John Berger

by craigepplin

The year is ending, and I’m reading some classic essays by John Berger. I have little to say about “Uses of Photography”–little of my own to add, that is, especially since it already presents itself as nothing but a series of glosses on another essay, Susan Sontag’s book On Photography. But something in it makes me want to write my own addendum, or at least share what I humbly underlined as I read this humble text.

Here are two fragments, from pages 61-62 in the Vintage edition of On Looking:

Photographs are relics of the past, traces of what has happened. If the living take that past upon themselves, if the past becomes an integral part of the process of people making their own history, then all photographs would reacquire a living context, they would continue to exist in time, instead of being arrested moments.

His question–what is photography good for?–here gets resolved by imagining an “alternative photography” that would reintegrate photographs into living history.

The task of an alternative photography is to incorporate photography into social and political memory, instead of using it as a substitute which encourages the atrophy of any such memory.

Photography shouldn’t stand in for collective memory, shouldn’t hypostasize the living process of history. Rather, it should form part of that process, which means making the distinction between photographer and spectator disappear. Here’s one final quotation, also from page 62.

For the photographer this means thinking of her or himself not so much as a reporter to the rest of the world but, rather, as a recorder for those involved in the events photographed.

Reading these passages, I couldn’t help but think of Walter Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer,” where the author holds that the task of the photographer is to give the picture a caption that wrenches it out of its role in the consumer economy and reinserts it in living history–in narrative, in other words, in language.

That said, language has its own photographic units (words hypostasize reality just as a photograph does, and they help us forget just as they help us remember (we can ask Borges and Funes the Memorious about this)), and visual forms have a language of sorts too.

So, then, perhaps it makes sense to think in terms of two different poles–a pole of movement and a pole of stasis. Any discrete sign system would possess such extremes, which is an abstract way of saying that a photograph can live in isolation or in dynamic relationship with its social context. This would hold true for all arts.

To think this way is to remember that art is a communal practice and that we are all responsible for making it live.