If I could have met anyone in the world it would have been John Berger. He died, aged 90, on January 2nd.
Booker Prize winner, story teller, art critic, painter, poet, and cultural historian, Berger was a one-off. Watch him interviewed on YouTube. Radical and uncompromising, he brings intense thought to the most basic of questions. There is always a long, almost painfully awkward pause. He always asks ‘What does this actually mean? What is its significance to us today?’ You can feel him weighing up the arguments, thinking, thinking, before offering a composed, original, and considered response. Berger lived in the present, which is why he would never countenance delivering a tired, received thought.
His revolutionary series of TV programmes from the early 1970s ‘Ways of Seeing’ encouraged us to question traditional attitudes to great art, and our responses to the power of the modern media. Where Sir Kenneth Clark would tell us what to think about a painting, Berger insists that we question what is actually happening in it. For instance, the depiction of a nude woman by an Old Master may be considered great art, but it was painted in a previous time and in a very different culture. Don’t forget that, he says. Here’s what I think, but don’t just believe me, think for yourself, reach your own conclusion. And most importantly, he reminds us that the programmes of his we are watching have also been edited. Gently and persistently he encourages us to alter our vision of the world around.
His books have fundamentally affected my own thinking. ‘Pig Earth’ was one of the earliest books of his I read. It is a collection of poignant, powerful portraits of the peasant people of the village in the Alps where he chose to live for much of his life. Always lucid and empathetic, he never speaks down or patronises, but endows everyone he writes about with dignity and respect.
In his books on photography he encourages us to analyse the work of photographers such as Cartier-Bresson and Paul Strand. Watch his compelling discussion with Susan Sontag on the nature of photography on YouTube. He encourages us to observe, to look closely, and then to look again, so that we uncover new layers of meaning and significance.
Berger was an uncompromising humanitarian, deeply concerned with the plight of migrants and anyone displaced from their home. He despised the brutal exercise of global power, and the relentless homogenisation of people’s minds by modern media. His life is a testament to the power of original thinking.
Here is a list of some of a few of his most significant works: ‘Ways of Seeing’, ‘Pig Earth’, ‘A Fortunate Man’, ‘Another Way of Telling’, ‘About Looking’, and ‘And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos’.
John Berger (5 November 1926 – 2 January 2017).