People began writing about photography almost as soon as people began taking photographs. They did so despite the fact that, as John Berger writes in his new collection, “Understanding a Photograph,” “the visual never allows itself to be translated intact into the verbal.” The slyly elegant loophole provided by “intact” is a reminder of what words can nonetheless do for the visual. It’s also a reminder of what a searching and astute writer Berger is.
Is such a reminder necessary? Berger (rhymes with “merger”) turns 88 in November. He is truly one of a kind: novelist and short story writer, painter, polemicist, screenwriter, essayist, art critic, man of the left, even television presenter. What’s likely his best-known work is the series he presented (on the BBC, in 1972) and the book derived from it, “Ways of Seeing.”
Those three words effectively define Berger’s body of work, regardless of mode. There’s nothing visionary about this Englishman who lives among French peasants — visionaries don’t write novels with titles as rooted in messy dailiness as “Pig Earth” — but vision is central to everything Berger has done. “The only justification for criticism,” he once wrote, “is that it allows us to see more clearly.” Not “understand” or “comprehend” or “appreciate” but “see.”
The simplicity of the verb matters as much as the action it describes. There is nothing ornate or superfluous about Berger’s prose. “I try to put into words what I see,” he writes. There’s that verb again, prefaced by a set of monosyllables. The proposed task is dauntingly complex, yet Berger expresses it so uncomplicatedly it could be a child’s instruction.
The title “Understanding a Photograph” makes the book sound like a primer. Instead, it’s a gathering of two dozen occasional pieces. Each occasion — a photograph, a book, a photographer, some particular intellectual or political concern — is something Berger cares about. Passion complements vision, and the pieces feel at once discrete and liberated, as photographs unbound from an album might.
Paul Strand’s landscapes ‘are only extensions of people who happen to be invisible.’
The contents of “Understanding a Photograph” range in date from 1967 to 2007, and in length from a page to 28. The pieces appeared in previous collections, scattered among essays on drawing or painting or other artistic matters. There they were among friends. Here they’re among family. Two were in “Another Way of Telling,” one of Berger’s three text-and-image collaborations with the photographer Jean Mohr. Mohr gets an essay of his own in “Understanding a Photograph.” Of another friend, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Berger writes, “He photographed the apparently unseen.” Any writer who can indicate in a single adverb a career’s essence, let alone a career so phenomenal, is a writer to reckon with.
Berger is not a man partial to hierarchies, aesthetic or otherwise. If he were, though, he would not rank photography high. A certain wariness accompanies both passion and vision. “Cameras are boxes for transporting appearances,” Berger writes. It’s a startling and suggestive definition, but it’s not inaccurate. More important, it’s less than awestruck.
Elsewhere Berger suggests that the invention of photography provided “a gadget for an elite.” To say that Berger is a Marxist is like saying the ocean is wet: It’s a key attribute but leaves out so much else. Some of the early essays are dismayingly reductive in their politics. The ’60s were a bad time for recognizing that an attachment to ideology is not the same thing as an opposition to injustice.
But that never prevents him from making astonishing observations that place a photograph or photographer within a context of human experience. Here Berger the novelist matters far more than Berger the polemicist. “What did August Sander tell his sitters before he took their pictures?” he writes of the photographer who tried to make a systematic portrait of 20th-century types. “And how did he say it so that they all believed him in the same way?” Berger suggests that Paul Strand “does not pursue an instant, but encourages a moment to arise as one might encourage a story to be told.” Even better, he proposes that Strand’s landscapes “are only extensions of people who happen to be invisible.” Perhaps no one has better expressed the balance between life as lived and art as seen.
Nor has another critic so easily refracted photography through the other visual arts. The image of a lifeless Che Guevara moves Berger to write, “There are not so many ways of laying out the criminal dead” and recall paintings by Rembrandt and Massaccio. Or there’s Berger’s noting how often the vertical-horizontal arrangement of the Pieta, the dead Christ being held by Mary, recurs in the work of W. Eugene Smith. More than that, the vertical figure is usually a caregiver or nurturing, like Mary, and the horizontal figure is in some way distressed.
Jerry L. Thompson shares Berger’s commitment to vision and passion, though not to wariness. The title of his book “Why Photography Matters” tells you that. He writes from the inside of the medium. Himself a talented photographer, he was Walker Evans’s assistant during the early ’70s and has written a fine book about him,, “The Last Years of Walker Evans.”
In “Why Photography Matters” Thompson argues that the greatness of the medium lies in the tension between interior and exterior — the collision between a photographer’s vision of the world and the world itself.
For Thompson, this tension was stated almost at the birth of photography, by one of its inventors, William Henry Fox Talbott. “It frequently happens,” Fox Talbott wrote in 1844 in his book “The Pencil of Nature,” “and this is one of the charms of photography — that the operator himself discovers on examination, perhaps long afterwards, that he has depicted many things that he had no notion of at the time.”
Over the course of just 80 pages, Thompson explains why this observation is so notable. The explanation rambles (“Why Photography Matters” is brief but not concise), along the way touching on philosophy and etymology and literature. References range from Thomas Pynchon to Plato to Jonathan Swift. The explanation is also winningly idiosyncratic. A footnote pondering the phrase “moral universe,” as used by Susan Sontag in “On Photography,” sprawls over the better part of three pages. Among the photographers Thompson looks to are Atget, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, and, of course, Evans. “Pictures by even the greatest photographers,” Thompson writes, “insist on containing elements of the outside world that just happened to be there.” The greater the style, one might say, the more it can accommodate serendipity. Much as Thompson cherishes photography as medium and art — far more than Berger — he sees it deferring to mightier, larger enterprises: life, the external world, and (for lack of a better word) reality.
“It’s a generous medium, photography,” Lee Friedlander has remarked, referring to just this capacity of the camera to take in even more than the photographer realizes. Reading Thompson, one understands better — or sees better, as Berger would have it — just how generous.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.