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Thread: John Berger's Understanding a Photo

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    John Berger's Understanding a Photo

    From the book:

    "Every relation between forms in a painting is to some degree adaptable to the painter's purpose. This is not the case with photography. (Unless we include those absurd studio works in which the photographer arranges every detail of his subject before he takes the picture.) Composition in the profound, formative sense of the word cannot enter into photography. The formal arrangement of a photograph explains nothing."

    What do you think of the above? I am interested in discussing this or other views.
    Thanks
    G>

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    Re: John Berger's Understanding a Photo

    Hi Geotrupede,

    I'm not exactly sure what the author is talking about because the paragraph is out of context. Is he trying to say something like "composition doesn't matter" or "composition doesn't contain information" for photography? That's the impression I'm getting but I haven't read the book. What do you think he's saying?

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    Re: John Berger's Understanding a Photo

    The article can be found here, and probably other places too. It is apparently from 'Selected Essays and Articles: The Look of Things' published in 1972. I quite like John Berger, and have eight of his books, but not that one.

    He approaches things from quite a leftist, radical point of view. For example, earlier in this article he says, "It is more useful to categorize art by what has become its social function. It functions as property."

    His analysis of a photograph focuses on its selection of a particular instant in time, and on what it excludes, i.e. other instants, other viewpoints.

    In comparison with painting/drawing, I would agree with "Composition in the profound, formative sense of the word cannot enter into photography.", but then the art world is broad enough to include arrangements of 'found' objects, and a photograph is not so far from that.

    I think that his exclusion of 'absurd studio works' is a bit limited, or perhaps just dated, as from behind-the-scene looks at some of the works of Edward Burtynsky, and Art Wolfe, for example, they sometimes indulge in quite a lot of arrangement/composition for photographs made outdoors.

    I would disagree with "The formal arrangement of a photograph explains nothing.", perhaps depending on how one interprets 'explains'. In my view, the particular spatial arrangement(composition) of the elements of a photograph is important - for me this geometry is an important part of why the photographer chose this viewpoint, and this moment, to capture. And further, why, when editing, the photographer chose this photograph, of many taken, to print, and to present, and why certain photographs, of all those printed, are admired and loved. Of course there are many different aesthetics, so none of this is universal or fixed: a photographer may employ a variety of compositional strategies, and these may vary over time, and a viewer may appreciate various sorts of photographs similarly.

    I think that in this article Berger may be reacting to something that he had previously written ("The argument of apologists (and I myself have been among them) has been a little academic."), and maybe over-reacting, being a bit extreme, and he has a tendency to be excessively polemical: "Hence the crucial role of photography in ideological struggle.".

    Good though.

    Thanks for raising the question.

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    Re: John Berger's Understanding a Photo

    Quote Originally Posted by Arjuna View Post
    The article can be found here, and probably other places too. It is apparently from 'Selected Essays and Articles: The Look of Things' published in 1972.
    Thanks for the link

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    Re: John Berger's Understanding a Photo

    "It is more useful to categorize art by what has become it's social function."

    "Hence the crucial role of photography in ideological struggle. Hence the necessity of our understanding a weapon which we can use and which can be used against us."


    The words "useful" and "weapon" weren't highlighted in the original article so I added that for emphasis. Berger is approaching photography from a technological point of view. He sees it as a ready-to-hand tool that can fulfill some kind of practical purpose for the user. A photograph can be a commodity for buying and selling, a way of recording an event, or a means of coercion through propaganda. In the final sentence of the article, he actually calls it a weapon. There are many ways that a photograph can be used in a functional sense that wouldn't distinguish it from toasters or airplanes.

    My belief is that thinking of photography as a tool is often what mistakenly leads people like Berger to believe that the medium of photography can't produce art. Western philosophical aesthetics has a long traditional of distinguishing art from craft. Craft is always functional, practical and serves a purpose as a means-to-an-end. In this sense, craft is never free from it's use-value and that's why it is solely a tool. On the contrary, art is an end-in-itself. Art must remain free and autonomous in order to even be considered art in the first place. The autonomy of art means that it can never be reduced to the functional role of a ready-to-hand tool.

    1) art = useless, impractical
    2) craft = useful, functional

    Photographers are themselves to blame for Berger and the public's inability to recognize photography as an art. We spend way too much time discussing the gear/tools of the trade, formulaic techniques, and the commercial profession (which serves only the function of advertising propaganda or event recording.) The political right and left wing are even in agreement when it comes to viewing photography as tool. They are both equally guilty of exploiting it's functional value, and in that sense, there's no difference between a General Motors car ad and Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother."
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