John Berger’s Ways of Seeing – reflections on his ideas about the gaze

Having read this book in the past I knew it would be relevant to revisit it for this assignment. Instantly as soon as I started reading lots of points helped me make sense of why this assignment had encouraged me to take this approach “seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.”

In terms of this project and what I’m attempting to purvey this book is essential in helping me to remember and understand my thoughts and why I am so passionate about it. The book initially talks about our place in the world and how we use words to establish this. It’s interesting when we consider a digital world that we too are surrounded by and how this may or may not alter. Berger states how the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. I find it interesting that this is truer when it comes to online presence and the sense of the unknown is heightened yet humans still insist that a ‘ thing ‘ or person must exist as we have pictures and cicumstances construct a false sense of something being real. Must like Sontag’s discussion about the photograph’s ability to act as proof of something having happened. When we are shown a photograph we instantly believe it must be accurate, or much exist or have existed at some point.

“A woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and can’t be done to her.”

– John Berger, Ways of Seeing

“She turns herself into an object… an object of vision: a sight.”

– John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Berger’s reflections on the presence of women, shouldn’t necessarily be assumed to be negative. Especially not in the 21st century when 3rd wave feminism has brought about troops of women, whom, going against the rights previously fought for actively choose to become spectacles. Instead, it could be argued that the modern woman should be encouraged to acknowledge his observations, interpret his surveillance and even perhaps consider the potential idea that women in modern society are well acquainted with their sexuality and consciously aware of their seemingly immense and ever-growing sexual power… Not to suggest that she permits the presentation of herself to be set at a standard decided by men, and or other women.

John Berger’s Ways of Seeing

“In Ways of Seeing, a highly influential book based on a BBC television series, John Berger observed that ‘according to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome – men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’ (Berger 1972, 45, 47). Berger argues that in European art from the Renaissance onwards women were depicted as being ‘aware of being seen by a [male] spectator (ibid., 49),

Berger adds that at least from the seventeenth century, paintings of female nudes reflected the woman’s submission to ‘the owner of both woman and painting’ (ibid., 52). He noted that ‘almost all post-Renaissance European sexual imagery is frontal – either literally or metaphorically – because the sexual protagonist is the spectator-owner looking at it (ibid., 56). He advanced the idea that the realistic, ‘highly tactile’ depiction of things in oil paintings and later in colour photography (in particular where they were portrayed as ‘within touching distance’), represented a desire to possess the things (or the lifestyle) depicted (ibid., 83ff). This also applied to women depicted in this way (ibid., 92).

Writing in 1972, Berger insisted that women were still ‘depicted in a different way to men – because the “ideal” spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him’ (ibid., 64). In 1996 Jib Fowles still felt able to insist that ‘in advertising males gaze, and females are gazed at’ (Fowles 1996, 204). And Paul Messaris notes that female models in ads addressed to women ‘treat the lens as a substitute for the eye of an imaginary male onlooker,’ adding that ‘it could be argued that when women look at these ads, they are actually seeing themselves as a man might see them’ (Messaris 1997, 41). Such ads ‘appear to imply a male point of view, even though the intended viewer is often a woman. So the women who look at these ads are being invited to identify both with the person being viewed and with an implicit, opposite-sex viewer’ (ibid., 44).

We may note that within this dominant representational tradition the spectator is typically assumed not simply to be male but also to be heterosexual, over the age of puberty and often also white.”


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