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