When looking became seeing

When John Berger’s BBC television series Ways of Seeing was transformed into a paperback book in 1972, its design owed much to its origins on screen. Forty years on from its first publication, it remains both an influential text and a pioneering example of the visual essay

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From the opening sequence of Ways of Seeing, BBC2, 1972

Late at night on January 8, 1972, the first of a new four-part television series called Ways of Seeing was screened on BBC2. It opened with art critic John Berger, back to camera, slicing into a painting by Botticelli. As Berger removed a small portrait from the reproduction of Venus and Mars, this quite literal transformation from painting to postcard served as an introduction to one of the major themes of the series.

It also indicated that this programme saw itself as a new approach to showing art on television. “It isn’t so much the paintings themselves which I want to consider,” Berger intones in the sequence, “as the way we now see them: now, in the second half of the 20th century. Because we see these paintings as nobody saw them before.”

What Berger meant by this was that contemporary audiences were now experiencing art in a radically different way to that of earlier generations. Through reproductions in books, magazines and newspapers, on television, and in their availability as prints, posters and postcards, artworks had been transferred from the particular point in time and space where they happened to be (the museum or art gallery, the private collection or vault) and become accessible to all.

“What this means, in theory,” Berger said, “is that reproductions of works of art can be used, by anybody, for their own purposes.” The art of the past no longer existed as it once did, he concluded, and this art was now a political issue.

That these attitudes seem familiar is, in part, due to the fact that they were already becoming more widely known and circulated around the time Berger took a knife to the reproduction Botticelli.

Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, had been published in English in 1968 and was the foundation for the ideas that formed the first episode of Ways of Seeing. These centred on how photographic reproductions had brought unprecedented access to art (once solely the preserve of the wealthy) and, in doing so, demystified it. Or in Berger’s timely phrase, so redolent of the television age, images of art had become “transmittable” as part of a visual culture.

The debt to Benjamin was acknowledged by the makers of Ways of Seeing in the first episode’s closing titles, but before filming even commenced, Berger had instructed the series’ director Mike Dibb and his team to read the original essay (the Illuminations essay collection had been published by Jonathan Cape in 1970). The challenge was to take this dense, complex text and make something more accessible, even playful from it. Via the BBC, Berger and his collaborators helped to put these ideas concerning different ‘ways of seeing’ into wider public consciousness.

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The cover of Ways of Seeing (BBC/Penguin), 1972, designed by Richard Hollis

Yet at its 40th anniversary, Ways of Seeing’s longevity exists largely because of the paperback book which followed the television series in the same year, a co-production from BBC Publications and Penguin. While the four programmes have been re-shown on the BBC (and were screened at the BFI in London earlier this month as part of its Berger season), they only really exist in any watchable form on the internet, in a batch of low res fragments.

The book has much more permanence: it remains not only in print, but as a set text on art and visual culture courses, and Richard Hollis’s design – in particular, his radical treatment of the book’s text and images – is lauded as a pioneering example of the visual essay.

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Spread from Ways of Seeing (BBC/Penguin), 1972, designed by Richard Hollis

“Everyone knows the book, and because it has a higher cultural standing than the TV programmes, people think it came first,” says Dibb. “But the book would never have been the way it is, if we hadn’t have made the series.”

Hollis’s clean placement of Berger’s text, interspersed with a litany of famous paintings, remains accessible and lucid, but its debt to the television series is notable. Hollis’s aim was to replicate the experience of watching and listening, but in print. “You can have a voiceover on television,” he says, “you can be looking and listening, and it was trying to get as near to that as possible.”

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Spread from Ways of Seeing (BBC/Penguin), 1972, designed by Richard Hollis

Hollis also treated Berger’s text in a new way. Deciding to set it in sans-serif Univers was one thing, but making it bold seemed to declare its difference from the traditional art book, as much as replicate Berger’s buoyant on-screen delivery.

“I wanted the text to be heavy, so that it was as heavy as the image,” says Hollis. “The idea being that you couldn’t read one without the other. I tried to make the text insistent.” In the majority of art books of the time, he recalls, “you tended to have rather spidery text, so people would go through the book and look at the pictures. There might be an explanatory caption, but often [there was] just an identification. So that’s why we kept the references to what things were in Ways of Seeing as minimal as possible, so that people would look at a picture, not because it was a Vermeer, but because it was interesting in relation to the text.”

In Hollis’s design the images become part of the text; they, too, are intended to be ‘read’, and are even indented at the same line length as the words. The large, colour plates common to more conventional art books exalted the image high above the text; Hollis’s conceit was to raise the level of the words to match the art.

But it was not for everyone – and Penguin’s head of design, Hans Schmoller, made that quite clear to Hollis, who received cover proofs scrawled with the typographer’s comments.

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Spread from Ways of Seeing (BBC/Penguin), 1972, designed by Richard Hollis

“I remember the biggest remark was ‘Is this meant to be centred?!'” Hollis recalls. But the control of the book was firmly in the BBC camp, in the hands of the late Peter Campbell, and so Schmoller’s objections to its radical appearance – the cover cleverly proffering the very first page of the book – went unheeded. (Hollis has previously told the story of when a finished copy of Ways of Seeing was placed on a Penguin director’s desk, it was promptly hurled down a nearby corridor.)

This violent break with the established traditions of art publishing also had its roots in the ways that Dibb’s 30 minute films reacted to the early conventions of art on television, as epitomised in art historian Kenneth Clark and his Civilisation series from 1969. Shot on 35mm film, Clark’s epic 13-episode history of Western art was one of the first documentaries to be made in colour. Clark’s delivery, as he took the viewer through his “personal view” of what were largely European artworks was establishment, patrician, and decidedly clipped in tone.

“Art history in the mid-1970s seemed to be limited by its commitment to a canon of masterpieces, largely the property of the wealthy,” says Professor David Crowley, head of the Critical Writing in Art and Design programme at the Royal College of Art.

“It was also stymied by connoisseurship; tweedy men talking about brushstrokes and style. Berger’s Marxism meant that he was as interested in the reproduction of images as their origination [and] concerned with the persistence of certain recurrent motifs in our culture, like the nude, whether in the gallery, or in an ad in a glossy magazine. This interest in all forms of visual culture, ignoring the pompous high and low distinction, is now the norm, but it was quite provocative at the time.”

Professor Teal Triggs, who uses Ways of Seeing on the London College of Communication’s Design Writing Criticism course, also acknowledges that Berger’s comments in the programme on the female nude influenced feminist readings on art and design – namely, she says, through his focus on the way of “seeing women” and “how these depictions are positioned in relationship to a male spectator”.

For Triggs, “Berger presents a framework involving the ‘surveyor’ and the ‘surveyed’, as one way we might understand sexuality and the female body, her ‘presence’ and sense of herself, personal relationships and who is actually doing the looking. Women are ‘objects of vision’ [and] such a perspective resonated at a time in the 1970s when women’s liberation was an urgent concern and notions of the body and self were being freshly questioned. Berger took these ideas onto national television.”

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Spread from Ways of Seeing (BBC/Penguin), 1972, designed by Richard Hollis

While both programmes aired on BBC2, compared to Civilisation, Ways of Seeing had a rather more modest budget. It was filmed over six months, mainly at a studio in Ealing in west London (bar a nighttime visit to the National Gallery) and unlike Clark’s grand tour of churches and museums to see the original works of art, Ways of Seeing relied, rather fittingly, upon a host of reproductions.

According to Dibb, a deeper layer of irony now also exists: the copyright of the works shown as reproductions in Ways of Seeing prevents the series from being available on DVD, whereas the rights to Clark’s films of the artworks themselves are held by the BBC. Hence Civilisation is now in glorious HD via Blu-Ray, while Ways of Seeing is scattered across several uploads on YouTube.

But even though many of the ideas that Berger took forward in the early 1970s are now commonplace (and Benjamin much more widely read), Ways of Seeing’s influence remains pervasive. For one, the use of the term ‘visual culture’, to imply the ubiquity of image-based communications – from art to advertising – was brand new territory when Berger, Dibb and Hollis began documenting its occurrence on film and then in print. Moreover, what Hollis was able to do with the format of the book still influences designers today.

James Goggin, now director of design, publishing and new media at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago says that his design for Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane’s Folk Archive book was a direct homage to Hollis’s design, specifically to his trick of seeming to start the book’s text on the front cover.

“While very much admiring Hollis’s direct approach with the book’s introduction starting right there on the cover, I’d always been slightly disappointed that it didn’t follow through directly on the inside front cover and title page, as one might have expected,” says Goggin. “So in designing Folk Archive with a very functional, almost objectively encyclopedic approach, the preface started on the cover [with] four images in a general text page format, as opposed to one single work in a more art book-like full-bleed. Crucially, the text continued directly across the inside cover and title page. The result was a gesture that I acknowledge as inspired by Hollis, but also a playful one attempting to belatedly fulfil the continuous text promise of his original cover.”

The influence of Hollis’s approach is also evident on the graphic design journal, dot dot dot. Peter Bil’ak, who worked on the publication with designer Stuart Bailey recalls “the directness and clarity of Hollis’s no-nonsense approach. Very often, designers see text as grey blocks, [in Ways of Seeing] Hollis is engaged deeply with the text, and helped the message to come across.”

For Crowley the idea of the visual essay as a kind of ‘filmic object’ is a construct with roots in the 1970s, within the ideas brought about by Jean-Luc Godard’s Dziga Vertov group, for example, and has become a concern of contemporary artists such as Ryan Gander and the Otolith Group.

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Spread from Ways of Seeing (BBC/Penguin), 1972, designed by Richard Hollis

“There’s a nice connection between I, Eye, Hollis’s early visual essay recording his visit to Cuba in the early 1960s and the visual essay in Ways of Seeing,” Crowley adds, “despite the differences in content.” It’s significant that, in terms of charting his own influences, Hollis also looked to film, most notably to French filmmaker Chris Marker’s book, Commentaires I (1961), where the placement of text and image directly affected the way Hollis would treat Berger’s material.

For Goggin, Ways of Seeing continues the trend in the late 1960s where the trade paperback was used as a vehicle for communicating progressive ideas to a wider audience. He cites works by Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller and Quentin Fiore, Victor Papanek, Carl Sagan, and Bruno Munari as precedents.

But while the avant-garde nature of these texts has recently been re-examined in Adam Michaels and Jeffrey T Schnapp’s The Electric Information Age Book (CR April), it’s possible that Ways of Seeing is, in the UK at least, one of very few 60p paperbacks to have had an exhibition dedicated to its conception.

In 2005, Ways of Seeing: Revisited opened at Tate Britain and alongside the four films, several foreign editions of the book, texts by a handful of artists, curators and critics shown on the gallery walls gave some idea of Ways of Seeing’s reception and influence within the art world. Once again the book proved divisive, with author and gallery director Julian Spalding declaring Berger’s book “superficial, pernicious and wrong”.

But Stephen Deuchar, Tate Britain’s director, while unlikely to critique the content of a show in his own gallery, noted aptly how in Ways of Seeing “the juxtapositions of high and low visual culture, which have become an art historical staple now, were really charged: all the more so because they were so carefully plotted, not just anarchic”.

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Richard Hollis’ exhibition at the Libby Sellers Gallery, London in 2012

Hollis, the man responsible for the careful plotting of Ways of Seeing, and whose long career was recently the subject of a fascinating retrospective at Gallery Libby Sellers in London, remains modest about his achievements with the book. Understandably, for him “it was just another design job” and looking back 40 years on a project that took roughly two weeks’ work, is perhaps more than a little surreal. But his belief in the project’s success is directly attributed to the medium in which it gained a vital second life.

“A book is very accessible, unlike something on a screen,” he says. “You can’t carry that around, or just pick it out. The book is very easy to go back to, so I think that’s probably the reason it’s survived.”

Ways of Seeing by John Berger is published by Penguin Classics; £8.99. The four-part television series is available to view on YouTube and also UbuWeb (ubu.com)

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