Ways of seeing – John Berger BBC 1978. Part 1,2,3 and 4 from Youtube – (My longest blog).
To view this sees on youtube use this Link http://youtu.be/0pDE4VX_9Kk
This was one of the most influential program’s that I have seen, and I have both watched the series on Youtube and bought the book. However it is the BBC version that has had the most impact both for its visual quality and the narrative – which was delivered very precisely and with the effective use of silence to help reinforce John Berger’s many points.
This blog contains my general finding taken from the program and some of the key messages that link to my main project on isolation and my chosen photographer – Ralph Gibson – (see the attached mind maps from each series). Although the program is over 36 years old, it still creates a big impact today, although it would be good to get an update on where he feels things have ‘moved on’ especially with globalisation of images and social media.
The program opens with John Berger standing next to a picture of Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, with a Stanley knife which he uses to cut out the face of Venus – in total silence – and present it to the audience as if it was a cutting from a magazine – pure genius!
He was immediately able to get his point across simply and with few words, and to make them memorable – in a sense he created a memorable ‘picture’ using using the simplest of tools of television in order to launch his program’s on how we see! This opening scene had additional resonance for me from an isolation perspective because not only had he isolated the head from the painting for us to focus on, but changed our focus on the original painting were our gaze was isolated to the hole in the picture.
The structure of the program involved him making precise and deliberate points using works and phrases that were simply said but were poetical. He then supported these with pictures or video clips, and then used silence, and camera zooms to help the viewer ‘see’ his point of view by emphasising certain areas of painting/photograph.
The general framework for his discussions centres around comparing how painting were used in the past to how images are used today, (1978), and how they relates to the cultural and political factors that underpin our lives. His book and television series follow almost identical formats, each centring on four main themes, which can be read in any order.
His first program focuses on how we see today in an image rich culture as opposed to how we used to view images in the past when images were scarce ( from around 1400 to 1900). In the past, paintings were more formal and used perspective to show what was real – or considered as such. People had to go to the place where the paintings were displayed and had to see them in that environment – they were intended to tell a story to the viewer which they would remember and could relay descriptions and stories back to their communities. However the camera changed all this, and hence our relationship with the image. Now the images come to us rather then we to them, they are reproducible and available globally, and used for multiple purpose in whole, or broken down to smaller sections. In contrast to olden times, images are now shown with other images – sometimes competing and sometimes complementing.
His second program is about women in paintings and the modern image. His main focus is on the female nude and he starts his programme with the following ‘Limbic’ quote. Men dream of women – women dream of being dreamt of- men look at women- women look at themselves being looked at. His other great quote is that ‘ to be naked is to be without disguise – to be nude in a painting is to be disguised’. One of his core points was that the role of the women in a painting was to appeal to the viewer of the painting, and – which reinforced his opening quotes. He continues on his theme of the ‘spectator viewer’ by analysing different themes in paintings such the role of Eve in the Adam and Eve’ paintings,and how she is depicted as showing shame at being seen. His then goes on to look at how beauty and the nude are portrayed in the majority of other oil paintings and that their posture and body language suggest that they are ‘availability’ to the spectator or could be owned by him – as in the King Charles’s picture of Nell Gynn. The closing section looks at the modern day image of the woman and draws parallels with the looks of today with those of the past, arguing that they are similar and that not much has changed. I will try and expand on some of these themes when I look at the ‘Nude’ in my Ralph Gibson piece.
His third program focused on the oil painting and it’s central role in defining possessions of the owners. He does not focus much on the modern day, although there are a number of parallels that can be drawn to modern day photography. In fact, it was the oil paintings that allowed the painter to define high level details, in a similar manner to that available in colour photography. Had the book been written in the present day, I feel sure he would have a lot more to say about photography today and it’s place in defining who we are what possessions we own. He starts the program with a quote ‘ we look, – we see, – we buy, we collect objects’ and he then uses this to explain how the oil painting was used to show off the owners treasures to his friends and to himself. He draws on an example that this expensively commissioned art works form like these were seen as being above/on the same level as religion and so it they needed to be hung in palaces or art galleries – like treasures in a modern bank.
He then discusses what is shown in these possession through various images such as Holbien’s – the Ambassadors where their wealth and status is shown in every square inch of canvas. This was an example of a portrait painting that was to show the world’s cuter generations that these people ‘existed and were respected’ – Long term marketing. He also cited examples of paintings that showed off ‘far off’ places and possessions that were in foreign lands, and well as defining some of the attitudes and perceived cultures of the native people and the value of their possessions. There are certainly a number of parallels with modern photography especially with social media and today’s visual age – however photography had not yet matured enough in 1978 for him to address many of these issues, however he does address some of publicity aspects in his fourth program.
His fourth and final program is about Publicity and Glamour and no how this is portrayed and used by the publicists, marketeers and commercial organisations. This is where his politics and values tend to show themselves quite strongly, and whist I don’t agree with all of them, they are all very well made points. His main point on publicity is that it is about selling an alternative life to the ‘viewer buyer’ through the use of imagery using all the available media channels.
He makes the point that before our ability to mass reproduce images in multimedia, the oil painting was for the ‘spectator owner’, and you had to visit its ‘hanging’ location in order to see it. Now images come to us all the time, in multiple ways, across all mediums, and many will have messages enticing us to buy. The bulk of the program looks at how ‘ glamour ‘ is used as publicity’s main weapon, and that it’s aim is to make the buyer slightly envious with his life but to provide him with a dream that suggest that purchasing ‘their products’ will make the individuals life better – and other will then envy them!.
He later analyses how publicity uses many of the techniques of paintings as ‘echoing’ deceives ( such as poses, atmosphere, settings, symbols, gestures etc, to sell products). He believes that publicity is manipulative and plays on people’s fears of being undesirable, faceless or ignored! His arguments on personal envy, centres on the role of glamour to create this envy, and the manipulative ‘visual’ techniques that ‘capitalism’ uses to sell products and satisfy their manufactured dreams.
It’s just ironic that he uses these tools of publicity to make his point of view in this series.
See mind maps for more information about this program.