What John Berger can teach us about photography
I was so sad to hear of John Berger’s passing last week. He was a fascinating man, one whom I had the great pleasure to photograph a few years ago. He was very generous too; he sat with me after our shoot and read to me. I was really touched by his warmth.
It seems like now is a great time to reflect on his ideas and what he has to teach us photographers. I had written an outline of a post about Berger many months ago, and it had sat languishing in my almost-ready folder. So given that I am in Cuba this month with very little internet Di has hauled it out, polished it up and filled in the (many, many) missing gaps.
John Berger was a English writer and artist who, though born in London, spent much of his life living in Europe. He is famously known for his writing about art – his BBC TV show and accompanying book Ways of Seeing, made him well-known in the 1970s. As well as writing plays and fiction, he was also a passionate political writer.
He weaved his way through many genres and I think that is what made his work so thought-provoking; he was both fiercely engaged and fascinated by the world around him. I encourage anyone with an interest in art, photography, culture to read or watch his work.
And I admire anyone who makes the time to improve the life of others, and his thoughts and ideas about photography, art, all of it, were an incredible gift to all of us.
Here I want to talk about some of the ideas I love from Berger, that can help us develop our own ways of seeing, as well as thinking about, our practise of photography.
What I think I get from reading John Berger’s writing is a fascination with stories, and ultimately with the human experience. That there are always different ways to view the world around us.
What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time. John Berger
I love to keep things simple in my life, and in my photography. I love to be ‘clean’ in my approach, not having extraneous elements in my photos, and work always to simplify the shot so that I have the cleanest, strongest composition possible. That’s just me and my style. There are some amazing photographers out there who love to compose more complex compositions. It’s whatever floats your boat.
What I like about Berger’s quote (above), though, was this reminder that photography – like any art form, like how writing is just words – is using the most basic and simple elements. From it, so many incredible things can be formed. So however complex your ideas become about photography, a good way to not get overwhelmed by it all is to remember its inherent simplicity. All photos are made from just ‘light and time’.
To try to understand the experience of another it is necessary to dismantle the world as seen from one’s own place within it and to reassemble it as seen from his. John Berger
To me this shows us how we have to lose the sense of ourselves when we are taking photos of other people. We have to lose our preconceptions and just watch, absorb and try to understand what it is to inhabit the life of the person or people we are photographing.
This is super hard. Think about how much time you spend in your own head thinking about the world from your perspective. Your very subjective perspective formed from all the millions of experiences you’ve had that makes you so unique. Now – how much time do we spend thinking about things from someone else’s view? Jeez, I find it hard to think about the world from my wife’s perspective, let alone a random stranger on the street, and I live with her. Lol!
For me the lesson here is you don’t want to be just photographing through the lens of your own experience: try hard to dismantle that, try and move out of your little bubble.
And in a slightly different way – this aspect of thinking about your subject is particularly relevant when I am travelling in countries where there is a lot of intense poverty, or even when I am in certain parts of London. It’s so easy to wander around photographing ‘atmospheric ruin and decay’, forgetting this is people’s homes and their lives. It’s like a trend, and I see it all the time, forgetting that we are visitors to these places, often much wealthier that the people we are wandering around amongst. That’s when you have to remember to imagine what it’s like being on the other end of the photographer’s lens.
Even when I was writing on art, it was really a way of storytelling – storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people.
Being open to the lives of other people – yes! That’s what we photographers who like photographing other people should really embrace. We have hundreds of opportunities to observe people and their humanity every day. It’s an incredible thing to do, have the chance to really dig beneath the surface of what is going on in other people’s lives.
As Berger also says:
If one thinks of appearances as a frontier, one might say that painters search for messages which cross the frontier.
We are looking to dig beneath the surface, aren’t we? Looking for messages, clues, opportunities that help us see something beyond the appearance of things. Don’t settle for the surface.
Ali Smith, said in her speech, A Gift for John Berger:
The act of going beyond ourselves is the art act. Writing about Cézanne he [Berger] calls it “his love affair, his liaison, with the visible”. Here he is on Rembrandt’s A Woman Bathing: “We are with her, inside the shift she is holding up. Not as voyeurs. Not lecherously, like the elders spying on Susanna. It is simply that we are led, by the tenderness of his love, to inhabit her body’s space.” He quotes Simone Weil: “Love for our neighbour, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius.
To pay attention to the people and the world around us can be a tremendous gift – to see people in a way that is kind, generous and full of genuine interest – that spirit also helps us to create portraits that are full of emotion and interest.
Whenever the intensity of looking reaches a certain degree, one becomes aware of an equally intense energy coming towards one through the appearance of whatever it is one is scrutinizing. John Berger
When you take yourself out of your own little bubble and really concentrate on noticing, looking and observing life in closer detail, you become aware of the intense energy that other people, places and things are emitting.
Everything in our world has some form of energy – light, land, weather, the energy of movement between people. Even when it feels like there is an absence of energy – an inert object, a barren landscape, an empty wall.
That energy creates a dialogue, a quality to recognise and to understand within the scene.
Drawing is a constant correction of errors, maybe a great deal of creation is actually that. There is not really a point you’re suddenly aware that there is nothing more to correct, and if you were aware of that it would probably be very bad. John Berger, from this excellent 5 min interview on Newsnight
This is a reminder to all us creatives that creativity is a journey and we are not aiming for perfection, but I think instead, towards the act of exploration. Being creative means you are in constant motion, examining, probing, questioning, looking. Don’t be afraid of mistakes, do your best for yourself and your work, and keep moving.
If I am a storyteller, it’s because I listen. John Berger
I love this, and for some reason it reminds me of one of my favourite photographers – Elliott Erwitt. Erwitt has a stunning eye for the comedic and hilarious moments of life. He is one of the ultimate ‘listeners’ when it comes to noticing amazing visual stories in his photos.
I look at Elliott’s photos and I image him wandering around in a totally drifting mindset, just looking for stories, looking for comedy, being in an intense state of open awareness.
There are stories everywhere – we just have to pay attention.
The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight. John Berger
This made me think about when we look at a photograph that makes an impact on us, there is the obvious aesthetic appeal, but there is also something that is very hard to explain. It’s almost that somewhere buried in our subconscious there is a reminder of an experience, or something else that we know. But we don’t know what. That feeling is almost like an echo to something you can’t recall, can’t explain – you just know that that photo means something more to you that the sum of its parts.
Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. John Berger
I love watching very young children go about their days. The very young are in a permanent state of observation, as they watch without inhibition the world unfolding around them.
I think we could all benefit from doing that a little bit more – being in a state of open, uninhibited attention. Because words will only take you so far. We are, we should be, so much more fluent in the visual as words came much later into our worlds. So let’s stop translating everything into words, and trust in our visual intelligence.
The arranging of artists in an order of merit seems to me to be an idle game. What matters are the needs that art answers. John Berger
I’ve talked a lot in the past about what being creative brings us as the creators. For me it’s about being more aware and more connected to what’s around us. But what about the people who view our creations? Now maybe we are not on the level of the grand old masters, but I do believe that every single one of us has something interesting to communicate.
Humans are by nature storytellers – whether that is through song or photos, paintings or writing. The act of taking a photo is saying – hey, I am here and this is what I saw, this is what I found profoundly and amazingly interesting. And that’s exciting, that possibility that something you see and photograph could mean something to someone out there.
Maybe also it’s a bit like the human pyramid of needs, that once you have food, shelter and safety the mind likes to look around and see – what else is possible here? Maybe it’s great tequila, or travelling to warm places, or an awesome book (one of my favourites) and then art. Art for me in its many ways and many facets is an opportunity to explore, to reflect, to learn, to understand.
To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life in the giant scales of fate if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud. John Berger
Accept what life is, and relish every cloud… I really want my life to be an interesting experience. Maybe it’s not possible to do interesting things every day, but to me it’s about the spirit of how you live. How you perceive your life and the small choices you make to deepen your awareness of the world.
Living and interesting, inquisitive life is an art in and of itself.
In later life John Berger moved to a little Alpine village in France. Tilda Swinton made a documentary about his life there called The Seasons in Quincy, Four portraits of John Berger which I would love to see.
Do you know the legend about cicadas? They say they are the souls of poets who cannot keep quiet because, when they were alive, they never wrote the poems they wanted to. John Berger
This is permanent issue on the horizon for most creatives – the act of getting started and finishing! Sometimes it’s not even about finishing, because photography becomes this long story that we are involved in and we dip in and out of. It’s the act of doing and continuing to do that I think is so essential.
Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman. John Berger
I photograph a lot of cities and they can be hard to get a handle on them. They are chaotic and big and multi-faceted and hard to break down so that you can create interesting shots. But there is always a spirit to a place. Much like the fact that everything radiates energy, I believe that there is an atmosphere, a spirit, that you can discover about your subject. It’s something you can detect, something you find from observation, and this will help you get under the surface of a lot of subjects.
Maybe it’s your own interpretation of the spirit of your subject. Leave a dozen photographers in a city and they will all come up with something different, but there is an atmosphere that makes sense to you.
A photograph is not necessarily a lie, but it isn’t the truth either. It’s more like a fleeting, subjective impression. John Berger
Every photograph you take is a subjective impression of the world around you. I am always amazed how when I am out on my workshops the group can all be in the same place, but we came come out with very different photos.
This should give you tremendous confidence with your photography. We don’t have to worry if this place has been photographed 50 million times. We don’t have to worry what someone else has done, or is doing. We are unique and if we keep at it and keep pushing ourselves out of our little bubbles of what life is to us, then we will create something unique and interesting.
In 1960’s Berger collaborated with photographer Jean Mohr on a book about a very committed doctor in rural Gloucestershire, called A Fortunate Man.
It was suggested by his friend Victor Anant, who told him:
“‘You know, this man is really remarkable,’ Anant told me, ‘but one day no one will know of him. His goodness will have consequences, of course, but unless you write about him, the specifics of his life and his attitude may not be preserved.'”
I really like the idea for this project, because although we are now photographing and documenting life in an unprecedented way – most of that is just private or what I like to think of as reactive-photography. It’s not thoughtful, it’s oh there is a nice monument, there is an looking interesting person and up comes the camera – click. There is still so much that goes unseen in our world.
Look beyond the obvious, look at the people who aren’t been seen, puncture the appearance of things, and you’ll go a long way with your photography.
I feel that Berger is encouraging us photographers to be patient, watch, look and listen. Stories will come – in whatever form you are looking for them. Partly because…
“. . . the genius is by definition a man who is in some way or another larger than the situation he inherits.”
I’d love to know what you think. Does this strike a chord with you? Have you read any of John Berger’s writing and loved any particular ideas he presented? Please comment below 🙂
Sending great wishes for an awesome 2017 from Cuba (Anthony) and London (Diana).
Anthony and Diana
01/03/2017 @ 1:10 AM
very thought provoking
08/01/2017 @ 10:26 AM
Dear Anthony thank you for this interesting and thoughtful piece. Not only was interesting on John Berger, but your writing is equally inspired and makes me understand more and feel inspired to strive to work harder.