Ways of Seeing – John Berger

Last night I came across the 1972 BBC series “Ways of Seeing” which was written by John Berger. Berger is an art critic, novelist, painter and poet. The series won a BAFTA. The series criticizes Western Art and introduces a new way to discover the hidden nuances in the visual images and has a companion text by the same name. Although Berger’s series is mostly about oil paintings, the ideas put forth can be applied to the photographic realm as well.

In Episode 1 Berger examines the impact of photography on our appreciation of art from the past. He made an interesting statement about perspective which I thought was rather thought provoking:

Perspective makes the eye the centre of the visible world, but the human eye can only be in one place at a time. It takes its visible world with it as it walks.

John Berger. Ways of Seeing, Episode 1 (1972) [webcast]. BBC Four, London, UK. Published 8/10/2012. 30 minutes: 05 seconds. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk (accessed 17/5/2014)

Episode 2 dealt with the female nude and perceptions. According to Berger there is a difference in being naked and being in the nude. In challenging Kenneth Clarke’s definitions, Berger states that “To be naked, is to be one’s self. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for one’s self. A nude has to be seen as an object in order to be a nude.” He interviewed a panel of women after showing them the Renaissance paintings of nudes and asked them how they relate to the nudes in the paintings. Overwhelmingly, the women thought that the nude portrayals were totally exaggerated – huge breasts and bottoms. All the women identified more with images of nudes in photographs than in oil paintings. The nudes in the oil paintings reflected men’s perceptions of how women should look or be.

Men dream of women, women dream of themselves being dreamt of. Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at.

John Berger. Ways of Seeing , Episode 2 (1972) [webcast]. BBC Four, London, UK. Published 8/10/2012. 28 minutes: 28 seconds. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1GI8mNU5Sg (accessed 17/05/2014)

Episode 3 covers the portrayal of possessions and people. Painting became the medium to display one’s possessions. Berger juxtaposes similar paintings and photographs to emphasis that our consumerism habits have not greatly changed over all the years.

Oil paintings often depict things, things which, in reality, are buyable. To paint a thing and put it on a canvas is not unlike buying it and putting it in your house. The objects within the painting often appear as tangible as those outside it. If you buy a painting you buy also the look of the thing it represents.

John Berger. Ways of Seeing , Episode 3 (1972) [webcast]. BBC Four, London, UK. Published 9/10/2012. (27 minutes: 07 seconds). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7wi8jd7aC4 (accessed 17/05/2014)

In Episode 4 Berger analyses photographic advertising and publicity media and shows how they relate to oil paintings by means of the poses, moods and expressions that are depicted. He flips through a Sunday Times magazine revealing how images of wealth and opulence are juxtaposed with images and articles of poverty and hardship and explains how the advertising messages actually break down the impact of the journalist’s article. This made a deep impact on me and I will probably never again flip through a magazine without thinking about Berger’s words.

… on walls, on screens, we are surrounded by images of an alternative way of life…It’s a language of words and images that call out to us wherever we go…

The writer appeals to the public conscience. But if I turn the page again, the inadequacy of such appeals become obvious. The words and pictures on these pages all appear to be real and all belong to the same language. The texts, the photographs taken in Pakistan, the photographs taken for the publicity, the editing of the paper, the layout, the printing. All are elements of the same culture, our culture. Yet between each page, there is such a fissure, such a disconnection, such incoherence that one can only say this culture is mad…

…Oil paintings were surrounded by gold frames which symbolised the wealth of the owner within the picture and around it. What surrounds the publicity image is us, as we are.

John Berger. Ways of Seeing , Episode 4 (1972) [webcast]. BBC Four, London, UK. Published 9/10/2012.  (28 minutes: 47 seconds). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jTUebm73IY (accessed 17/05/2014)