John Berger – Ways of seeing

John Berger’s book, Ways of seeing is an accessible text that introduces us to the ways in which we view art and how the invention of the camera has affected this. I re-looked at Berger’s work following my tutor’s response to my assignment 3 in which he commented on the perception of my images by the audience. He suggested that I further research Berger’s Ways of seeing, and sent me a link to the 1972 BBC4 recording below.

I have recorded here the main points that I took from my viewing of this video:

Berger suggests that what we see ‘depends on habit and convention’ and is not, as we might think, simply natural or objective. He explains that if we look now at a C19th painting, we see it as it has never been seen before – we bring to our viewing of it, our personal life experiences and the context in which it is viewed.

He continues: ‘The invention of the camera changed not only what we see but how we see it … it has even changed how we see the paintings of the past.’ Berger explains that an original painting can only be seen in one place at a time, and often, paintings were created for display in a specific building. The camera means that we can now see a painting anywhere, in any size and it can be reproduced for any purpose. When we look at an image on our computer screens, say of a painting, we see it with reference to its new environment: we see it in our room, surrounded by our things, and it is placed in the context of our lives.

Just as Doisneau’s Café image could be read in different ways depending on where it was displayed, so we use external context to interpret any image or reproduction. Please see my discussion in respect of context: EYV part 5 research point – context

The original painting however, still exists and can be viewed in a different context, perhaps in a gallery protected by bullet-proof glass. This context informs our viewing of the painting, just as its new position on our computer screen does. We understand an image or painting presented in a gallery as an original and as worthy of serious attention, simply because it is there. Berger says that such an image ‘is beautiful for that alone’. He says that the beauty of such a painting is dependent upon it being a genuine original. Its value as an original is a ‘substitute for what the painting lost when the camera made it reproducible’.

In the context of a gallery, we see the painting as still and silent, which is impossible on a computer screen. Berger says that the ‘stillness and silence’ of a physical painting can be ‘very striking’. The video at this point is muted to try to copy the feeling of stillness and silence of an original painting. I was surprised to become consciously aware of just how much noise is generated by my computer, and how much movement could be seen on my screen in the flickering and tiny movements of light as I watched.  To appreciate the stillness, Berger says, one has to view the original since even the turning of pages in a book creates movement.

The reproduction of works of art changes their meaning. The perception of a current viewer will be very different to the artist’s original intention: ‘The camera has multiplied possible meanings and destroyed the unique original meaning’. Berger explains that, with reproduction, meaning can be changed and a painting can be used by anyone to convey many different meanings. The addition of sound, perhaps music over a film of the painting can dramatically affect our interpretation of an image, just as text captions can. Berger says ‘music and rhythm can change the significance of a picture’. What is seen immediately before or after an image can similarly impact on the viewer’s interpretation of it.

I am reminded of the claim by the artist who created the statue Charging Bull in New York, that the addition of Fearless Girl next to his sculpture, significantly changes the meaning of his art. Please see my post: Charging Bull and Fearless Girl

It is very interesting to consider that the act of seeing is not simply a natural and objective result of looking with our eyes. What we see is inextricably linked with the context in which it is presented and viewed, and determined by our personal understandings and life experiences. What one individual sees therefore may be very different to another’s interpretation. Paintings and photographs, as a visual language, like written language, can be manipulated and presented in many different ways for any purpose and the original intention of the artist is only part of the context of viewing an image.

 

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