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On John Berger on Photography

A. D. Coleman, Banksy-style selfie, 1-4-17[The noted critic and novelist John Berger died on January 2, 2017, at his home in Paris. (Click here for his New York Times obituary.) Since we have entered the era of “deskilled art,” with deskilled criticism hot on its heels, we won’t likely see his equal again.

Deeply influenced by Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on photography, Berger applied them to what I consider one of the most important experiments in criticism of the twentieth century: the four-part BBC-TV series Ways of Seeing (1972). Most people know this project from its accompanying book, but I think the film series even more important, and encourage you to sample it here; you’ll find the other parts on YouTube also. (Inexplicably, no one has issued it on DVD.)

Once you get past Berger’s Robin Gibb haircut and that awful disco shirt, you’ll encounter a first-rate critical mind using the mass medium of television in an unprecedented way to explore and explain complex ideas in clear, unjargonized, accessible language — a skill I strive toward myself, and an approach I wish more of my colleagues would adopt.

John Berger, "Ways of Seeing," BBC (1972), screenshot

John Berger, “Ways of Seeing,” BBC (1972), screenshot

I’m also an admirer of several of Berger’s books, especially A Seventh Man (1975), produced with his frequent collaborator, the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr. Recent crises in the Middle East and Europe have made this project on the subject of migrant labor newly relevant and resonant.

The Weight of Photography, coverBut not all of Berger’s writings on photography have equal value. And what more appropriate way to celebrate a critic’s work than by engaging with it critically? In the essay below I cast a skeptical eye on a piece of Berger’s from 1996, taking my cue from Berger’s assessment of another critic’s prose in Ways of Seeing: “This is mystification.”

The following is a self-contained extract from a longer essay of mine, “Counting the Teeth: Photography for Philosophers,” originally commissioned for The Weight of Photography: Photography History Theory and Criticism, Introductory Readings, edited by Johan Swinnen and Luc Deneulin (Brussels: ASP/Academic & Scientific Publishers, 2010). You can download a pdf of the complete essay here. This excerpt first appeared in the April/May 2012 issue of Hotshoe, from the U.K. — A. D. C.]

John Berger Goes to the Dogs

Both out of interest and as a professional necessity I engage with my colleagues in criticism ― especially those who write about photography and/or “photo-based art” by “artists using photography.” Since such activity has virtually taken over the contemporary art world, most art critics nowadays have to grapple with photography willy-nilly, and their visible discomfort with it much resembles that of philosophers forced to the same challenge. Though in general I respect their insights into other forms of art, almost without exception they turn inexplicably simplistic and literal-minded whenever they discuss photography, apparently unable to address anything save the literal subject matter of the photographs in question ― roughly equivalent to assessing a Cézanne still life on the basis of your attitudes toward fruit.

John Berger, "Another Way of Telling" (1982), cover

John Berger, “Another Way of Telling” (1982), cover

So I come to the project of others’ philosophizing about photography with an outsider’s perspective and a critic’s predilection: that is, with the goal of putting that project in crisis, by finding ways to perturb the philosophers’ frequently ill-informed assumptions and mindless consensus. In short, I’m inclined to make trouble, and I hope to achieve that here.

In reading those of my colleagues who tend to wax philosophic, I consider it always useful to keep in mind that Aristotle’s reasoning led him to conclude that adult women had fewer teeth than adult men, and that his hermeneutics never required him to test this hypothesis by looking into a human female’s mouth and counting. I also think it helpful to ask myself the significant question articulated by the American pragmatist philosopher William James: What is the experiential life return of holding (and living by) this or that belief? And, like the U.S. poet William Carlos Williams, I find myself drawn to operate according to the proposition “No ideas but in things ” ― in other words, I choose to work under the assumption that, once I have enunciated my hypothesis, I’m obligated to look into a woman’s mouth and count.

Pentti Sammallahti, "The Russian Way, Opus 21" (1996), cover

Pentti Sammallahti, “The Russian Way, Opus 21” (1996), cover

Which brings us to the unbearable lightness of seeing. John Berger has written, “What we habitually see confirms us. Yet it can happen, suddenly, unexpectedly, and most frequently in the half-light of glimpses, that we catch sight of another visible order which intersects with ours and has nothing to do with it.” This statement comes from a gentle, affectionate meditation on the work of the Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti, an elegant little appreciation in which Berger considers at length the dogs who appear as protagonists in so many of Sammallahti’s images ― always, miraculously, in exactly the right place at the right time. (To read this essay by Berger, “Dog Days,” click here. It appeared originally in Pentti Sammallahti’s 1996 portfolio The Russian Way, Opus 31.) Berger proposes that “It was probably a dog that led Sammallahti to the moment and place for taking each picture.”

As it happens, I can speak with some authority here and say that Berger is precisely wrong on that score. Perhaps the following anecdote will help to explain what one can learn about photography when one deigns to speak about it with actual practicing photographers, and how that’s useful to critics (conceivably to philosophers too).

© Pentti Sammallahti, Solovki Mar Bianco, Russia, 1992

© Pentti Sammallahti, Solovki Mar Bianco, Russia, 1992

Having visited the Nordic countries often, I’d known and respected Sammallahti’s photographs for some years ― and of course I’d noticed those dogs: chance does favor the prepared mind (and eye), but nobody gets that lucky that often. When I finally met this photographer for the first time at Houston FotoFest in spring 2000, he was one of the discoveries of that Texas biennial festival, besieged by new admirers. However, at his opening in a downtown warehouse we found a moment to chat quietly just between ourselves.

I may have spent more time speaking with more photographers than Berger has, or may have a less imaginative and poetical nature than he. Possibly I’m not so philosophically inclined, or merely more suspicious, because after exchanging a few pleasantries I asked bluntly, “How do you manage the dogs?”

Pentti Sammallahti, "Dogs Standing," 1994

Pentti Sammallahti, “Dogs Standing,” 1994

Sammallahti gave me a slow, sidelong, evaluative glance, decided I merited a straight answer, lowered his voice, then replied, “Sardine oil.”

Turns out that Sammallahti does a lot of his photographing on long field trips, bringing along a supply of canned sardines and crackers for quick meals. The smell of sardine oil, he’s discovered, fascinates dogs; they will nose into and linger around it for some time. So this documentary photographer saves in a bottle the sardine oil left over from his snacks. Whenever he’s framed a scene in the viewfinder to his satisfaction and needs a dog in the image as an actor or a visual nexus of arrest, he pours some of the oil on the ground exactly where he wants the dog to appear in the frame and whistles up the nearest canines. Dogs ― pace Berger ― don’t necessarily lead Sammallahti to his vistas or his images; rather, at least some of the time, he entices dogs into his frames, for the purpose of ensuring their presence in his pictures.

In announcing this I take full responsibility for changing forever the reader’s perception of those pictures of Sammallahti’s, and I choose to make us all pay that price in order to put a finer point on a core conundrum:

John Berger, "Ways of Seeing" (1972), coverNo photograph transcribes the actual world. Photographs ― at least of the kinds that we generally refer to when we use that word ― describe. Of those photographers who use cameras, some seek to describe in their images the ways in which the world performs itself before their eyes and lenses. Some actively evoke performances from the world. We cannot necessarily tell which is which in any given image, or even in an entire body of work.

Thus the relation of the photograph to both truth and fact is slippery, and equivocal at best. Therein lies the ultimate challenge to photographer, audience member/average viewer, critic, and philosopher alike. No ideas but in things. Requiring that one look into the woman’s mouth and count her teeth represents photography’s gift to philosophy. Philosophy’s gift to photography awaits its unveiling.

This post supported by a donation from Charles Mintz.

A. D. Coleman, Critical Focus, 1995Special offer: If you want me to either continue pursuing a particular subject or give you a break and (for one post) write on a topic — my choice — other than the current main story, make a donation of $50 via the PayPal widget below, indicating your preference in a note accompanying your donation. I’ll credit you as that new post’s sponsor, and link to a website of your choosing. Include  a note with your snail-mail address (or email it to me separately) for a free signed copy of my 1995 book Critical Focus!

Liu Xia catalog, 2012, coverDonate now and I’ll include a copy of The Silent Strength of Liu Xia, the catalog of the 2012-13 touring exhibition of photos by the dissident Chinese photographer, artist, and poet, currently in her sixth year of extralegal house arrest in Beijing. The only publication of her photographic work, it includes all 26 images in the exhibition, plus another 14 from the same series, along with essays by Guy Sorman, Andrew Nathan, and Cui Weiping, professor at the Beijing Film Academy.

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