John Berger: Ways of Seeing Review

To me, Berger’s philosophy can be summarised in one phrase from his book:

“To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself.”


It forms the epitome of his message: images today have nearly lost their original focus; they are so readily reproduced that we, in our contemporary age, are able to manipulate their meanings for our own advantage. Immediately, I made connections to “The Death of the Author”, in which Barthes theories that “the birth of reader must be sacrificed with the death of the author”. We give images a new purpose simply by interacting with them. I admire the two critic’s reader-response approach, as it celebrates the diversity of interpretation as a microcosmic

Berger’s “ways of seeing” has become a classic. It challenges habit and convention by presenting an alternative explanation to our perception of images; both ancient and modern. Some have even argued that his text formed the beginnings of modern day feminism. Berger’s first essay in particular was influenced by Walter Benjamin, a German literary critic. This was about ideas of reproducing images for one’s own means.

Before I even begin to appreciate the content of these essays, I must raise attention to the atypical layout. I was intrigued to see that the text began on the front cover of the book. Again, Berger has challenged our conventional ideas of the cover of a book. By beginning his piece on the cover, we must eradicate our preconceptions that a book begins on the first page. This was a very effective way on enticing readers. Berger opens by stating that “seeing comes before words” yet ironically, has abandoned the ‘seeing’ aspect of the book by amalgamating the front cover with his essay. Immediately, it is evident that this piece is meant to confront us.

Sporadically throughout the book were chapters of pure images: a chance for the reader to reflect on Berger’s messages, and the difference in what I myself saw was shocking. This was particularly true for the argument regarding women’s demeanour and how they are presented to each other and to men. After reading the essay, I was then shocked to see that in the paintings which followed, which were mainly from the Renaissance and Baroque era, every woman was aesthetically presented for the viewer, as though she was for his eyes only. Of course, I am aware that Berger is selective with his images and that this is not true for every painting with a female subject, however it did evoke a new ‘way of seeing’ within me. Berger reminds he reader that he is merely presenting ideas and therefore using image for his benefit: he invites us to be sceptical of his views.

Berger’s collection of essays can be summarised in four sections: perception, women, possession and publicity. After reading “Ways of seeing” I found that Berger also wrote and presented a four part television series about his essays, which aired in 1972. It was organised into the same four categories. Berger’s argument in this series remained exactly the same: he used identical images to those in his book. The only difference was that he included discussions with various demographics. For instance, when arguing over our natural perception and how it can be influenced, Berger invited some primary school children to examine Caravaggio’s “The Supper a Emmaus” . Berger pointed out that they, with limited knowledge, can only rely on experience to interpret the painting. Without even knowing the name of the artist or that he was homosexual, the children picked up on the sexual ambivalence of the central subject. Berger argued that most adults would have overlooked this point. Similarly, after presenting his argument on the way a woman is always accompanied with an idea of how she should look, Berger invited five women to discuss concepts of nudity. A majority of them agreed that they felt subjectively inclined to present themselves to the opposite sex as it was believed to be closely affiliated with success.

Following comparisons between the original text and the television series, I theorised that there was one strong similarity between them: hypocrisies. In each of the four sections there followed instances where opposing perceptions overlapped. Berger asks us to be aware of images which are sent to manipulate us, of reproductions which have long lost th purpose and setting which they were made. Yet at the same time, he uses these images for his own benefit. When talking of women, Berger argued that women were consistently taught that their appearance, in particular towards a male, was of pivotal importance. The hierocracy follows when a man paints a woman nude for his own pleasure, yet by painting a mirror in her hand he avoids moral degrading and the woman becomes the vain, immoral being. In his possession section, Berger argues that between the 14th-19th century oil painting dominated as it was the closest depiction of the real object’s texture and thus was able to accurately depict the realistic quality of the patron’s possessions. How then, can Mary Madeline be painted with such a medium if she was a spiritual figure and is then denoted to becoming an object seemingly centred around possession and availability? Even when confronting publicity, Berger points of that that two images which were never meant to conflict can be place side by side in magazines, showing two opposite worlds. or instance, luxurious advertisements of martinis were displayed next to shocking images of refugees. The presentation of these conflicting ideas and images only intensified Berger’s arguments and enabled me to view the diversity of people and opinion.

Overall, reading Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” proved to me to be a very thought provoking experience. It has made me aware of a multitude of interpretations to objects and to be cautions of their presuppositions. By reducing the content to four categories, the information is easier to digest. I would strongly recommended this text to anyone, not only those interested in the history of art but also those concerned with the direction of our society.


4 thoughts on “John Berger: Ways of Seeing Review

  1. Pingback: The Naked Lady | The Girl who Photographs Girls

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