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Understanding a photograph – John Berger

[recreated from pdf after blog crash]


This book contains a series of Essays by John Berger, written between the late 1960s and the 1980s. The essays cover a range of photography related topics, including the theoretical (eg understanding a photograph), examinations of specific photographs and photographers, and a response to Susan Sontag’s On Photography. It is worth noting that in describing the context for photography, Berger makes frequent reference to socialist values with an anti-capitalist perspective.

What I enjoyed about the book is Berger’s ability to demystify Art and express the understanding of photography with clarity through the use of analogy and references to other art, and with examples of his own writings on specific photographs. It is a book to return to for ideas and inspiration and not necessarily something to be read straight through.

I list here a few of the points I have annotated in the book for my future reference:

  1. When talking about the amount of information in a photograph, Berger uses the term ‘visual density’ – a useful descriptor.
  2. When writing in 1970s, Berger defines Art as something that has a significant financial value and therefore as photography has little property value (it can be easily replicated), it is not Art. He also dismisses process- based definitions of art and not useful as they can equally apply to craft activities. Perhaps, now in 2015, photography has become an Art under

Berger’s definition.

  1. ‘Photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation. A photograph results from a decision… that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen.’ With current technology )particularly phones) it is arguable whether there is much decision making involved in many photos – for some, it seems to have become an unthinking habit.
  2. ‘The good photograph is the well-composed one … true only in so far as we think of photographic images imitating painted ones’.
  3. ‘One might argue that photography is as close to music as painting’. This has occurred to me as a musician – it even uses similar terminology; chromatic scale (and colour), tonality, and perhaps most critically, both have timing as part of their essence.
  4. ‘Unlike any other visual image, a photograph is not a rendering, an imitation or an interpretation of its subject, but actual a trace of it’. I think this is true to a lesser extent now with the advent of digital imaging and manipulation, when the trace of the original subject can be completely transformed.
  5. ‘. . unlike memory, photographs do not in themselves preserve meaning. They offer appearances – with all the credibility and gravity we normally lend to appearances – prised away from their meaning’. ‘Meaning is discovered in what connects … without a story there is no meaning. Facts, information, do not in themselves constitute meaning.’
  6. ‘All photographs are ambiguous. All photographs have been taken out of a continuity.’

I’m sure I’ll be revisiting Berger’s book over the coming years!


Berger J. Understanding a Photograph. Kindle edition, Penguin Classics, 2013.

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