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Beyond a tool — the camera brought to life through the eyes of John Berger

Photo by Yoann Siloine on Unsplash

John Berger was a fascinating mind, and one capable of understanding, without limitations, the total quality and uniqueness of each image he wrote about and viewed. He also understood the philosophy behind photography as not just an art form, but a unique undertaking that was at the mercy of the person defined as ‘Photographer.’

John Berger has opened my eye to an understanding I was never quite aware of through his writings in ‘Understanding a Photograph‘. Even in my own exploration of the philosophy behind photography and the photographer, I never fully realised that the physical function of a camera isn’t just enabled by the photographer , but rather by how the camera functions and the relationship a photographer has with their camera. Berger outlines that this is significant truth in the development of photographs and images. He uses the photography of Paul Strand to describe the following :

“His method, one would say, is the antithesis to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s. The photographic moment for Henri is an instant, a fraction of a second, and he stalks that instant as though it were a wild animal. The photographic moment for Strand is a biographical or historic moment, who’s duration is ideally measured not by seconds but by its relation to a lifetime. Strand does not pursue an instant, but encourages a moment to arise as one might encourage a story to be told…Where he has chosen to place his camera is not where something is about to happen, but where a number of things will happen that are related”

The paragraph above is persuasive. It delineates that photography in its totality is a function of a visionary. The seeker of a photo. But he furthermore refers to Strands use of the camera as something of a listener. An incredible and powerful way to describe how Strand himself approaches his photography. Strand, according to Berger, was able to anthropomorphs his camera into a device capable of capturing more than just an image: “the mutation being that photographs supply information without having a language of their own” he writes.

Photography by Paul Strand

When defining a photographer in the above-linked article, I considered only the time with which we use a camera to take a photo. My thought process was that the sum total of a picture is the action taken between the relationship a seeker of the photo has with his camera to that of a photographer. The above paragraph expands this further and removes the marginalisation of the tool ‘camera’ as only capable of photographing.

Being able to have a relationship with an inanimate object is quite an absurd thing to presume, but as mentioned previously, no camera can take a photo without the existence of a person — one with a vision enhances this truth. “At one level there are no photographs which can be denied. All photographs have the status of fact. What has to be examined is in what way photography can and cannot give meaning to facts.” he explains.

A camera isn’t, however, merely an extension of our body, it has to fundamentality be an extension of our thoughts too. For an object to carry this purpose, and to be described as a tool capable of “listening” one begins to realise the metaphysical properties that exist as part of the behaviour “photography”.

Susan Sotang writes of photography and cameras

“Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all objects that make up and thicken the environment we recognise as modern. Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.”

To expand on this, I believe photographs refer to the appearances (objects of that time: Berger refers to this as “half-language”). It offers, in a sense, direct access to the real (unless the real is bastardised — street photography relies on this to then establish its absurd references) but in a variety of ways, both directly and indirectly — but always and only ever in its viewing.
To summarise the idea, photography and the behaviour of photography is not just the extension of consciousness through a camera and the acquisition of space and time. It is also the creation of public access to that extension of consciousness via the factual framing of a moment in time.

Berger — Source

At no point, however, do you just appear as the essence of a photographer capable of refined vision and refined relations to your camera, that’s preposterous, you cannot merely will this, because to achieve that status or calibre, the seeker of photographs and photographers need to be the outcome of a multitude of failed attempts of a photo, to eventually be capable of omitting and supplying detail in balance so as to achieve ‘greatness’. ‘Greatness’ in a picture is not just the manifestation of a photographers ability though, it’s the applied history of failure and repetition and the learned truth about the exact function and role of a camera.

The one thing I will note is that Berger doesn’t allude, at any point, to the developing photographer. Instead, just the outcome of an image. I want to work on expanding his idea on photographs by adding the thoughts and development of photographers, because I believe there’s an essential truth about the consciences of the seeker of photographers, and it’s that their experience of time and experience of life predominantly contribute to their ability to build up and create scenes for viewing via “half-language”. Photo-seekers and photographers alike are capable of learning the “half-language” as Berger calls it, of photography — but how are they learning something which technically doesn’t exist according to the very same man to coin the term? A topic for another time, I assure you.

Thanks for reading

~Ed

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