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Issue 227

Celebrating 50 Years of ‘Ways of Seeing’

Mariama Attah, Anna Frances Douglas and Jeremy Millar revisit John Berger’s famed television series and book

BY Jeremy Millar, Mariama Attah, Anna Frances Douglas AND Sean Burns in Opinion | 25 MAY 22

Since its release, John Berger’s landmark television series and book, Ways of Seeing (1972), has been a consistent favourite of students, curators and artists alike. His accessible reinterpretation of Walter Benjamin’s ideas, notably in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935), which appeared 50 years ago this year, unlocked a means through which everyday people, not just academics or scholars, could access ideas of artistic representation, reproduction and image construction. Though Berger continued to produce aeons of fascinating material throughout his career, it’s Ways of Seeing to which people routinely return as a blueprint for interpreting how images old and new structure our understanding of ourselves and how we want to be seen. Here, curators Mariama Attah and Anna Frances Douglas, alongside tutor, artist and curator Jeremy Millar, return to Berger’s text and series to revisit its influence on photography. – Sean Burns 

John Berger
John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972, film still. Courtesy: BBC

Jeremy Millar

Many people have described the camera as a gun; for Berger, it was also a knife. It is a knife that he takes, pointedly, to a canvas in London’s National Gallery in the opening moments of the first episode of Ways of Seeing, making a neat, violent crop of the goddess’s face from Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars (c.1485). Moments later, another clean cut: an edit in the film to this same face on a postcard, and then on a sheet at a printworks, alongside other works – sketches and sculptures, landscapes and annunciations – all cut similarly from their frames and laid side-by-side.

Of course, it is not the National Gallery but a television studio, not the real Botticelli but a reproduction, each cut made possible by a camera. Although Berger opens this first programme by saying that he wants ‘to question some of the assumptions usually made about the tradition of European painting’, it is photography, and its sibling upstart, cinema, to which his attention turns almost immediately. ‘With the invention of the camera, everything changed,’ he notes, before adding, ‘It has even changed paintings painted long before it was invented.’ It is the camera which now crops Venus’s face and ‘an allegorical figure becomes a pretty girl anywhere’.

If the knife might be thought too violent a metaphor, let us settle, instead, on what is here literally produced by its actions: the postcard of Botticelli’s Venus and Mars; the printed sheet; the postcards of the two versions of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks (1483–86 and 1495–1508), usually in the Louvre and London’s National Gallery respectively, but now in a repeating pattern side by side; and, finally, the many postcards we find, alongside magazine covers and children’s drawings, pinned to a wall in a family home, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, (c.1484–86) amongst them — pictures not valuable but valued. Yes, the postcard seems far more in keeping with Berger’s actions here: something both gathered and shared, public and personal, something open and something given. Something on which you can write.

John Berger
John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972, film still. Courtesy: BBC

Mariama Attah 

Photography’s capacity to be quickly reproduced and easily disseminated makes it the ideal medium for enabling and gathering several meanings. In reading a photograph, we are interpreting from our own positions and experiences. As images move through the world, shared and separated from their original intention or location, they become open to perceptions and interpretations from each set of eyes they encounter.

In Ways of Seeing, Berger speaks of the importance of seeing and how this translates to being viewed in return. To see is to confirm that everything around us exists. There is reflection in this process. However, we are limited by our imaginations and the experiences we can call on as material to make sense of images. The personal nature of interpretation centres us as the viewer and activator in meaning-making. The gap between seeing and reading is filled with our personal and visual imaginations and relies on our agency and ability to make meaning.

What does this mercurial interpretation mean? We can all hold values that are different but true. Varying experiences will lead to a range of outcomes that form a nuanced understanding of the photographed world. Berger suggests that, through images, we can truly comprehend the world and our position within it. To expand on this thought, by recognizing that a multitude of personal interpretations can co-exist, we can gain a sense of how photography acts as a medium to form connections and expands our ability to understand new perspectives

John Berger
John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972, film still. Courtesy: BBC

Anna Frances Douglas 

Few books of art criticism can claim such an enduring impact 50 years after publication as Berger’s Ways of Seeing. It was, arguably, the book’s form as much as its content – seven zesty essays, three comprised solely of photographs – and its non-dogmatic yet persuasive ‘voice’ that cut right through the mystification of the discipline by professional art critics. Its message that art was ‘entangled with capitalism’, and that women were depicted differently than men ‘with the “ideal” spectator always assumed to be male and the image of the woman designed to flatter him’, attracted a different and receptive audience. Nonetheless, it’s perhaps a touch ironic that a book collaboratively produced by five men – Berger, Sven Blomberg, Mike Dibb, Chris Fox and Richard Hollis – should have had a profound effect on women artists and cultural historians exploring gender.

Ways of Seeing lifted the veil from the conceit that art, particularly the representation of women, was non-ideological, a view that Civilisation (1969) – also a television series and book, by art historian Kenneth Clark – sought to uphold. By contrast, in identifying the convention that, in art, ‘men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,’ Berger fuelled a generation of British feminist photographers to critically, though variously, engage with image-production. In the exhibitions ‘Women and Work’ (1975) and ‘Who’s Holding the Baby?’ (1978), The Hackney Flashers activist collective documented women’s labour inside and outside the home. In the early works of Jo Spence and Terry Dennett, including Jo Spence

as a sex object
(1979), Berger’s ideas on the production of meaning and the context of seeing are discernible.

The women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s preempted Berger’s contention that the conventions of a phallocentric visual economy, in which ‘women must constantly survey themselves’, were on the way out. Nevertheless, in 1972 there was limited non-specialist literature addressing women’s representation in art history, notably Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Three years after Ways of Seeing, film theorist Laura Mulvey would publish her seminal essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975), detailing her concept of ‘the male gaze’, which remained foundational within cultural studies for years and spawned generations of visual activists.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 227 with the headline ‘Celebrating 50 Years of “Ways of Seeing”’, as part of a special series titled ‘Photography Now’.

Main image: John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972, film still. Courtesy: BBC

Jeremy Millar is an artist and head of the MA writing programme at the Royal College of Art, London, UK.

Mariama Attah is a photography curator, writer and lecturer. She is curator of Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, UK.

Anna Frances Douglas is a co-curator and researcher for Hepworth’s Progeny at The Hepworth Wakefield, UK, and a lecturer in fine art, University of Leeds, UK.

Sean Burns is an artist, writer and assistant editor of frieze based in London, UK. His book Death (2023) is out now from Tate Publishing.