“The secret was to get inside of whatever I was looking at, get inside it.” ~ John Berger
Earlier this week, we lost a giant in the world of looking and seeing. John Berger (1926-2017) was a gifted thinker, writer, and art critic. I was drawn to his writing on photography and especially his classic book, “Ways of Seeing,” based on a TV show with the same name. You can watch episodes of the show on YouTube. FYI, this book is more about art history and the way we look at art. Here are a few of his thoughts on seeing from the first essay in the book.
“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.”
“The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.”
“We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.”
“The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject.”
As photographers, we always need to remember that a photograph is the visual depiction of the relationship between photographer and subject. The choice of subject says as much about us as it does about the subject. A relationship works both ways, meaning it’s not just what we have to say but what our subject is saying to us as well.
Knowing this, we can become much more aware of who we are and how we are in relation to the world around us.
That being said, HOW we look determines the type of relationship. If we’re producing a document of a moment in time, then we’re probably pleasant acquaintances. A photograph that shows our appreciation of beauty means we’re probably good friends. However, if we get to the heart of a subject, then we’re probably lovers (in the truest sense). We’re getting inside of it. Berger says that this is the secret of looking and seeing.
The BBC documentary below is a wonderful introduction to the life of John Berger, an interesting and interested man until the very end.
A film about Berger came out in May 2016 and is doing the film festival circuit. I look forward to seeing it sometime – The Seasons of Quincy