The book is a collection of essays exploring and questioning how the conventional ways of viewing and seeing the world through images came about through the history of art. The book accompanied a BBC series Ways of Seeing from the early 1970s.
The essays are short and very readable, some are text based and some are image essays and they provide thought provoking theories and themes which in part provide an explanation of the history of the modern form of images which we see today across all mass media. To provide a taste of the content of the essays I have made reference to essay 3, which addresses the composition of the image of women through the ages.
It opens the discussion with the point that the social presence of a woman is wholly different to that of a man. A man’s presence is always exterior to him in that whatever the subject the image is always about what a man might be capable of so in essence a man acts. Whereas a woman’s presence communicates her own attitude to herself and this therefore leads to a gesturing of what can and can’t happen to her, so in essence a woman appears. For example if a woman makes a joke then she is portraying that she is a joker and can be treated as such whereas a man can make a joke for it’s own sake.
Throughout the history of art it is men who were the painters undertaking commissions for royal, religious and wealthy patrons who were mainly men, women were the subjects. So men become the viewer or surveyor, and women the viewed or surveyed.
In the oil painting Judgement of Paris by Rubens (1577-1640), seen above, nude women are depicted being surveyed by men. Paris awards the most beautiful nude woman with an apple and with this additional element of judgement the painting effectively depicts a renaissance beauty contest.
Later in the essay there are two images of women each with a very similar seductive smile. (p.55) The first is from another famous oil painting La Grande Odalisque by Ingres (1780-1887) and the second image is of a female model taken from a 1970s girlie magazine.
Below is a candid portrait of my partner taken by myself on a very cold early morning walk with the dogs in January. Rosie’s expression is not dissimilar to the two examples shown in the essay, but at the time I didn’t ask her to make an expression only to stand in a particular position in relation to the tree in the background as I was literally practising with a new camera. Powerful stuff.
The essay brings the story up to modern day and mentions that the days of the early classical oil paintings are long since gone but that the new mediums of advertising, journalism and television express exactly the same attitudes and values
The essay concludes with the following quote, “The essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from men – not because the feminine is different to the masculine – but because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him. If you have any doubt that this is so, make the following experiment. Choose from this book an image of a traditional nude. Transform the woman into a man. Either in your mind’s eye or by drawing on the reproduction. Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image, but to the assumption of a likely viewer.” (Berger, J. p64, 1972)
This essay and the book in general were extremely thought provoking in coming to terms with how the conventions of image have actually come about and just how powerful the weight of history is in maintaining the structure of convention and society.
Berger, J (1972), Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books
Judgement of Paris (Rubens) image taken from
La Grande Odalisque (Ingres) image taken from
http://stephanieburnsfineart.com/tag/la-grande-odalisque/ (accessed 20/03/2016)