I want to spend a few moments today remembering the great writer on photography, John Berger. For those of us of a certain generation Berger was a seminal figure. We were struck by his compassionate and insightful way of writing about photography. Berger was able to present to us many of the great philosophical insights into visuality and representation in a way that we could understand. As a young person struggling through the vast forest of modernist thought he was a friendly guide with good intentions. Reading his work left us feeling empowered rather than diminished. We got ‘it’ and felt that people like us could take part in the great debates that still continue to rage throughout the cultural world today.
For myself, Berger made me feel ok about my endless sense of wonder at the combined simplicity and complexity of representing what it is we see and experience. His statement that ‘ the relation between what we see and know is never settled’ is as true today as ever. As a lecturer, I still feel that if a student has left us without reading his work Another Way of Telling than somehow we’ve failed to point them to a pathway that every photographer should tread. Every photographic practitioner should read this excellent text. It opens up for us simply the complex scenario of how meaning is made from our strange medium whose ‘raw materials are light and time’. The book is also an amazing experiment to try and explore how images alone could be used to communicate without the use of text (students also love reading the book as half of it made up of images!). Those writing their dissertations, its well worth the time to read through this classic text.
On a final personal note, I always remember one of our Turkish undergraduates completing the course at UCLan and coming to see me before she left to travel Europe. She confidently told me that she was going to visit John Berger. ‘Of course you are’ I said smiling not believing her. Two months later I received an e-mail. As I opened the attachment I saw her sitting next to John Berger on his living room sofa, both of them beaming big cheeky smiles like kids. I burst out laughing. A great moment. The humanity of the shot said a lot about Berger and how he still had his love and respect for people despite his age and fame. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Berger I thoroughly recommend his works, especially Another Way of Telling and his classic A Seventh Man. Although he is gone, his thought is as fresh and as inspiring as when it was first published. Get to know him. He is a great guide and a still a much needed friend as we walk through the sometimes lonely world of critical theory.