Quotations from Uses of Photography by John Berger.
“Through photographs, the world becomes a series of unrelated, free-standing particles; and history, past and present, a set of anecdotes and fait divers. The camera makes reality atomic, manageable, and opaque. It is a view of the world which denies interconnectedness, continuity, but which confers on each moment the character of a mystery.” (p.53, Berger, 1980).
“A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.” (p.54, Berger, 1980).
…photographs do not in themselves preserve meaning. They offer appearances – with all the credibility and gravity we normally lend to appearances – prised away from their meaning. Meaning is the result of understanding functions. “And functioning takes place in time, and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand.” Photographs do not narrate. Photographs preserve instant appearances. (p.55, Berger, 1980).
There are photographs which belong to private experience and there are those which are used publicly. The private photograph – the portrait of a mother, a picture of a daughter, a group photo of one’s own team – is appreciated and read in a context which is continues with that from which the camera removed it. (The violence of the removal is sometimes felt as incredulousness: “Was that really Dad?”) Nevertheless such a photograph remains surrounded by the meaning from which it was severed. A mechanical device, the camera has been used as an instrument to contribute to a living memory. The photograph is a moment from a life being lived. (p.55-56, Berger, 1980).
The contemporary public photograph usually presents an event, a seized set of appearances, which has nothing to do with us, its readers, or with the original meaning of the event. It offers information, but information severed from all lived experience. If the public photograph contributes to a memory, it is to the memory of an unknowable and total stranger. (p.56, Berger, 1980).
Who is the stranger? One might answer: the photographer. Yet if one considers the entire use-system of photographed images, the answer of “the photographer” is clearly inadequate. Nor can one reply: those who use the photographs. It is because the photographs carry no certain meaning in themselves, because there are like images in the memory of a total stranger, that they lend themselves to any use. (p.56-57, Berger, 1980)
In the private use of photography, the context of the recorded is preserved so that the photograph lives in an ongoing continuity. (If you have a picture of Peter on your wall, you are not likely to forget what Peter means to you.) The public photograph, by contrast, is torn from its context, and becomes a dead object which, exactly because it is dead, lends itself to any arbitrary use. (p.60, Berger, 1980).
Photographs are relics of the past, traces of what has happened. If the living take that past upon themselves, if the past becomes an integral part of the process of people making their own history, then all photographs would re-acquire a living context, they would continue to exist in time, instead of being arrested moments. (p.61, Berger, 1980).