In this introductory chapter to Berger's popular book, he articulates a set of concerns with images, both photographic and painted or drawn, and with their relation to text. Berger opens by claiming for the image a prior and more central place in the human sensorium: "It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it" (7). Thus, from the beginning, words are a reduction of the image, an attempt to capture through language the essence of something that will inevitably elude that attempt. The visual also acts in a particular way to situate the viewer, both through the perspective of the image in question and through the cultural and historical context of that image. In the act of viewing, we situate ourselves in the image we view, thus taking on a special, perspectival relationship to the things viewed. "Perspective [which is not a natural but a cultural phenomenon] makes the single eye the centre of the visible world. Everything converges on to the eye as to the vanishing point of infinity" (16). Following Walter Benjamin's argument in "The Art Object in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Berger argues that the technologies of photography and motion photography work to divest the image of its prior claim to a perspectival centrality: "What you saw was relative to your position in time and space. It was no longer possible to imagine everything converging on the human eye as on the vanishing point of infinity" (18). Thus, the meaning or signification of a photographic image as compared to a prior painted image, is decentered, diffuse. It carries less absolute meaning or, as Berger says, "its meaning multiplies and fragments into many meanings" (19). As an example, Berger discusses a painting which is shown on the television screen and which is thus simultaneously present inside the houses of potentially millions of viewing subjects. Though he doesn't push it this far, it seems that a similar argument might be helpful in ascertaining the effects of the endlessly reproducible digital image which can be accessed at will.

This chapter is interesting, though it meanders a bit. I found the most helpful revelation on the page change from 27 to 28. In an illustration of how words can impact on an image, Berger places a black-and-white reproduction of a Van Gogh at the bottom of page 27. It is recognizably Van Gogh and we could tell, even if there weren't text above it to confirm our assumption that it is "a landscape of a cornfield with birds flying out of it" (27). Subsequent text tells us to "look at it for a moment. Then turn the page" (27). When we do so (after looking the requisite moment), we find the same picture at the top of page twenty-eight, accompanied by two "bits" of text. The first, which runs down the left-hand margin, tells us the painting's vital statistics--"WHEATFIELD WITH CROWS BY VAN GOGH 1853-1890"--but it is the other text, written in a clearly legible handwriting, that catches our attention. It reads, simply, "This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself" (28). The impact of these words on this picture was immediate and irrevocable. (Laurie Dickinson.)


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Michael Hancher

Department of English, University of Minnesota

URL: http://umn.edu/home/mh/ebibld5.html

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Created 21 May 1995

Last revised 17 September 1996