The true content of a photograph is invisible, for it derives from a play, not with form, but with time.
There’s no doubt that John Berger was blessed with a long, productive life and a brilliant mind, leaving behind a seminal body of work at the time of his death early in January 2017, aged ninety. All the same, it’s hard not to mourn the loss of one of the most perceptive cultural critics and writers of our time.
Throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century, Berger’s work spanned literary fiction, art, poetry and film. He was best known for his politically infused art criticism: Ways of Seeing (1972), a critique of aesthetics through culture and ideology, has become an essential text for generations of art students. I remember picking up a time-worn paperback copy in a used bookstore back in my own student days. I don’t remember how much of an impact that work had on mine. In any case, life got in the way soon enough and art got pushed aside along with Berger’s ideas.
After his death, seeking to reconnect, I went back to his work. I was particularly interested in revisiting his writings on photography.
Over the years, Berger produced various essays on the medium. A collection of these writings was published as the volume Understanding a Photograph in 2013. Berger wasn’t a photographer; he wasn’t preoccupied with cameras and lenses. His illuminating essays look at the medium through an intellectual and cultural prism; he’s interested in the political and social implications of photography. The quote that opens this piece comes from the book’s eponymous essay. Berger goes on to point out that:
A photograph, while recording what has been seen, always and by its very nature refers to what is not seen. It isolates, preserves and presents a moment taken from a continuum.
Every picture tells a story, don’t it: What story does this photo tell?
My unremarkable photo of an interior wall looks to be a forgettable snapshot. Why did I take it? Why did I keep it? This photo was taken in a cafe in Tokyo on a cold winter’s afternoon. The place was pretty full — it was a Sunday — and I sat at the back, where I noticed the heart shaped photo collage. It seemed a perfect addition to the space, adding some color and a playfulness to the neutral, hard edges of the interior. I liked the plant positioned in the left of the frame and the girl who was sitting by the plant and who balanced the scene perfectly. The problem, photographically, was the three chatty young guys, sitting with their luggage on the right between my camera and the heart, who didn’t fit the mood of the scene at all.
The guys eventually left, but by then so had the girl, and I ended up with a simple picture of a somewhat melancholy empty urban space made somewhat cheerful by a large spotlit heart of snapshots taped to the wall, and a plant flanked by a few stray photos, which I kind of liked anyway.
Back at my computer, as I was processing the photo, I noticed that the heart collage images were of the cafe, its staff and customers. And I remembered the time I visited a few weeks earlier, when a photographer was taking what I assumed were promotional shots for the business. As I looked at the photos under the magnifying loupe, I noticed that in the center there was a picture of me, sitting at the front counter by the window. I had unknowingly taken a self-portrait. And my portrait was, unknown to me, part of an artwork that hung for a time on the wall that I framed and captured with my camera. I like the poetry in that, and so my snapshot holds a special meaning for me, rendering it not so unremarkable. But what does this photo tell anyone else?
When looking at a photo we can’t know with any precision what went on before and after that moment — unless it is part of our shared history: public (a plane crashing into the World Trade Center) or private (our daughter’s graduation portrait). Nor can we see what was outside the frame — unless we were there, in which case we’re relying on memory and its own inconsistencies. Photos, removed as they are from the scenes that unfolded around them, are ambiguous. When used for documentary purposes, this is obviously problematic. It’s why we have photo essays that combine complementary images and supporting text to tell their stories; it’s not possible for a single image to tell a story. If we understand this, we can perhaps look at how to do more with our photography.
What a single photographic image can do is hint at events that unfolded when the photographer chose to create an image. Much like a poem, its content can provide keys to help interpret the scene it depicts. It can interact with a viewer’s own knowledge, experiences or memories of the scene. It can evoke a mood for the viewer. It can arouse emotions. It can raise questions. It can explore the formal aspects of the medium.
In its ambiguity a photograph can be considered a visual poem. Some are epic; others are simple haiku.
On that note, I leave you with a few recent visual poems of my own. And because I’m a photographer and not an art theorist, I will talk about cameras and lenses. The photos were taken with a Fujifilm X100T and X-Pro2 paired with an XF23mm F2 R WR lens.
Yet it might be that the photographic ambiguity, if recognized and accepted as such, could offer to photography a unique means of expression. Could this ambiguity suggest another way of telling?
All quotes are by John Berger, taken from Understanding a Photograph, Penguin Modern Classics, 2013.
The story of the cafe photo is an abridged version of my essay Every picture tells a story, don’t it? originally published online in 2013.