Reading – Another Way of Telling by John Berger and Jean Mohr 1982


This book was divided up into several distinct sections. The first section, by Jean Mohr was about his experiences as a photographer and some of the subjects he has photographed over the years. He presented several photo essays which appear somewhat dated now but could be considered as documents of a past that has already disappeared. Marcel, or the right to choose, is an extensive essay the summer sojourn of an Alpine cowherd, his grandson, cattle and his dog. This shows all aspects of his life, mostly alone, at 1500m on the summer pastures with his cattle. Given my past involvement with the dairy industry and agriculture, I found this fascinating. A framed portrait of a woodcutter, also resonated (visually) with me after my recent essay of the tree removal from my garden.

In What did I see? (a similar exercise to that carried out in What makes a document – Discontinuities ,  in which Mohr asked nine people of differing backgrounds to interpret 5 photographs. It illustrated well the notion that our  individual interpretation of images depends on several factors.

John Berger’s essay Appearances started with a an account of how he met and collaborated with  Jean Mohr and how , embarking on the book , which looks at how peasants look at themselves, they had to re-evaluate how photographs are used when “communicating experience.” The essay is broken down into sections:

  • The ambiguity of the photograph in which he discusses (in a long winded and rambling way) how one single image can be interpreted differently depending on a number of factors, (context, history etc., discussed elsewhere) and how photographs used with text are more powerful.
  • A popular use of photography in which he reads one or two of Kertsz images based on the visual content and the wider European history contemporary with the image.
  • The enigma of appearances discusses the the photograph as art. He puts forward the idea that whereas some photographers may consider themselves as artists,  (Paul Strand, Man Ray) others (Bruce Davidson) may oppose the view. He also writes about the differences between paintings as works of the imagination and photographs perceived as real and whether photography has a “language” as painting and sculpture do? At this point I found myself floundering as he digressed into philosophical discussions which I could not follow. Berger’s summary: “Photographs quote from appearances. The taking out of the photograph produces a discontinuity, which is reflected in the ambiguity of a photograph’s meaning . All photographed events are ambiguous, except those whose personal relation to the event is such that their own lives supply the missing continuity. Usually , in public the ambiguity of photographs is hidden by the use of words which explain more or less truthfully, the picture’s events.”

If each time…. is the title of the photo essay presented about the life of an invented peasant woman in the Alps as she grows old. Berger is at pains to point out that this is not a document of her life (as she does not exist) but more of an experience of someone in her position. He writes “All photographs use the language of appearances. We have tried here to speak this language so as not only to illustrate, but also to articulate a lived experience.”

The essay itself is assembled from 150 images which do not appear in any particular sequence of narrative although it seems that the intention is that these are memories recalled while the old woman sits knitting. Everything is shown, joy, laughter, pathos, life, death, family, religion. The sense I get from it is that this was a full life of unremitting toil. I found it evocative of my experiences working in agriculture when I was a student, milking, making cheese, killing a pig working in the yard and the fields (although perhaps not quite as primitive, still pretty basic tasks). For me this essay brought a sense of “apart”. I have always been associated with farmers and know how different their lives are from the rest of the population. It is unremitting and remains so, as it was for your father, so it will be for  you, your son and his son after him.

Finally, Berger draws some distinctions between the different types of narratives that are employed is still photography. Unfortunately he digressed into something over complex but I think the point he was making compared the eye-witness accounts of photo-reportage to the narrative accounts of those living  the reported experience. Importantly the introduction of other images which will reflect the life experiences used to interpret the narrative which introduce the ambiguity which is not acceptable in objective reporting and is why often this type of documentary narrative often includes text to dispel any ambiguity.

Conclusion I found this book a worthwhile read, not only to re-enforce what was discussed in the coursework but also to start me thinking about the single image narratives for the second assignment. 


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