WEEK 3 REVISITING JOHN BERGER 13.02.20
I thought after having read a lot more over the past few weeks ,and understanding the topics we have covered in more detail, I would look back at our first suggested reading – John Berger’s ‘Understanding a photograph’ to see if my understanding of the essay has changed, or my thoughts of it have expanded or matured at all.
I am struck now with how I disagree with Berger right from the start “Certainly the vast majority of people do not consider photography an art.” (Berger. 2013. pg 17) I certainly think that this statement is untrue, infact I would say the opposite is true. I think most people would consider photography an art now, but an accessible art because of how everyone has access to it through their phones, this undoubtedly changes the way we view it, but not to the extent of not viewing it as art. It may have been at the time of writing that this was true, but things have changed so much since then, that it would be, to me, naive to judge our world, and its connection to photography in the same way, or indeed by the same merits. We may as well be discussing a totally different medium, in a totally different world to what Berger was.
I also think the way that Berger viewed museums and galleries is now outdated as well, the large museums and galleries are more accessible than they have ever been to families especially, with all the major ones having a year long calendar of family activities and events. Children are taken to galleries, exhibitions, shows through school from a young age, and as this filters through the generations, children grow to adults that don’t see museums and galleries as inaccessible places. For example the recent Year3 project at Tate Britain, not only encouraged school aged children to attend the exhibition, with their schools, and with family and friends, but made them the focus of the very exhibition, as well as incorporating activities specifically for children attending the exhibition.
Fig 1 Steve McQueen , Year3 project family activities booklet, available at Tate Britain from outside the gallery housing the exhibition.
Thats not to say that there can’t still be some elitism around certain galleries and shows, there obviously is, I would just argue that if looked at objectively across the whole spectrum, again, the case is indeed quite different now to what it was when these statements were written Obviously, bearing in mind that I am writing this from a U.K perspective, and although I have attended galleries in Europe and encountered similar , I can only speak with any authority on the U.K’s offerings.
Time would also disagree partly with Berger’s comment “By their nature, photographs have little or no property value because they have no rarity value.” (Berger. 2013. pg 18) and certainly Andreas Gursky’s Rhine II would agree with me, fetching 2.7 million at auction. However, as an edition of 6 it certainly isn’t ‘rare’ in that it isn’t a one off, so there is still merit here in what Berger says certainly.
“Photographs bear witness to a human choicer being exercised in a given situation. 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.”
Oh, if only John Berger had known, is all I can think, what would he of said about every photograph of every breakfast , selfie , or coffee break that floods our social media feeds all day everyday. My breakfast is not meaningless, it still nourishes me, but I don’t want to see a photograph of my breakfast everyday. Interestingly, if not hilariously, one of my most popular images from my last module (and indeed my favourite image from my WIP) was a photograph of one of the mums half eaten breakfasts that I shot, now what that says, about me and the social media photography saturated world we live in, I will have to ponder over more . Another reading from this module, Martin Hands 2012 ubiquitous photography shows how quickly & irrevocably our consumption of images has changed when he states “online photo management and sharing’ site Flickr hosts over 4 billion images, with almost 5,000 images being uploaded per minute.” (Hand. 2012. pg 2 ) A quick google search shows that in 2018 “95 million images and videos were shared every day on instagram” ( Wordstream.com . 2019 ) thats 65,972 every single day, a slight increase from the 5,000 per day Hand discusses in only 2012. Which really begs the question, how much can we still listen to these writers on photography? If there are as many images being made per day in 2018 as there were every two weeks in 2012, I can’t even being to fathom the difference that would be when we look at texts being written 30/40 years ago.
“Every handbook on photography talks about composition. The good photograph is the well composed one. Yet this is true only in so far as we think of photographic images imitating painted ones.” (Berger. 2013. pg 19) This, I do agree with. We judge photographs by painterly standards, but only in as much as we view paintings with our eyes, we view images with our eyes, we view illustrations with our eyes, how on earth can we judge them differently when the physical thing is on the same level? A photograph is after all, much closer to a painting, than it is to a toothbrush or a plate. They certainly come from different places, perhaps serve different functions, or illicit different reactions, but it is human nature they have to be viewed and judged on the same level. To think differently, is over complicating the matter. We are so desperate for photographs to be different, to be more, that we try to overcomplicate everything. Berger himself says of this on page 20 “Why complicate in this way an experience we have many times every day – the experience of looking at a photograph? Because the simplicity with which we usually treat the experience is wasteful and confusing.”(Berger. 2013. pg 20)
The very fact Berger deems studio work, tableaux, still life “Absurd” (Berger, 2013. pg 19) makes it hard to even continue reading him.
BERGER, JEFF. 2013. UNDERSTANDING A PHOTOGRAPH. LONDON, PENGUIN.
HAND, MARTIN. 2012. UBIQUITOUS PHOTOGRAPHY (CHAPTER 1 UBIQUITOUS PHOTOGRAPHY A CHORT INTRODUCTION) . CAMBRIDGE, UK. POLITY PRESS.
Fig 1 McQueen, Steve. Year 3 . Family activities brochure .
Fig 2, Graham, Rebecca. 2019.
Fig 3, Graham, Rebecca. 2020
Definition of absurd. Cambridge English dictionary. Available at – https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/absurd (Accessed 13.02.20)
33 mind boggling instagram stats and facts for 2018. Wordstream. Available at https://www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2017/04/20/instagram-statistics (Accessed 13.02.20)