During our second week, we were set the task of reading Ways of Seeing, written by John Berger and originally published in 1972; which was accompanied by a television series. Having dyslexia can make some reading difficult, thankfully, in this case the book was too much of an issue – even though the theory can be hard to grasp at first. For anyone who doesn’t enjoy reading, the TV series has so far been incredibly faithful to the book. Almost matching word for word, from the book to screen. I’d highly recommend giving it a watch, and I’ll include the links towards the end.
By reading the first chapter, I can see that I will enjoy the rest of the book. Berger looks deeply into how we view art, and perhaps the world. The opening chapter of the book largely focuses on classical paintings, and the introduction of photography. Primarily the perception of gaining a composition, as well as how these images are viewed.
While discuss the relationship between art and its audience, Berger (2008) argues that the way we view something changes depending on if we see the item/subject first hand, or if we view through a screen. Of course, the obvious is how something, like a painting for example, is given a ‘new’ composition when it is photographed or film. But this in turn changes the environment in which the painting is now situated. Once it was only accessible by visiting the physical object, whereas in todays modern society, we are merely a few clicks alway; bringing the gallery to us. This changes everything, not only the way we view, but also the experience.
To try to explain in perhaps a way that makes sense to me easily;
The organisers of the Glastonbury Festival take a lot of time to ensure that their visitors are engulfed by the atmosphere. Virtually every aspect is thought about, so that while there – or so I’m told – it’s like no other place on Earth. Why else would people return year after year, especially now that BBC iPlayer provided incredible coverage. However, do they? My housemate and I both watched the same performance, Sampha. While watching at home, the performance wasn’t enough to keep my attention and I found myself catching up on social media throughout the set. Tyrell on the other hand, returned to say that it was his highlight of the festival that year. Again, we both watched Ed Sheeran – neither of us our major fans, but we love music – and while the hairs on his arms tingled, mine didn’t.
Just how watching live events can change through witnessing them first hand instead of through a screen, so does everything else that we see. Never before have we lived where we can see this far around the counter.
If we rewound just 30 years ago, it would have been much more difficult to recognise and distinguish other parts of the world. Given the rapid growth of the internet, and the access to amateur photos or films, we now have a completely new view of the world. One that isn’t shown in the mainstream media, perhaps by design or the lack of interest. Regardless of the reason, apps like Instagram have enabled people from all classes to easily share the world through their eyes.
This first hand insight into places alien from own surroundings has helped us to be more informed, more empathic and more deceived. While the image can give us a snapshot, to fully understand the context, we must move beyond the bezel and into reality.
I do not own any of the rights to the content of these videos, nor am I affiliated with the YouTube channel where they are located.
Berger, J. (2008) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.