Understanding a photograph

Berger, John. ‘Understanding a photograph’ Classic Essays on Photography ed. by Alan Trachtenberg (New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980) 291-294
Certainly the vast majority of people do not consider photography an art, even whilst they practise, enjoy, use and value it.
It now seems clear that photography deserves to be considered as though it were not a fine art.
It now seems fortunate that few photographs have been preserved in sacred isolation, it means that the public have not come to think of any photographs as being beyond them.
By their nature, photographs have little or no property value. The very principle of photography is that the resulting image is not unique, but on the contrary infinitely reproducible. Thus, in twentieth century terms, photographs are records of things seen.
Our mistake has been to categorize things as art by considering certain phases of the process of creation. But logically this can make all man-made objects art. It is more useful to categorize art by what has become its social function. It functions as property. Accordingly, most photographs are outside this category.
Photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation.
A photograph is a result of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen.
If everything that existed were continually being photographed, every photograph would become meaningless. A photograph celebrates neither the event itself or the faculty of sight in itself. A photograph is already a message about the event it records. The urgency of this message is not entirely dependent on the urgency of the event, but neither can it be entirely independent from it. At its simplest, the message, decoded, means: I have decided that seeing this is worth recording.
This is equally true of very memorable photographs and the most banal snapshots. What distinguishes the one from the other is the degree to which the photograph explains the message, the degree to which the photograph makes the photographer’s decision, transparent and comprehensible.
Thus we come to the little-understood paradox of the photograph. The photograph is an automatic record through the mediation of light of a given event: yet it uses the given event to explain its recording. Photography is the process of rendering observation self-conscious.
Painting is an art of arrangement: therefore it is reasonable to demand that there is some kind of order in what is arranged. […] This is not the case with photography. […] Composition in the profound, formative sense of the word cannot enter into photography.
The true content of a photograph is invisible, for it derives from a play, not with form, but with time.
I have said that a photograph bears witness to a human choice being exercised. the choice is not between photographing x and y: but between photographing at x moment or y moment. The objects recorded in ant photograph (from the most effective to the most commonplace) carry approximately the same weight, the same conviction. What varies is the intensity with which we are made aware of  the poles of absence and presence.
A photograph, while recording what is seen, always and by its nature refers to what is not seen. It isolates, preserves and presents a moment taken from a continuum.
[…] 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 footprints or cardiograms. The language in which photography deals is the language of events. All its references are external to itself.
A photograph is effective when the chosen moment which it records contains a quantum of truth which is generally applicable, which is as revealing about what is absent from the photograph as about what is present in it.
The nature of this quantum of truth, and the ways in which it can be discerned, vary greatly. It may be found in an expression, an action, a juxtaposition, a visual ambiguity, a configuration. Nor can this truth ever be independent of the spectator.
But photography does not deal in constructs. There is no transforming in photography. There is only decision, only focus. The minimal message of the photograph may be less simple than we first thought.
Instead of it being I have decided that seeing this is worth recording, we may now decode it as: The degree to which I believe this is worth looking at can be judged by all that I am willingly not showing because it is contained within it.
We think of photographs as works of art, as evidence of a particular truth, as likenesses, as news items. Every photograph is in fact a means of testing, confirming and constructing a total view of reality. hence the crucial role of photography is ideological struggle.

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