Understanding a Photograph

by John Berger

Essays on photographs, photography and photographers.

Understanding a Photograph

John Berger thinks a lot about images. I greatly enjoyed his book Bento's Sketchbook, so, when his thoughts on photography were reissued, I couldn't wait to read them.

One important point that Berger makes—I paraphrase, no doubt inaccurately—is that, despite what the photographer might want or intend, photographs take their ‘meanings’ from their observers. In fact, why bother to paraphrase? Here's a quote:

painting interprets the world, translating it into its own language. But photography has no language of its own. One learns to read photographs as one learns to read.

I'll have that. Berger is also very big on the instantaneous nature of photographs: how capturing a single instant effectively means that what happened before or after the photograph is open for the observer to interpret.

There is lots of excellent food for thought in this book. I didn't agree with all of it, but, in some ways, that's probably the whole point.

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