Monday, 12 June 2017

Understanding a Photograph: John Berger

I started reading this book because I was so enamoured by ‘Ways of Seeing’ by Berger. I think I will read his novel next. It was not as exciting as ‘Ways of Seeing’ but I realized that John Berger is someone who can shake me with words, by the way he arranges them and the meaning they contain. The book was heavy with words containing ideas which are sometimes so heavy that I almost felt these words struggle with weight of the ideas, trying hard to slither away from the author.
Here are excerpts which I liked and what I thought of them.

In the chapter ‘Understanding a Photograph’ he tries explaining what a photograph signifies.
‘A photograph is a result of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen. If everything that existed were continually being photographed, every photograph would become meaningless. A photograph celebrates neither the event itself nor the faculty of sight in itself. A photograph is already a message about the event it records. The urgency of this message is not entirely dependent on the urgency of the event, but neither can it be entirely independent from it. At its simplest, the message, decoded, means: I have decided that seeing this is worth recording.

It might sound simple perhaps, but if you think about it, you will realize how deep and true this thought is. The statement is true about every single photograph, isn’t it?

Berger continues to say,
‘This is equally true of every memorable photographs and the most banal snapshots. What distinguishes the one from the other is the degree to which the photograph explains the message, the degree to which the photograph makes the photographer’s decision transparent and comprehensible. Thus we come to the little-understood paradox of the photograph. The photograph is an automatic record through the mediation of light of a given event: yet it uses the given event to explain its recording.

Isn’t that totally mind blowing!

Photography is the process of rendering observation self-conscious.’
‘A movie director can manipulate time as a painter can manipulate the confluence of the events he depicts. Not so the still photographer. The only decision he can take is as regards the moment he chooses to isolate. Yet this apparent limitation gives the photograph its unique power. What it shows invokes what is not shown. One can look at any photograph to appreciate the truth of this. [The oft repeated line in both films and photographs that ‘what is in the frame is also what is outside the frame’]The immediate relation between what is present and what is absent is particular to each photograph: it may be that of ice to sun, of grief to a tragedy, of a smile to a pleasure, of a body to love, of a winning racehorse to the race it has run.’[In a film you don’t have to show fire. You only have to show embers. It shows fire without showing it.]

Berger says that the moment that is chosen for the photograph by the photographer decides the effectiveness of the photograph. The moment, he says should contain a ‘quantum of truth’. ‘The nature of this quantum of truth, and the ways in which it can be discerned, vary greatly. It may be found in an expression, an action, a juxtaposition, a visual ambiguity, a configuration. Nor can this truth ever be independent of the spectator.’ [Me: In a photograph of someone waving goodbye from a train about to leave, the quantum of truth can be the wave, it tells us about the occasion, the person whom the wave is directed at and many more things. This cannot be independent of the spectator. A spectator might discern these unsaid images according to their orientation and their own personal experience cloud. The wave might signify the lunch the person is soon going to have on the train for someone. It could be about the smoke the person is going to have in the train toilet soon after and the wall writings with explicit content found in every train toilet.  

In ‘Political Uses of Photo-Montage’, he says this about photo montages. These days there are so many of them around. Most politicians have been subjected to these on the internet. Modi, Trump… Berger says that this way of editing photographs, juxtaposing them with other images, etc. has this as the principle behind it.

‘The peculiar advantage of photo-montage lies in the fact that everything which has been cut out keeps its familiar photographic appearance. We are still looking at things and only afterward at symbols.
            But because these things have been shifted, because the natural continuities within which they normally exist have been broken and because they have now been arranged to transmit an unexpected message, we are made conscious of the arbitrariness of their continuous normal message. Their ideological covering or disguise, which fits them so well when they are in their proper place that it becomes indistinguishable from their appearances, is abruptly revealed for what it is. Appearances themselves are showing us how they deceive us.’

[There are plenty of contemporary examples to be found all around us. The example taken by Berger is that of a photo montage in which Hitler is]

‘returning the Nazi salute at a mass meeting (which we do not see). Behind him, and much larger than he is, the faceless figure of a man. This man is directly passing a wad of banknotes into Hitler’s open hand raised above his head. The message of the cartoon (October 1932) is that Hitler is being supported and financed by the big industrialists. But, more subtly, Hitler’s charismatic gesture is being divested of its accepted current meaning.] Later he says, ‘Those interested in the future didactic use of photo-montage for social and political comment should, I am sure, experiment further with this ability of the technique to demystify things.’ 

One of the lines in ‘Photographs of Agony’:

‘…the black blood of black-blood of black-and-white photographs’. On the effect of photographs which depict the painful reality,

Berger writes,

‘They bring us up short. The most literal adjective that could be applied is arresting. We are seized by them. (I am aware that there are people who pass them over, but about them there is nothing to say.) As we look at them, the moment of the other’s suffering engulfs us. We are filled with either despair or indignation. Despair takes on some of the other’s suffering to no purpose. Indignation demands action. We try to emerge from the moment of the photograph back into our lives. As we do, the contrast is such that the resumption of our lives appears to be a hopelessly inadequate response to what we have just seen.’

In ‘Paul Strand’, he talks about Bresson and the difference between Strand’s method and his.

‘His [Paul Strand’s] method as a photographer is more unusual. One could say that it was the antithesis to Cartier-Bresson’s. The photographic moment for Cartier-Bresson is an instant, a fraction of a second, and he stalks that instant as though it were a wild animal. The photographic moment for Strand is a biographical or historic moment, whose duration is ideally measured not by seconds but by its relation to a lifetime. Strand does not pursue an instant, but encourages a moment to arise as one might encourage a story to be told.

[Somehow I feel that this is also the difference between Bresson and Tarkovsky.]

While analysing Strand’s photographs, Berger says that what the photographer does is

‘to present himself to his subject in such a way that the subject is willing to say: I am as you see me…I am includes all that has made me so…The I am is given its time in which to reflect on the past and to anticipate its future: the exposure time does no violence to the time of the I am: on the contrary, one has the strange impression that the exposure time is the life time.’

You might be able to get an idea of what he means by taking a look at this photograph by Strand.



I feel that every time you expose this should happen. Imagine a film in which most of the shots are like this. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to achieve!

In ‘Uses of Photography: for Susan Sontag’ he writes his responses to her book On Photography.
‘What the camera does, however, and what the eye itself can never do, is to fix the appearance of that event. It removes its appearance from the flow of appearances and it preserves it, not perhaps forever but for as long as the film exists. [These days, even more because we are digital.] The essential character of this preservation is not dependent upon the image being static; unedited film rushes preserve in essentially the same way. The camera saves a set of appearances from the otherwise inevitable suppression of further appearances. It holds them unchanging. And before the invention of camera nothing could do this, except, in the mind’s eye, the faculty of memory.’

[Isn’t that just amazing? We humans actually love memory so much that we invented a means of preserving it. Better than memory perhaps.]

‘The faculty of memory led men [by now you must have realized that Berger uses ‘men’ to mean people, like most of the world still do.] everywhere to ask whether, just as they themselves could preserve certain events from oblivion, there might not be other eyes noting and recording otherwise unwitnessed events. Such eyes they then accredited to their ancestors, to spirits, to gods or to their single deity. What was seen by this supernatural eye of men, but not this higher justice from which nothing or little could be hidden.’

‘The spectacle creates an eternal present of immediate expectation: memory ceases to be necessary or desirable. With the loss of memory the continuities of meaning and judgement are also lost to us.
[If you forget your past you might not be able to judge who is your oppressor. You could think that it is your mother who is not letting you wear certain clothes but that is because your memory does not retain the great grandfather(s) who maintained that women were raped because of their clothes]
The camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. [It is not possible for anyone to forget Hitler.] Yet no god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.’

[After clicking a picture, there is a sigh of relief that it will not be forgotten anymore. Like how you feel reassured after you hit ‘save’ in a document or a video you are editing. However, this God as theorised by Sontag and Berger is different from my interpretation, mainly because Berger always saw photography through the lens of capitalism and class. I have not read On Photography.]

Berger agrees with Sontag that this cynical god who records in order to forget is the god of monopoly of capitalism. He quotes Sontag

‘A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex.’
[I understood this part and agree with it too. The advertising industry flooded with images, photographs, manipulated and not is the biggest example. Berger believes that photographs being arrested moments will not suffice. The way capitalism is operating, it definitely will not. True. So he says,]

‘Photographs are relics of the past, traces of what has happened. If the living take tat past upon themselves, if the past becomes an integral part of the process of people making their own history, then all photographs would reacquire a living context, they would continue to exist in time, instead of being arrested moments.’[So when capitalism gives you the glossy picture of Coca-Cola, beads of icy water shining on the glass, humankind, if it remembers the past, will remember Plachimada.]

Now comes the way in which this can be achieved, which I think every photographer should keep in mind while at work.   

‘For the photographer this means thinking of her- or himself not so much as a reporter to the rest of the world, but, rather, as a recorder for those involved in the events photographed. The distinction is crucial.’

‘What makes photographs like this so tragic and extraordinary is that, looking at them, one is convinced that they were not taken to please generals, to boost the morale of a civilian public, to glorify heroic soldiers, or to shock the world press: they were images addressed to those suffering what they depict. And given this integrity towards and with their subject matter, such photographs later become a memorial, to the twenty million Russians killed in the war, for those who mourn them. The unifying horror of a total people’s war made such an attitude on the part of the war photographers (and even the censors) a natural one. Photographers, however, can work with a similar attitude in less extreme circumstances.’

[The photograph cited is ‘Grief’ by Dmitri Baltermants, 1942.]    
In ‘Appearances’, he says,

‘What makes photography a strange invention – with unforeseeable consequences – is that its primary raw materials are light and time.’

Berger also puts into words, some basic things that a photograph does, even when we are not aware of it, most of the time.

‘Between the moment recorded and the present moment of looking at the photograph, there is an abyss. We are so used to photography that we no longer consciously register the second of these twin messages – except in special circumstances: when, for example, the person photographed was familiar to us and is now far away or dead. In such circumstances the photograph is more traumatic than most memories or mementos because it seems to confirm, prophetically, the later discontinuity created by the absence or death.’

He goes on to explain the role of the photographer thus:

‘The professional photographer tries, when taking a photograph, to choose an instant which will persuade the public viewer to lend it an appropriate past and future. The photographer’s intelligence or his empathy with the subject defines for him what is appropriate. Yet unlike the storyteller or painter or actor, the photographer only makes, in any one photograph, a single constitutive choice: the choice of the instant to be photographed. The photograph, compared with other means of communication, is therefore weak in intentionality.’

[It is implied that other choices like framing, lighting etc. come after the choice of the instant to be photographed.]

He then goes on to explain he ambiguity of a photograph. Taking the example of a photograph titled, ‘A group of Nazi troops and students gather seized papers and books to burn in the Opernplatz, Berlin, May 10, 1933’, he explains how the photograph would be ambiguous if not for the title. Even with the title, one needs to know history to fully understand the photograph. Then he poses this heavy question.
‘…it might be that the photographic ambiguity, if recognized and accepted as such, could offer to photography a unique means of expression. Could this ambiguity suggest another way of telling?’
[Sexy.]

There is an aspect of photography that Berger pointed out that I liked very much. Unlike other forms of art, like painting, photography does not differentiate between the objects it is capturing at a given point of time.

‘…The time which exists within a drawing is not uniform. The artist gives more time to what she or he considers important. A face is likely to contain more time than the sky above it. Time in a drawing accrues according to human value. In a photograph time is uniform: every part of the image has been subjected to a chemical process of uniform duration. In the process of revelation all parts were equal.’
[The only way this is changed is when the frame is lit up by the artist. But even then, usually, lighting up is a process by which the photographer tries to make the work visible to the medium. Earlier it was celluloid. Now the lighting up is done for digital. Exposure is and can, only be uniform. Except for rolling shutters which existed during Berger’s time too, there is no change in this. Even with all the technological advancement since.]

Now comes another important aspect which becomes clear when photographs are compared to painting. Photography does not have a language. It quotes from appearances. Renaissance paintings had a language. It varies from other forms of painting during other periods in history. But photograph is produced instantaneously and there is no use of language. Berger puts it like this

‘Photographs do not translate from experiences. They quote from them.’

This is the reason why photographs are considered to be authentic. Interesting thing noted by Berger is that, tampered photographs are in fact, a proof of this. It requires elaborate tampering to create a lie out of a photograph. A photograph as it is, cannot lie. Given this situation, he explains how then, photographs are ‘massively used to deceive and misinform.’

‘We are surrounded by photographic images which constitute a global system of misinformation: the system known as publicity, proliferating consumerist lies. The role of photography in this system is revealing. The lie is constructed before the camera. A “tableau” of objects and figures is assembled. This “tableau” uses a language of symbols (often inherited, as I have pointed out elsewhere, from the iconography of oil painting), [Read ‘Ways of Seeing’ by Berger for this ‘elsewhere’] an implied narrative and, frequently, some kind of performance by models with a sexual content. This “tableau” is then photographed. It is photographed [and not drawn] precisely because the camera can bestow authenticity upon any set of appearances, however false. The camera does not lie even when it is used to quote a lie. And so, this makes the lie appear more truthful.’

In ‘Stories’ is this line.

‘The term flashback is an admission of the inexorable impatience of the film to move forward.’

How true!

Another perfect analogy from Berger:

‘No story is like a wheeled vehicle whose contact with the road is continuous. Stories walk, like animals or men. And their steps are not only between narrated events but between each sentence, sometimes each word. Every step is a stride over something not said.’

In ‘W. Eugene Smith: Notes to help Kirk Morris Make a Documentary Film’, is something that can be attempted while making films.

‘…He sought a truth, which, by its nature, was not evident. It was waiting to be revealed by him and him alone. He wanted his images to convert so that the spectator might see beyond the lies, the vanity, the illusions of everyday life…’

Interesting observation

‘…the image of a Pieta – of the man-Christ dead in his mother’s lap. An image of tenderness and bereavement. The figure of the victim, suffering or dead, is, by its nature, horizontal. The figure of the healer or the mourner is vertical…’

‘Walking Back Home: Chris Killip: In Flagrante (with Sylvia Grant)’ has this beautiful quote from Killip.

‘I saw an elderly man with a Tesco carrier and a walking stick. I was on the escalator going down and the one going up was, as usual, broken. If there’s a certainty in life, it’s that the escalator going up is broken and your shopping bag’s full. He was walking up the endless stairs and mildly struggling. Only struggling mildly. If he had been more obviously disabled or had been a mother struggling with shopping and a pram, he would have rightly inspired sympathy. He was just a little, tired, unknown man struggling mildly. He was just an old man who had maybe paid his taxes, fought for his country. This beautiful individualism they talk of. By the time this particular man reaches the top of the stairs, his individual legs will feel too tired for this particular concept to bloom. Of course if he had power, money or even just a car, his individualism might flourish. I don’t understand what political people of power mean by that word. Lots of people I know on estates, in hospitals, in unemployment queues, now walk on their individual knees and their individual heads are bowed and they haven’t the energy to strengthen their individual spines.’  

‘A Man Begging in the Metro: Henri Cartier Bresson’ has this portion which was silly. Berger is talking about Bresson’s handwriting.

‘His handwriting is surprising because it’s maternal, it couldn’t be more maternal. Somewehere this virile man who was a hunter, who was a cofounder of the most prestigious photo-agency in the world, who escaped three times from a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, who is a maverick anarchist and Buddhist, somewhere this man’s heart is that of a mother.’

Umm… so what is contradictory in that. What do you think mothers do and what makes you think it is in sharp contrast with the things you described as done by Bresson. His handwriting is ‘motherly’ probably because he did such motherly things. Duh!

‘We examine other drawings by his father and grandfather. Topographical landscapes of places they found themselves in. A family tradition, passed from generation to generation. Of minutely observing branches and patiently drawing leaves. Like embroidery, but with a male, lead pencil.’

God, what on earth, Berger! Like embroidery which they never learnt from the women who did it from generation to generation because they like you, assumed it was a woman-thing? How about that?

I think Berger is great at putting into words things which we never bothered to put into words, like this thing about writing in ‘Andre Kertesz: On Reading’, he says,

‘When words add up to sentences and sentences fill whole pages and the pages tell a story, the displacement becomes a journey and the pages become a vehicle, a means of transport. Nevertheless, while reading we hold the pages very still. Thus there is a tension between the manual gesture and the travelling. Long before man could fly, this journey was like flying. Those who first read Homer flew to Troy.’

In the correspondence found in ‘Martine Franck: Fax Foreword to One Day to the Next’, these line from some letters by Marine Franck.  

            ‘My grandfather killed himself falling off the dike in Ostend while photographing my two cousins. This can happen so easily when looking through a lens; for a split second nothing else exists outside the frame, and to get the right frame one is constantly moving forward, backward, to the side. A movie-cameraman is often guided, held, when filming; a photographer rarely. This year I am the same age as when my grandfather died.’

In another letter,

‘The camera is in itself a frontier, a barrier of sorts that one is constantly breaking down so as to get closer to the subject.’

Berger wrote, in a response,

‘Does one get less shy with age? Shyness is a strange thing. It’s not quite the same as being timid. Because there’s an element of curiosity in shyness, no? it’s to do with daring. That’s the paradox. It’s the adventurous who are shy.’

[Needless to say, i thought of her]

And later,

‘Unhappiness is often like a long novel. Happiness is far more like a photo!’

In ‘Between Here and Then: Mark Trivier’, I was so stunned to read a portion which resembled a scene which I had created for one of my short films. He is talking about the clock in his house throughout the essay.

            ‘Sometimes I forget to wind it up. When it stops, however, the inhabitual silence in the kitchen – which is the room we live in most of the time – attracts my attention and, standing on tiptoe, I open its door and rewind the mechanism with the key, kept on the mantelpiece to the right of the clock. Then with my forefinger I tap the pendulum gently to the left (never to the right), the ticking re-begins, and I invariably have the sensation that the kitchen, which was holding its breath during the silence, is breathing normally again.
…My ritual of reaching up to the clock high above my head, is like putting a bowl of water down on the floor for a silence to drink. Thirsty silences devastate.’  

The last article in the book is the one which I liked the best, that is, in it was the photographer I liked the best from the ones mentioned in the book. In Ahlam Shibli: Trackers’. In it, Berger, with the help of Frantz Fanon explains how and why violence is transferred from the perpetrator/colonizer to the colonized.

‘…Every encounter with another person works for the megalomaniac unlike a held-up mirror in which he sees himself reflected and decked out in his own glory. For the colonized, who has lost his sense of self, every encounter is a mirror in which he sees nothing but a soiled djalleba. Both held-up mirrors hide the other as she or he really is. And so it happens that the colonized, in order to dissociate himself from the soiled djalleba, dreams of wearing the uniform or carrying the flag of his oppressor. Not his enemy, his oppressor.’

Too many examples of this around. Women who persecute other women by joining the league of power holding men comes first to my mind.   

About the photographer whom I absolutely loved,

‘Ahlam Shibili herself comes from a Bedouin family. As a young girl she was herding goats in Galilee. Later, after studying at university, she became a photographer of international renown.
Long ago she made the opposite existential choice to the tackers whom she shows in these photos. She believes in the justice of the Palestinian cause and has protested as a patriot and a photographer against the illegal Israeli occupation. For her, as for most Palestinians, the trackers can be considered traitors. They have joined an army which is oppressing the Palestinian people and they stalk to kill and capture those who actively resist that army. Traitors… In certain circumstances, they must be treated as such.
Nevertheless Ahlam Shibili feels a need to go beyond, and search behind, the simplifying label. Because she is a Bedouin herself? Maybe, but the question is na├»ve. What counts is the result. Because she is Bedouin, she was able to search behind the label and discover what she had to discover. With these photographs she posed the question: what price are they paying for their decision to become trackers? Then she waited for the enigmatic answers which she found in her darkroom. And these she makes public.’

Wow! 
Check out her photographs. Check out all photographers mentioned in this book too.


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