Understanding a Photograph

This is a short review of the chapter titled Understanding a Photograph from John Berger’s 2013 book of the same name.

For the People

The chapter starts with a statement that for over a century, photographers and their apologists have argued that photography is a fine art. The problem, according to Berger, has been that the apologists (him included) have argued from an academic standpoint, which by implication is lost on many people.

Berger goes on to say that perhaps photography should not be considered a fine art at all. His reasoning is that (at least at the time of writing of this chapter – 1968) photography has not been put on the high pedestal that, say, painting and sculpture has been. For this reason, photography still belongs to, and is understood by, regular people rather than being locked up in museums. His view is that painting and sculpture have become valuable property, but photographs, by their nature, have no rarity value and therefore do not have value as property.

Of course, since the time of writing the situation has changed drastically in terms of the level of acceptance of photography by museums. However, Berger’s point remains unchanged: there is an aspect of photography which relates to everyday people. Photography has managed to occupy all available slots from fine art to everyday snapshots and everything in between.

Photograph as Record

The next section considers the recording possibility of a photograph, what some authors have referred-to as its “indexical nature”:

“Photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation. A photograph is a result of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen.”

The photographer is effectively saying: I consider this worth recording. But Berger goes on to point out that “the true content of a photograph is invisible, for it derives from a play, not with form, but with time”. From this he argues that it’s not just a case of deciding what to record, but crucially, when. He makes the comparison with a movie director who, like a painter, can manipulate the events depicted, independent of time. A still photographer doesn’t have this possibility. A choice must be made. This point is supported by Hurn (2001) “there are two fundamental elements in all picture-taking: where to stand and when to release the shutter. These are the two basic controls at the photographer’s command — position and timing — all others are extensions, peripheral ones, compared to them”.

Berger notes that this apparent limitation (i.e. the need to select a precise moment) actually gives photography a unique power. As he puts it: “what it shows invokes what is not shown”. His point is that while a photograph is a selection of space and time, it also refers-to, or invokes, what is not present. What is not present is effectively our contextualisation of what is shown within the photograph – it’s the stories we tell ourselves about what is and is not shown.

The Bigger Picture

In the final part of the chapter, Berger expands on the point in the previous section about a photograph invoking what is not shown:

“A photograph is effective when the chosen moment which it records contains a quantum of truth which is generally applicable, which is as revealing about what is absent from the photograph as about what is present in it.”

This “quantum of truth” varies between photographs – it might be a facial expression, an action, a juxtaposition, a visual ambiguity which strikes us as being familiar. This aspect of selection and exposing a quantum of truth is so important that Berger states that it changes how we think about photographs. It’s not so much a case of I have decided that this is worth recording as “the degree to which I believe this is worth looking at can be judged by all that I am willingly not showing because it is contained within it”.

He goes on to argue that “every photograph is in fact a means of testing, confirming and constructing a total view of reality” and this is the reason that photography is so crucial in idealogical struggle.


Rather than giving us the tools about how to go about understanding a photograph, the chapter is more about the nature of photography to encourage us to think differently.

Composition, in the sense of where to stand (in Hurn’s words), plus the addition of timing become essential to selection in order to expose Berger’s “quantum of truth”. Without such composition, we have a snapshot, which may or may not be satisfying because the message may be confused.

If we are to be effective as photographers, then, we have to understand and take advantage of this unique power that a photograph invokes what is not shown. It reminds me of the often-repeated quote by Robert Capa: “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”. This could be re-worded in Berger’s terms as “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you need to select more carefully”.


Berger, John (2013) Understanding a Photograph. [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed 03 Oct 2016)

Hurn, D. & Jay, B. (2001) On Being a Photographer: A Practical Guide. (3rd edition). Washington: LensWork


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