John Berger is a Left art critic and novelist, whose opinionated essays have put him at the center of political and aesthetic debates for a half century. T0day, over lunch, I was reading his essay "Understanding a Photograph" , from the collection The Look of Things [New York: Viking Press, 1974].
I don't read a lot of photography criticism, since I think I know pretty well how people react to photographic images, and what their significance is, in and to the culture generally. Criticism often stands in awe of the photographic image, unable to refine or improve upon it or to render an authoritative analysis of its speculative meanings. Berger manages to make a few general statements which I find very interesting, but these derive from very dismissive conceptions of how photographs are made (controlled), and how photographic image-making, as a deliberate act, is accomplished.
"By their very nature, photographs have little or no property value because they have no rarity value. The very principle of photography is that the resulting image is not unique, but on the contrary infinitely reproducible . . . Let us consider them no closer to works of art than cardiograms. We shall then be freer of illusions . . . It is more useful to categorize art by what has become its social function. It functions as property. Accordingly, photographs are mostly outside the category [of art]."
This argument is familiar to anyone who knows Marxist art criticism, as an attack on the artifact based on its commodity value as elevated fetish of capital. For anyone with a passing knowledge of photographic processes--that is, in its pre-digital phases--nothing could be further from the truth than to claim that photographs are "infinitely reproducible." A static negative--which of course is itself subject to many different kinds of manipulations--is, in fact, as Ansel Adams famously said, the "score" while the print is the "performance." It is true that any photography student, with a week's training, could indeed make a recognizable print from any of Adams's important negatives, just as they could of any of a hundred famous photographers' negatives. But the comparison stops right there in its tracks. No two prints are ever "the same"--and even if one wanted to make an endless string of identical images from a single negative, the mechanical methodology required to do that would remove the process from human creative intention entirely. The fact is that every photographer sets out to make a specific image of a specific scene, but that the final realization is almost never the result of fully conscious and controlled intent. And the process of making a specific print which satisfies the complex demands and intentions of any artist can require hundreds of man hours or trial and error, subtle adjustment(s), etc. Berger betrays a deep lack of sympathy for, and a shallow understanding of, the "values" of photographic prints--apparently relegating these gradations to pointless fiddle. It's rather like saying that all prints are technically of about the same utility and weight.
"The objects recorded in any photograph (from the most effective to the most commonplace) carry approximately the same weight, the same conviction."
How could any serious critic make this astounding assertion? In one sweeping gesture, he dismisses subject matter, point of view, technique, feeling--everything that distinguishes one photograph from another--making of photography a generic, dry industrial function without any range of value or subtlety. And yet even industrial processes involve enormous subtle and delicate and difficult adaptations and incremental planning and quality control. Nevertheless, Berger has at least two, maybe three other things to say about photography that are sheer genius.
The first pertains to the image-maker:
"Photography is the process of rendering observation self-conscious."
--which is another way of saying that when we "take" a photograph (or make one, or one takes us), we are realizing our being alive at that moment, we are memorializing that instant as a symbolic record of what occurred to us to think and feel about it (the scene, or subject). This act can be measured as a gesture or act of greater or lesser intent, of how accurately or powerfully or emotionally we have experienced it. Just seeing with our own eyes is a step less "conscious" than making a photograph--that's an unusual idea--particularly when you realize that our visual-mental apparatus is in fact a kind of camera, one in which the "saved" images are constantly being sorted and filed and saved in the vast storehouse of our visual memory.
The second thing he says is:
"For a man with a [photographic print] . . . in his pocket, the quantum of truth in an "impersonal" photograph must still depend upon the general categories already in the spectator's mind."
In other words, there is a corresponding mental equivalent (Stieglitz's idea) for any image, and the degree to which an image or scene corresponds to something powerful or significant is a measure of its meaning and value. But I have trouble following Berger's characterization of a photograph as an "impersonal" thing; in a specific sense, nothing is more personal then a photograph. It is true that the range of kinds of images that are most often made become generic and predictable and consequently bland, but those superficial limitations are routinely exceeded by those with talent. Great portraitists, for example, are able to take our breath away with the revelations they make out of great faces and dull. If what anyone could deduce from an individual human face were nothing more than a lolly-pop, then perhaps Berger's verdict would be proximate.
It's as if Berger needed to be able to believe that making a photograph were an inert, almost automatic process, by which anyone could take a picture of anything, with no effort and no pre-visioning at all. And further, that it would involve no aesthetic deliberation, no conviction, no familiarity, no responsive impulse, no feeling. Berger's a great critic, but he certainly misses the point with photographic image-making.