The Art of Seeing

John Berger, the politically committed critic, novelist, screenwriter, lyricist, dramatist, essyist, activist and, above all, photographer, John Berger is dead. He passed away on January 1 in Paris after a long illness, a few weeks after his 90th birthday. As photographers we owe many things to John Berger, above all to his equally influential and controversial book Ways of Seeing, a book published in 1972 and based on a BBC television series, giving a fresh approach to art through the analysis of the influences that influence our perception of paintings, art and photography.

John Berger’s cult book based on the BBC series, available on Amazon.
Born in London in 1926, Berger began his career as a painter. Soon after his work was exhibited in the 1940s, he turned his hand to writing. His works ranged from poetry to screenplays, writings on photography, the exploitation of migrant workers and the Palestinian struggle for statehood.

His 1972 BBC program changed the way many of us see. He argued that the advent of mass media fundamentally altered our perception of art. The program was to become iconic and highly influential. Berger challenged convention, the establishment — and us. He had the eye of an artist, intellect of an academic, and charisma of a born performer. He was though, above all, a writer and story teller, as highlighted by this 1983 discussion with Susan Sontag. He enriched our lives with his novels, poetry and criticism. He showed us, wrote the BBC, how to see, not as individuals, but together.

Lest we forget Berger’s iconic Understanding a Photograph, a book that gathers the photography writings of one of the most internationally influential art authors of the past 50 years. Understanding a Photograph is an as thought-provoking journey as essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the power of the ubiquitous medium called photography. Spanning some 40 years, the book includes pieces on the 1967 photograph of Che Guevara’s corpse, on the meaning of photographs and the shock effect of war image, enriched with insightful pieces on Paul Strand, W. Eugene Smith, André Kertész and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

For you to enjoy, here is the first episode of the four-part BBC series Ways of Seeing:

  • right_writes

    He might have been all of those things you say Dan, but his patronising delivery as portrayed in the video, puts me right off.

    This is a typical example of the BBC attitude to its audience, even though they are forced to pay for it.

    Compare that to some of the lovely films made with HCB (for instance), and note how he treats his audience like adults.

  • Substance prevails over style, or not?