The Yeongsan-jae or the ‘Vulture Mountain Ceremony’ is a Buddhist ritual performed at the Bongwon-sa temple in Seoul, Korea. The objective of the ritual is to soothe ancestral souls who roam the earth unappeased, in order that they are spared of rebirth and attain liberation. A restless soul may only be appeased by the supreme knowledge as was first preached by Sakyamuni Buddha in the Lotus Sutra whose recital forms the core of this ceremony.
This post is my note on Berger’s essay titled: “Uses of Photography”
The essay is a record of Berger’s responses to Susan Sontag’s book titled On Photography. Here, Berger talks about the role of photography in industrial capitalism and personal life. The discourse is undeniably political, however, in the process Berger offers some important insights into how a photographic culture affects the way we see and experience the world. Berger’s first observation is that the proliferation of small cameras turned the act of photographing from a ritual into a reflex. Sontag is quoted here.
“Through photographs the world becomes a series of unrelated , free standing particles; and history, past and present, a set of anecdotes and faits 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”
This quote is the seed of all thoughts that are within the essay.
It is pointed out that photography has become in our age the replacement or even a reinvention of memory.
“What served in place of the photograph; before the camera’s invention? The expected answer is the engraving, the drawing, the painting. The more revealing answer might be: memory. What photographs do out there in space was previously done within reflection.”
The photograph severs the moment from its context and presents it naked, vulnerable to misguided interpretation. Thus, when an image makes use of the various visual methods of connotation (in the sense of Barthes) it runs into the risk of obscuring the flow of events which the photograph was a member of and becoming a mere spectacle. The camera can turn nature, history, suffering, other people, catastrophes into spectacles. What is worse, in a society that bears this spectacular photographic culture, the mind trains itself to spectacularize events and history without a camera.
“The spectacle an eternal present of immediate expectation: memory ceases to be necessary or desirable. With the loss of memory the continuities of meaning and judgement are also lost to us. The camera relieves us of the burden of memory.”
With the above preparation we can introduce the central idea of the essay: There are two distinct uses of photography, the private and the public. The private photograph, the family photo, photographs of uncles, mothers, fathers are read in the context that they were taken. They are still a part of the stream of events from which they were photographically severed. In contrast the public photograph, the images in the newspaper or on television have been deeply affected by the violence of de-contextualization. They present us with information but it is free of a lived experience.
“It (the public photograph) records an instant sight about which this stranger has shouted: Look!”
This renders the photograph ready for any use. This, Berger believes, has been consumerism’s sustenance in the 20th century. He goes on to suggest an alternative photography. And here it should be noted that the alternative is not to use the public photograph against capitalism for socialist causes.
“For the photographer this means thinking of her or himself not so much as a reporter to the rest of the world but, rather, as a recorder for those involved in the events photographed. This distinction is crucial.”
It should be noted here that the experience of a photograph as private or public depends as much on the way it is shot as on the audience it receives. This fact makes Berger’s proposal of an alternate photographic culture plausible.
Reading this essay, Berger’s notes on the photography of Paul Strand come to mind. I am also reminded of the American images of Vivian Maier.
I write this note as a reflection on John Berger’s essay on Giacometti. I chanced upon this essay in his book ‘On Looking’. What follows are mostly thoughts by Berger, but I often find that by trying to understand words, we transform them and hence these reflections are at least a rearrangement of Berger’s thoughts if not their transformation.
It might be considered a sign of artistic maturity when the artist begins to think of his body of work. It is the birth of a perspective that ties the many fragments of his creation into a cohesive whole. And in this awareness of a theme the artist might seek a completion to the body of work. In this sense Berger says, “It is as though his death confirms his work: as though one could now arrange his works in a line leading to his death.” Giacometti construed a body of work whose essential completion would be the artist’s death. This gave his works, while he was alive, the quality if being a preparation for what the future held. And to Giacometti the only irrefutable promise his future made was his mortality. What makes an artist think about life with the perspective supplied by his mortality? Berger offers a suggestion: “he simply could not in all honesty overcome his conviction that he had always been and would always be totally alone.” What has this loneliness to do with the sense of death? How does from it spring the theme which only death completes? The loneliness that Giacometti experienced originated from the proposition that reality could never be shared. This very private quality of an artist’s reality supplies him with that sense of isolation which nurtures an everlasting awareness of death. Under the inescapable canopy of isolation, the star of death shines ever so brightly. Once this is realized, death becomes the origin and the culmination of everything that one creates. Berger says, “This is why the content of any work is the incomplete history of his (Giacometti’s) staring at it. The act of looking was like a form of prayer for him, it became a way of approaching but never being able to grasp an absolute.” Giacometti’s works shone with an incompleteness only death could erase.
Berger attempts to explain what brings this extraordinary sense of loneliness among some individuals. He says it is the result of a certain temperament which Giacometti shared with Samuel Beckett. “If a man was purely animal and not a social being, all old men would have the expression of Giacometti”. Here I know exactly what Berger wants to say, because I know of another man with the same expression, Manik Ghodghate, a poet of the Marathi language. Ghodghate’s poems give us the impression that they have been written in an eternal evening which the poet inherited at birth. The quality of fatigue on the face of Ghodghate and Giacometti is that of an unavoidable inheritance of solitude. In this sense both the sculptor and the poet lived in an evening that longed for a final nocturnal completion.