Annotation: About Looking

This is the second book I’ve read by John Berger this semester. The first, Ways of Seeing, was excellent, cogent, and topical, all without being too over-intellectual or stuffy. With that in mind, it seemed like an excellent idea to pick up another of his books, to continue to the authorial conversation. Unsure which to pick (he has several collections of essays), I selected somewhat randomly, and ended up with About Looking, which proved to be likewise cogently written, but not as consistently so, and certainly with a more academic vocabulary (this is not a good thing). There were a variety of excellent points and ideas brought up in the course of the book, but it really failed to make as significant an impact as his previous work.

I think that perhaps the reason the book doesn’t work as well for me is how it was collected. The essays are in no apparent order (neither subject nor date seem to have any influence), other than — and this may be my own perception — the longest essays are in the front, and the shorter, more cogent essays are in the back. He opens with a 28 page essay about how the perception of animals has changed in society, and the man-animal relationship has changed as well. He made some excellent points in it, in particular concerning the role of zoos in our urban society, as well as the social misperception of zoos. A zoo is a place to see what animals look like, not to see and be seen by animals. Of course, all his excellent points could have been said in half the space if he stopped beating around the bush for so much of the essay. It felt (and this sentiment extends to a lot of the essays) like he knew he had something he wanted to talk about, but wasn’t sure how to say it, and the essay is his process to get it out.

The rest of the book is a bit more directly topical, and the collection is loosely broken down into “Uses of Photography” and “Moments Lived”. The photography section I suppose is fairly clear, but what exactly does “Moments Lived” mean as a subject title? Apparently, it means “new takes on the motivations of artists,” if the actual content is any indication. I’ll get to it more in depth in a moment, but first, the photography section.

Technically speaking, these were four separate essays, written over the course of a decade (1968 to 1978), though not necessarily in chronological order. Subjectively speaking, it read like one long, rambling essay. As a photographer, I was a little taken aback by his somewhat antiquated views of photography. He talked at length about how they serve as a method to capture a moment in time, as a supplement (and sometimes replacement) to memory, unlike traditional painting. He is entitled to opinion, of course, but I am also allowed to completely disagree with compartmentalizing photography like that. The “capturing of memories” is a minor part of photography (though I will admit, it IS a pretty significant portion of the popular sentiment about photography). Photography can also be used as a very potent tool in creating abstract imagery, as well as creating a range of emotions that can be every bit as distinct and strong as a painting. As much as Berger was trying to tout the values of photography, I think in the end, he ended up doing it a disservice, which is unfortunate.

The majority of the book fell under the “Moments Lived” section, and was in my opinion the strongest writing in the book. in each essay, it was clear the author knew what he was talking about, and really brought some interesting insight into various works of art (mostly paintings, but some sculptural work as well). In particular, I really appreciated his juxtaposition of Francis Bacon and Walt Disney, with one taking a pessimistic conclusion and one taking an optimistic conclusion, both from the same underlying concept and intent. Also worth noting was a recurring topic between several essays on how birthplace influenced the art of several artists, both in subject matter as well as style. For instance, Courbet was born in the foothills of the Jura mountains in France. The most direct and obvious tie to this area is his predominant use of minimal horizon (very little sky is shown in the majority of his work), which directly relates to the towering mountains blotting out most of the horizon when he was growing up. Another example would be Fasanella’s cityscapes (in particular of Manhattan). They succeed in capturing the sentiment of finding privacy while simultaneously being on display that many other artists fail to capture, because quite simply, they’ve never truly lived in that fashion.

My favorite essay is the one he closed with, entitled “Field”. It had nothing to do with any artist, and most precisely captured the sentiment of the section title. The essay describes a simple, uncultivated field that sits amidst the trees near a set of train tracks that he has to pass on his way home from work. Occasionally, he has to wait for a train on the tracks, and when doing so, looks over and sees the meadow between the trees, a short distance away. He watches two birds playing, or butterflies doing what butterflies do, or a cat stalking some invisible prey, or any of a variety of simple things happening in the meadow, and feels as enriched and rewarded by it as he feels about any work of art.

The latter half of the essay completely misses the point, however, and relegates this sublime moment to a set of rules that must be applied for any sort of effect, which he partially uses as an excuse to not actually visit the field, lest the feeling be destroyed. After such a strong start, too. The first half of the essay struck a very strong chord with me, as it managed to at least partially describe a sentiment that I am constantly trying to explain. Walking around on the half-snow half-mud in Vermont in late March/early April, where the world is just starting to wake up again, and you can hear the trickle of a stream still partially obscured by ice in the distance. Wind playing with leaves on an empty street at dusk, where the lights are just starting to come on, but it’s still light out anyway, and there is a crisp, real taste to the air. Sitting in the grass in the shade of some trees, looking up through a gap in the branches and watching the clouds float by, while butterflies flutter nearby. Standing in the woods after a snowstorm, in that brief “warm” spell that sometimes follows snowstorms in New England, and listening to the snow drop off the overladen branches.

It’s experiences and sentiments like these that fill me with an enormous sense of personal peace and well-being, and I try to be receptive (not vigilant… that would defeat the point) to these moments whenever I can.

Despite its faults, I still feel this was a pretty good collection of essays, and I’m glad I read them. I would probably suggest this book to people who enjoy art essays (whether for school or personal enjoyment), but at the same time, I would probably also suggest AD Coleman’s Critical Focus as a counterpoint and companion to this book. Between the two authors, I think a really great creative sentiment can be painted.