Informing Contexts; Reflections on Week 8; ‘Speaking Photographically’, 17th March to 23rd March, 2018

This week we’ve been encouraged to think hard about the nature of our practice and how best to critically examine work in terms of professional aesthetics and reception by our target audiences.

Clarke begins his book by pointing out the importance of ‘Hermaneutics’ in understanding visual communication and that this represents a shift from what the artist or photographer intended to the interpretation of the meaning by the receiver. The photograph is often presented with the minimum of  textual backdrop, how the viewer responds to the image, particularly in terms of narrative, is highly open to question.

Berger uses examples from painting to illustrate how references can be effectively communicated visually. He also makes the point that painting can ‘obey’ cultural values and expectations whilst at the same time living with some artistic contradictions, such as the depiction of the nude and the use of perspective, he does not feel it is so simple with images produced by the photographic camera.

While the age of Berger’s books means that his commentary is totally missing the effects of the huge 21st century explosion in the use of imagery caused by the use of digital capture, image processing and internet propagation, he does make for me an interesting point on portraiture. He  feels that just as the formal painted portrait became more and more generalised over time and that the public personae of media folk like TV presenters and celebrities has become similarly anodyne.

Of particular interest to me are Berger’s comments on the power of photographs to misinform, and the adoption by campaigns of the photograph to proliferate ‘consumerist lies’. This is what I guess is being referred to when a few of my images for my Researchers and Influencers project are compared to ‘corporate advertising’. Not quite the same as swearing at them, but close.

Berger makes a number of interesting points about appearance and the importance of the an image reinforcing a subjective feeling. Key to this is the appearance of correspondencies that relate the viewer to that message. He feels the really expressive photograph has fulfilled universally the individual qualities in that image, in a positive way that is. On Cartier-Bresson’s death Berger quoted a photograph taken by him of a young Mexican girl taking a large portrait of a serene woman through a hole in a tall fence. Pointing out the transience of the scene is belied by the portraits serenity and the girl’s eagerness to carry it.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mexico City, 1963

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mexico City, 1963

Belting approaches the analysis of images from the perspective how the perception of images has changed some of the earliest art imagery, that done in various pre-Christian civilisations. He posits that while each generation has a new familiar in terms of what images it expects to see reproduced, there is a neuronal memory of recollection that ties the ‘real’ to the imaginery. He feels this anthropological interpretation provides an explanation to how we see images, that it is our mental memory of stored images that is behind our image perception. He feels this is particularly important with video, and will be even more so with the expected adoption of Virtual Reality (VR) headsets.

Later in his book Belting makes the interesting observation that photographs symbolise our perception and remembrance of the world. Acting as a mirror that changes in step with our technological life. Like Berger he sees many connections between the way photographic portraiture conveys a message and that of painted. He feels this connection is “the gaze of memory”. He also makes some interesting comments on a series of images in the influential photobook of Robert Frank called ‘The Americans’. Pointing out that one the one thing the book is missing is consistent of concluding narrative.

Cousins also makes the point that while photography began totally ‘unpainterly’, it did represent ‘the way it looks’, and that it was the ease of doing this that made some in the artistic community reject it. Cousins make the point that photographs work well with words, each provides something the other lacks.



Clarke, M (2007) Verbalising the Visual: Translating art and design into words, Singapore, AVA Publishing

Berger, J (1972) Ways of Seeing London, Penguin Classics (2013 reprint)

Berger, J (1967) Understanding a Photograph London, Penguin Classics (2013 reprint)

Belting, H (2002, 2nd edition) An Anthropology of Images Translated from the German by Thomas Dunlap, New Jersey, Princeton University Press. (2011 reprint)

Cousins, M (2017) The Story of Looking Edinburgh, Canongate Books.