What He Saw

Indeed, nearly every other assertion that Berger makes about photography strikes me, with the benefit of a few decades' hindsight, as mistaken. Thus: "It looks as though photography . . . is going to outlive painting and sculpture as we have thought of them since the Renaissance." "Photographs in themselves do not narrate." "Photography has no language of its own. One learns to read photographs as one learns to read footprints or cardiograms." All reasonable propositions, and all of them untrue. Berger thought as hard and as well about the medium as anyone, but history and art are humbling that way, and he could not have been expected to foresee, to take just the first of these remarks, how Photoshop has forever removed the presumption of truth from photography, turning it into a species of painting, or at least of image fiction, a procedure so ubiquitous that even my mother regularly cuts and pastes images out of family pictures before e-mailing them out. Photography is dead: Painting killed it.

Of course, there's no ignominy in being wrong, and Berger's way of being wrong is more interesting than most. But he's better when he's looking than when he's ruminating, except in those rare instances—like "Why Look at Animals?"—when his subject matter is more supple, his arguments more agile and original.

Through it all, one is struck by how extraordinarily sincere Berger is, how serious and unsmiling. He is a Tragic Marxist. There is not a trace of smugness in his essays, nor insider's shorthand; none of Benjamin's dandyism, nor, though this sounds more damning than it needs to, any of his playfulness. It feels very much like a version of the manual labor that Berger prizes so highly for its dignity and honesty, as if the French peasants he has lived among for so long had taught him: one sentence, a stone, another sentence, another stone, an argument, a wall, a watertight roof, a piece of art criticism.

Berger yoked himself to an ideology that could not countenance looking for looking’s sake.
photo: Jean Mohr
Berger yoked himself to an ideology that could not countenance looking for looking’s sake.


John Berger: Selected Essays
Edited by Geoff Dyer
Pantheon, 588 pp., $35
Buy this book

And then something happens, around the publication of Keeping a Rendezvous in 1992. It's a kind of great loosening, coupled with almost perfect concentration, and as much room to write in as he wants. Everything falls into place: his skills as an observer, the nimbleness of his mind, his political convictions, now perhaps made more subtle by age, or by the age of the century, as time dismantled repressive regimes masking themselves as socialist. The triumph of consumer capitalism dismays him, of course, but the stony tone of the earlier essays is given up. Now he seems to be reaching for Montaigne, as an aging man might. The gloominess remains, but all traces of effort vanish, as does a certain piousness that occasionally marred the earlier work. He talks about love, aging, rage, sex, and art— always art. The essay "A Story for Aesop," an account of Spanish painting (some of which, as it happened, appeared in the VLS), is one of the finest essays on the medium that I've ever read: ambitious, speculative, serpentine, and shot through with so many insights that it seems an almost casual display of mastery. He has become a wiser and more generous writer, still concerned with the ways of this world, but more patient, both with himself and with his readers, more respectful of the essay's will to determine its own turns, more comfortable with his knowledge and his beliefs, and the relation between the two. A better writer in his sixties than he was in his thirties. It should happen to us all.

Also in This Week’s Books Section:

Todd Pruzan on The Rotters' Club by Jonathan Coe

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