12 August 2006

The Uses of Photography: John Berger

A few weeks ago I ran across this terrific portrait of writer, critic and all around very smart fellow John Berger on the web page of French photographer Laure Vasconi. It reminded me of Berger's 1978 essay "Uses of Photography" and prompted me to go back and re-read it.

John Berger © Laure Vasconi.

Berger distinguishes "between two quite distinct uses of photography." There are, he claims, "photographs which belong to private experience and those which are used publicly." The former are those we take of family and friends that remain more or less continuous with our everyday experience and for which we can, as a result, supply meaning and provide context. This category of photographs - those that chronicle personal life - is the subject of this recent essay in The Guardian. I am not much interested in that use of photography. The latter, public, uses of photography, however, do interest me. According to Berger these pose a special difficulty:

"The contemporary public photograph usually presents an event, a seized set of appearances, which has nothing to do with us, its readers, or with the original meaning of the event. It offers information, but information severed from all lived experience. If the public photograph contributes to a memory, it is to the memory of an unobservable and total stranger. The violence is expressed in that strangeness. It records an instant sight about which this stranger has shouted: Look!

Who is the stranger? One might answer: the photographer. Yet if one considers the entire use-system of photographed images, the answer ‘the photographer’ is clearly inadequate. Nor can one reply: those who use the photographs. It is because the photographs carry no certain meaning in themselves, because they are like images in the memory of a total stranger, that they lend themselves to any use."

Public uses of photography, then, place before us the difficulty of how we locate images in a meaningful context. And here Berger suggests an approach that connects with the one I gestured toward in my last post. "The aim must be to construct a context for a photograph, to construct it with words, to construct it with other photographs, to construct it by its place in an ongoing text of photographs and images." This task, he observes is crucial insofar as the resulting "context replaces the photograph in time - not its own original time for that is impossible - but in narrated time." And only this will give us the opportunity to "put a [public] photograph back into the context of experience, social experience." If I understand Berger properly what he recommends requires that we explore the interaction of photography and a variety of written texts. I agree.

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