Understanding a Photograph

An excerpt from the article by John Berger


John Berger, sonny rosenberg

3/11/20231 min read

For over a century, photographers and their apologists have argued that photography deserves to be considered a fine art. It is hard to know how far the apologetics have succeeded. Certainly the vast majority of people do not consider photography an art, even whilst they practice, enjoy, use and value it. The arguement of apologists (and I myself have been among them) has been a little academic.

It now seems clear that photography deserves to be considered as though it were not a fine art. It looks as though photography (whatever kind of activity it may be) is going to outlive painting and sculpture as we have thought them since the Renaissance. It now seems fortunate that few museums have had sufficient initiative to open photographic departments, for it means that few photographs have been preserved in sacred isolation, it means that the public have not come to think of any photographs as being beyond them. (Museums function like homes of the nobility to which the public at certain hours are admitted as visitors. The class nature of the 'nobility' may vary, but as soon as a work is placed in a museum it acquires the mystery of a way of life which excludes the mass.)

Let me be clear. Painting and sculpture as we know them are not dying of any stylistic disease, of anything diagnosed by the professionally horrified as cultural decadence; they are dying because in the world as it is, no work of art can survive and not become a valuable property. And this implies the death of painting and sculpture because property, as it once was not, is now inevitably opposed to all other values. People believe in property, but in essence they only believe in the protection which property gives. All works of fine art, whatever their content, whatever the sensibility of an individual spectator, must now be reckoned as no more than props for the confidence of the world spirit of conservatism.

-John Berger