geoff dyer on john berger on photography

Cover00Geoff Dyer at Bookforum:

In 1960 Berger had defined his aesthetic criteria simply and confidently: "does this work help or encourage men to know and claim their social rights?" Consistent with this, his writing on photography was from the start—from the essay on Che Guevara of 1967, "Image of Imperialism"—avowedly and unavoidably political. (Which meant, in "Photographs of Agony," of 1972, he could argue that pictures of war and famine which seemed political often served to remove the suffering depicted from the political decisions that brought it about into an unchangeable and apparently permanent realm of the human condition.) Naturally, he has gravitated toward political, documentary, or "campaigning" photographers, but the range is wide and the notion of political never reducible to what the Indian photographer Raghubir Singh called "the abject as subject." In "The Suit and the Photograph" August Sander's image of three peasants going to a dance becomes the starting point for a history of the suit as an idealization of "purely sedentary power" and an illustration of Antonio Gramsci's notion of hegemony. (As with Benjamin's "Work of Art," remember that this was the 1970s, almost twenty years before Gore Vidal informed Michael Foot that "the young, even America, are reading Gramsci.") Lee Friedlander, the least theory-driven of photographers, once commented on how much stuff—how much unintended information—accidentally ended up in his pictures. "It's a generous medium, photography," he concluded drily. "The Suit and the Photograph" is an object lesson in how much information is there to be discovered and revealed even in photographs lacking the visual density of Friedlander's. It's also exemplary, reminding us that many of the best essays are also journeys, epistemological journeys that take us beyond the moment depicted, often beyond photography—and sometimes back again.

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