Understanding a Photograph by John Berger

Understanding a Photograph BY John Berger. edited by Geoff Dyer. Aperture. Hardcover, 256 pages. $25.
The cover of Understanding a Photograph

Critic and novelist John Berger died on Monday at the age of ninety. Here, from his introduction to a recent edition of Berger's Understanding a Photograph, Geoff Dyer considers the seminal critic's deep engagement with the medium. —Bookforum

I became interested in photography not by taking or looking at photographs but by reading about them. The names of the three writers who served as guides will come as no surprise: Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, and John Berger. I read Sontag on Diane Arbus before I'd seen any photographs by Arbus (there are no pictures in On Photography), and Barthes on André Kertész, and Berger on August Sander without knowing any photographs other than the few reproduced in Camera Lucida and About Looking. (The fact that the photo on the cover of About Looking was credited to someone called Garry Winogrand meant nothing to me.)

Berger was indebted to both of the others. Dedicted to Sontag, the 1978 essay "Uses of Photography" is offered as a series of "responses" to On Photography, published the previous year: "The thoughts are sometimes my own, but all originate in the experience of reading her book." Writing about The Pleasure of the Text (1973), Berger described Barthes as "the only living critic or theorist of literature and language whom I, as a writer, recognize."

For his part, Barthes included Sontag's On Photography in the list of books—omitted from the English edition—at the end of Camera Lucida (1980). Sontag, in turn, had been profoundly shaped by her reading of Barthes. All three had been influenced by Walter Benjamin, whose A Short History of Photography (1931) reads like the oldest surviving part of a map this later trio tried—in their different ways, using customized projections—to extend, enhance, and improve. Benjamin is a constantly flickering presence in much of Barthes' writing. The anthology of quotations at the end of On Photography is dedicated—with the kind of intimate relation to greatness that Sontag cultivated, adored, and believed to be her due—"to W. B." At the end of the first part of Ways of Seeing Berger acknowledges that "many of the ideas" had been taken from an essay of Benjamin's titled "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." (This was 1972, remember, before Benjamin's essay became one of the most mechanically reproduced and quoted ever written.)

Photography, for all four, was an area of special interest, but not a specialism. They approached photography not with the authority of curators or historians of the medium but as essayists, writers. Their writings on the subject were less the product of accumulated knowledge than active records of how knowledge and understanding had been acquired or was in the process of being acquired.

This is particularly evident in the case of Berger, who did not devote an entire book to the subject until Another Way of Telling in 1982. In a sense, though, he was the one whose training and career led most directly to photography. Sontag had followed a fairly established path of academic study before becoming a freelance writer, and Barthes remained in academia for his entire career. Berger's creative life, however, was rooted in the visual arts. Leaving school possessed by a single idea—"I wanted to draw naked women. All day long"—he attended London's Chelsea and Central schools of art. In the early 1950s he began writing about art and became a regular critic—iconoclastic, Marxist, much admired, often derided—for the New Statesman. His first novel, A Painter of Our Time (1958), was a direct result of his immersion in the world of art and the politics of the left. By the mid-1960s he had widened his scope far beyond art and the novel to become a writer unhindered by category and genre. Crucially, for the current discussion, he had begun collaborating with a photographer, Jean Mohr. Their first book, A Fortunate Man (1967), made a significant step beyond the pioneering work of Walker Evans and James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), on rural poverty in the Great Depression. (A Fortunate Man is subtitled "The Story of a Country Doctor," in homage, presumably, to the great photo-essay by W. Eugene Smith, "Country Doctor," published in Life in 1948.) This was followed by their study of migrant labor, A Seventh Man (1975), and, eventually, Another Way of Telling. The important thing, in all three books, is that the photographs are not there to illustrate the text, and, conversely, the text is not intended to serve as any kind of extended caption for the images. Rejecting what Berger regards as a kind of "tautology," words and images exist, instead, in an integrated, mutually enhancing relationship. A new form was being forged and refined.

A side-effect of this ongoing relationship with Mohr was that Berger had, for many years, not only observed Mohr at work; he had also been the subject of that work. Lacking the training as a photographer that he'd enjoyed as an artist, he became very familiar with the other side of the experience, of being photographed. With the exception of one picture, by another friend—Henri Cartier-Bresson!—the author photographs for his books have almost always been by Mohr; they constitute Mohr's visual biography of his friend. (The essay on Mohr included here records Berger's attempt to reciprocate, to make a sketch of the photographer.) His writings on drawing speak with the authority of the drawer; his writings on photography often concentrate on the experience, the depicted lives, of those photographed. Barthes expressed the initial impetus for Camera Lucida as photography "against film"; Berger's writing on photography hinges on its relationship to painting and drawing. As Berger has grown older, his early training—in drawing—rather than fading in importance has become a more trusted tool of investigation and inquiry. (Tellingly, his latest book, published in 2011 and inspired in part by Spinoza, is called Bento's Sketchbook.) A representative passage in "My Beautiful" records how, in a museum in Florence, he came across the porcelain head of an angel by Luca della Robbia: "I did a drawing to try to understand better the expression of her face." Could this be part of the fascination of photography for Berger? Not just that it is a wholly different form of image production, but that it is immune to explication by drawing? A photograph can be drawn, obviously, but how can its meaning best be drawn out?

This was the goal Barthes and Berger shared: to articulate the essence of photography—or, as Alfred Stieglitz had expressed it in 1914, "the idea of photography." While this ambition fed, naturally enough, into photographic theory, Berger's method was always too personal, the habits of the autodidact too ingrained, to succumb to the kind of discourse- and semiotics-mania that seized cultural studies in the 1970s and '80s. Victor Burgin—to take a representative figure of the time—had much to learn from Berger; Berger comparatively little from Burgin. After all, by the time of About Looking (1980), the collection that contained some of his most important essays on photography, Berger had been living in the Haute-Savoie, France, for the best part of a decade. His researches—I let the word stand in spite of being so thoroughly inappropriate—into photography proceeded in tandem with the struggle to gain a different kind of knowledge and understanding: of the peasants he had been living among and was writing about in the trilogy Into Their Labours. Except, of course, the knowledge and methods were not so distinct after all. Writing the fictional lives of Lucie Cabrol or Boris—in Pig Earth (1979) and Once in Europa (1987), the first two volumes of the trilogy—or about Paul Strand's photograph of Mr. Bennett (p. 44), both required the kind of attentiveness celebrated by D. H. Lawrence in his poem "Thought":

Thought is gazing on to the face of life, and reading what can be read,

Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to a conclusion.

Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges,

Thought is a man in his wholeness wholly attending.

In Berger's case, the habit of thought is like a sustained and disciplined version of something that had come instinctively to him as a boy. In Here Is Where We Meet the author's mother remembers him as a child on a tram in the London suburb of Croydon: "I never saw anyone look as hard as you did, sitting on the edge of the seat." If the boy ended up becoming a "theorist," then it is by adherence to the method described by Goethe, quoted by Benjamin (in A Short History) and requoted by Berger in "The Suit and the Photograph": "There is a delicate form of the empirical which identifies itself so intimately with its object that it thereby becomes theory."

This is what makes Berger such a wonderful practical critic and reader of individual photographs ("gazing on to the face of life, and reading what can be read"), questioning them with his signature intensity of attention—and, often, tenderness. (See, for example, the analysis of Kertész's picture A Red Hussar Leaving, Budapest, June 1919, p. 64.) To that extent his writing on photography continues the interrogation of the visible that characterizes his writing on painting. As he explains at the beginning of the conversation with Sebastião Salgado: "I try to put into words what I see."

In 1960 Berger had defined his aesthetic criteria simply and confidently: "does this work help or encourage men to know and claim their social rights?" Consistent with this, his writing on photography was from the start—from the essay on Che Guevara of 1967, "Image of Imperialism"—avowedly and unavoidably political. (Which meant, in "Photographs of Agony," of 1972, he could argue that pictures of war and famine which seemed political often served to remove the suffering depicted from the political decisions that brought it about into an unchangeable and apparently permanent realm of the human condition.) Naturally, he has gravitated toward political, documentary, or "campaigning" photographers, but the range is wide and the notion of political never reducible to what the Indian photographer Raghubir Singh called "the abject as subject." In "The Suit and the Photograph" August Sander's image of three peasants going to a dance becomes the starting point for a history of the suit as an idealization of "purely sedentary power" and an illustration of Antonio Gramsci's notion of hegemony. (As with Benjamin's "Work of Art," remember that this was the 1970s, almost twenty years before Gore Vidal informed Michael Foot that "the young, even America, are reading Gramsci.") Lee Friedlander, the least theory-driven of photographers, once commented on how much stuff—how much unintended information—accidentally ended up in his pictures. "It's a generous medium, photography," he concluded drily. "The Suit and the Photograph" is an object lesson in how much information is there to be discovered and revealed even in photographs lacking the visual density of Friedlander's. It's also exemplary, reminding us that many of the best essays are also journeys, epistemological journeys that take us beyond the moment depicted, often beyond photography—and sometimes back again. In "Between Here and Then," written for an exhibition by Marc Trivier in 2005, Berger mentions the photographs only briefly before telling a story about an old and beloved clock, how the sound of its ticking makes the kitchen where he lives breathe. The clock breaks (is actually broken by the author in what must have been a furious moment of temporary slapstick), Berger takes it to a mender only to find… Well, that would spoil the story but, at the end, as well as a literal return there is also a coming together, a tacit exchange of greetings between Berger and Barthes, who wrote in one of the most beautiful passages of Camera Lucida:

For me the noise of time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches—and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.

This is a glimpse of Barthes the novelist in exquisite miniature. Berger's critical writing, meanwhile, has gone hand in hand with the creation of a substantial body of fiction. As Berger examines and coaxes out a photograph's stories—both the ones it reveals and those that lie concealed—so the task of the critic and interrogator of images gives way to the vocation and embrace of the storyteller. And it does not stop there, since, as he reminds us in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, "the traffic between storytelling and metaphysics is continuous."

The essays in this book are arranged more or less chronologically. They comprise selections from books by Berger and previously uncollected pieces written for exhibitions or as introductions and afterwords to catalogs. A few very minor mistakes have been silently corrected and some other very small changes have been made to eliminate discrepancies resulting from the pieces having gone through the different wash cycles of previous house styles. All of the pieces would benefit from being more comprehensively illustrated. This is more of a problem, obviously, than it was when a given piece appeared in a book filled with large, high-quality reproductions. It is less of problem now than it was back in the time of Sontag's On Photography since so many of the pictures can be found instantly online, can even be viewed on the same device on which this book may be read. Having said that, it bears repeating that Another Way of Telling was conceived as a collaboration. The images are as important as the words. In the essays included here ("Appearances" and "Stories"), we have only Berger's words which, in this context, serve as signposts, directing you back to the book, where they can be reunited with Mohr's pictures.

From John Berger's Understanding a Photograph, edited and introduced by Geoff Dyer, and published by Aperture. Used with permission of the publisher.