Discontinuities – Appearances by John Berger

The course manual references Berger’s essay Appearances which features in Understanding a Photograph, a copy of which I have on my shelf. I have read this essay a few times since purchasing the book, but it would be good to make some notes on it with regards to this part of the module, even though I made a few notes about it during IAP.

Berger begins his essay with a reference to a rather anonymous photograph of a man smiling with his horse. There is no context as to who the man or the photographer were.

  • ‘Every photograph presents us with two messages: a message concerning the event photographed and another concerning a shock of discontinuity (Berger 2013: 56). The event that is photographed is done either in an objective mode or a subjective mode.
  • But what exactly is this discontinuity? Berger explains it rather well: “between the moment recorded and the present moment of looking at the photograph, there is an abyss (Berger 2013: 56). This abyss refers to the time lapsed since the photograph was taken and the viewer looking at the photograph now. One is only really aware of this abyss when the photograph is of a personal nature, i.e. a relative or friend living elsewhere or perhaps passed away. If we don’t know the people in the photograph then we are only aware of the event that was recorded. This is probably why all the respondents to the What Makes a Document? exercise just prior to this one had difficulty perceiving the context of the priest and military man image.
  • ‘The ambiguity of a photograph does not reside within the instant of the event photographed … The ambiguity arises out of that discontinuity which gives rise to the second of the photograph’s twin messages. (The abyss between the moment recorded and the moment of looking.)’ (Berger 2013: 57).
  • Berger compares a photograph to a stored memory, but stresses the fundamental difference between the two. An memory that we store in our brain is the result of an experience (residual), while a photograph isolates a certain moment in time without any connection to any experience. “… Meaning is not instantaneous. Meaning is discovered in what connects, and cannot exist without development’ (Berger 2013: 57). Interestingly Berger mentions that facts and information do not constitute meaning. Meaning comes with time and is a response to the known as well as the unknown. It is also inseparable from mystery and neither can exist without the passing of time. ‘Certainty may be instantaneous; doubt requires duration; meaning is born of the two. An instant photographed can only acquire meaning insofar as the viewer can read into it a duration extending beyond itself. When we find a photograph meaningful, we are lending it a past and a future’ (Berger 2013: 57).
  • This discontinuity renders all photographs ambiguous as all photographs are snippets of time. If the event is a public one e.g. a photo of soldiers raising a flag on top of a hill at Iwo Jima, it becomes history; if it is a personal one, e.g. birthday party, then it forms part of a life story. Berger claims that even a landscape breaks with continuity i.e. light and weather (Berger 2013: 58). I must admit I had never thought about a landscape in this way before. But when we use words with the photograph the ambiguity is not always so obvious and the words lend certain credibility or authority to the photograph.
  • Berger offers a similar explanation as Gregory Currie (1999) does in his paper ‘Visible Traces: Documentary and the Contents of Photographs’ about the difference between trace and translation (which Currie refers to as testimony). A trace is an imprint of something that has been created by the object i.e. a photograph of a seascape or footprints in the sand. A translation or testimony is something that has been created from someone’s imagination of what he/she thinks they see i.e. a painting or a drawing. A trace is made mechanically without any intervention (a shutter button is pressed or a foot is pressed down into wet sand), whereas a translation is an ongoing process of looking and drawing (Berger refers to this as making and receiving).
  • Time is considered differently when looking at trace and translation too. When the shutter button is pressed on a camera the time taken to make that imprint is uniform. But when making a painting or a drawing time is not uniform. As Berger explains a painter will not take as long to paint a sky as he does to paint a face due to the finer details required (Berger 2013: 60).

Berger, J. (2013) ‘Appearances’ In: Dyer, G. (ed.) Understanding a Photograph. New York: Aperture Foundation.  pp.55–82.

Exercise: 5 Photographs

The Brief:

Make a selection of up to 5 photographs from your personal or family collection. They can be as recent or old as you wish. The only requirement is that they depict events that are relevant to you on a personal level and couldn’t belong to anyone else. (i.e. no photographs of the Eiffel Tower)

Using OCA forums such as OCA/student and OCA/Flickr group ask the learning communities to provide short captions or explanations for your photographs.

Summarise your findings and make them public in the same forums that you used for your research. Make sure that you also add this to your learning log.

(Documentary – Fact & Fiction | Photography 2 Course Manual, 2014:22)

I must say I did get a few chuckles from some of the responses I received for this exercise.

Image 1

There was overall consensus that this was a new house, new beginnings and new family. There were a few attempts to date this photograph. One person said 1970’s another 1980’s (that is correct). Another person who had an advantage stated that it was a new home on the Gold Mines, which is almost spot on as the house is situated within the gold mining town of Roodepoort, South Africa. This was my husband and myself’s first house purchase (it was brand new) and the photograph was taken about two weeks before we moved into the house. We were so cash-strapped that we couldn’t afford grass seed so cut runners of Kikuyu grass from my mother and mother-in-law’s lawns and using an old spoon made furrows in the rock hard ground and planted the runners in that. We used to travel about 60 kilometres during the week after work to go and water this piece of lawn. The pram contains my second son.

Image 2

This photo caused a little more confusion. A few folks guessed that some or other type of competition was happening. One person made a connection to World Cup soccer which was correct – just not the participants and the date. He had it down as 1970 with Brazil vs England, but this was 2006 with Brazil playing France in the finals. The photograph was taken in North Vancouver, Canada – yes we do get sun in Canada :-). The three gentlemen in the photograph are three homestay students who were staying with at our house at the time. Brazilian students always seem to have a national flag with them wherever they go, but the two French students didn’t have a flag so they created one out of their T-shirts. The flags were hooked onto the washing line and remained there until after the match, when needless to say, the French students went slightly crazy from the euphoria of winning.

Image 3

There were all sorts of comments which had me chuckling for this photograph. One person said it was a group of friends celebrating, another said it was a boozy night with the folks. Actually it was the aftermath of my twenty-first birthday party (I’m seated on the left) after most of the guests had left. My mother is in the photo (with the blue dress), but the pouting man is not my father, but was my dance instructor. His wife is sitting opposite him. Thanks to whoever said it was in the 1980s, but it was in the 1970s.

Image 4

This photo probably had the least amount of information attached to it. Some said it was my dad, a mine manager, the new boss signing his blotting paper and a studio portrait from the 1950s. I’m not sure of the exact date of the portrait but I think it would have been in the 1940s as the gentleman in the photo is actually my grandfather and was forty three years old at that time. Interesting, Simon had a punctum moment and commented:

My (me, Simon’s) first ever, proper punctum! (The embossing address stamp, to the left of man in the picture – my father had one just like it; after he’d died and we moved house, I used to stamp our old address on sheet after sheet of paper, fascinated by the mechanism as much as anything more consciously nostalgic).

Image 5

Doug came the closest to providing context for this image “Traveling and a ‘skodonk’ Not an RSA registration but landscape looks like Africa”. Other mentions were a summer holiday (complete with Cliff Richard’s soundtrack) 🙂 and “a ride of sorts”. The photograph was taken in Swaziland near Nhlangano. Our company had organized a long weekend tour for employees to Swaziland and a group of us decided to walk to the nearest town which turned out to be well over 10 kilometres away from the hotel. Part of the way was through the bush so as soon as we emerged from the bush and hit the road we decided to hitch hike. This was the first time I had ever hitch hiked in my life and this was our ride! The four of us sat in the back of the pickup which was so rusted that we could literally see the road under our feet through a variety of holes. And someone rightly guessed it was in the 80’s.


Documentary – Fact & Fiction | Photography 2 Course Manual (2014) (PH5DFF120419) Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Exercise: What Makes a Document?

I come to this exercise some eight years and some ninety seven posts later and I feel totally glazed over. After so many posts it is very difficult to find something new and fresh to say. So my comments will be from a personal reflection standpoint.

In his short essay Jose Navarro poses the questions “Is it time or is it context that makes a document? Or is it something else?” I think pretty much everyone taking part in this blog exercise agrees with RobTM that a photograph is inherently a document. As Kenneth Clarke states the word ‘document’ has its origins in the Latin word documentum which means ‘evidence’. Any photograph ‘takes into evidence’ that which is before the lens at the time the shutter is pressed, whether it is an event being recorded, person or object. It may even be a fictional event being recorded, e.g. still shots taken during the shooting of a movie, but that still does not detract from the fact that the photograph of that event is still a document. It is simply a document of the fictional event. Whether the photograph exists as a physical print or as a digital file does not make a difference. Someone earlier brought up the question of whether a photograph can be considered in the same light as a text document and I believe it can be. Word documents, spreadsheets, etc and even photographs, are all composed of a binary language – 1’s and 0’s. It is just the arrangement that shapes the context in which we see them.

The photographic document carries traces of what was before the lens and these traces convey information. Unlike a painting which only bears testimony to something, traces are imparted to the world/viewer by the subjects themselves. Bazen likened photographs to footprints (which are also traces). Only real, physical things can leave traces of themselves and as Currie argues (1999:287), this can only occur in the past. The camera records what is in front of it, and not what the photographer thinks he/she sees. A painter will paint what he/she thinks they see.

The effect of time upon a photograph is fluid. Some photographs as mentioned by other bloggers in this post, have immediacy. I think of the 2011 Stanley Cup riots photograph of the kissing couple lying prostrate in the middle of West Georgia Street in Vancouver surrounded by riot police as a prime example of this. That photograph went viral round the world in an extremely short space of time. Contrast this with a photograph of let’s say a rhino taken in a game reserve in South Africa. There is nothing special about that – just a wild animal in the bush. But the rhino population is fast becoming extinct. Fast forward to the end of 2019 or 2020 (at the rate the poachers are killing them off) and that photograph will be an historical and scientific document of an animal that once roamed the earth.

We use context to apply understanding to the image that we view. Not having much knowledge about the Spanish Civil War I can use Kendall Walton’s argument about the transparency of the photograph in that we see through them and can discern the following in Navarro’s historical image of his grandfather and the priest, without the benefit of the backstory: a man in military uniform, I don’t see any insignia or stripes on his shoulders so assume he may be in the army’s lower ranks and from the style of uniform would probably date this photograph to be somewhere between 1939 and 1945. I think the other man, whose dress tells me he is a priest, is probably older than the military man as he is carrying a walking stick. Perhaps they are related – uncle and nephew, or just friends. Without the benefit of the backstory I cannot tell the soldier is from the Spanish army. The bare wall they are standing against offers no context whatsoever. However, with the benefit of Navarro’s backstory the photograph acquires a very different social and cultural background and it is eloquently richer for that.

But time can affect context. Take the recent reports of photos that surfaced of the Governor of Virginia’s 1984 medical school yearbook. In his yearbook Governor Northam appears as either dressed as a member of the Ku-Klux-Klan or as a blackface. He refuses to admit which character he was portraying. Today society is braying its discontent at the racist photographs, but back in 1984 the mores of society were different and this type of behaviour was considered student high jinks. In this example, the context has not changed – the photograph is still in the same yearbook, it is still a photograph of Northam and friend at a university event. It is only time that has changed our cultural understandings and perceptions.

So to summarise, both context and time contribute to making a photograph a document, but not necessarily in equal portions. What experience or cultural background the viewer is able to bring to the viewing of the image will help shape his/her understanding of the image. Likewise a photographer can never rely on his/her own cultural background to adequately convey his/her understanding of the scene before the lens to the viewer(s) at some time or other in the future.


Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Currie, G. (1999) ‘Visible Traces: Documentary and the Contents of Photographs’ In: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57 (3-Summer) [online] At: http://www.jstor.org/stable/432195

Pappas, A. (2019) Ralph Northam apologizes for medical school yearbook photo with blackface, KKK robe | Fox News. At: https://www.foxnews.com/politics/ralph-northams-medical-school-yearbook-page-shows-men-dressed-in-blackface-kkk-robe (Accessed on 2 May 2019)

Sorensen, C. (2016) The girl in ‘that kissing photo’ on the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot – Macleans.ca. At: https://www.macleans.ca/society/the-girl-in-that-kissing-photo-on-the-2011-stanley-cup-riot/ (Accessed on 2 May 2019)

Walton, K.L. (1984) ‘Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism’ In: Critical Inquiry 11 (2) pp.246–277.

Exercise: Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism

Kendall Walton’s essay is basically a reply to André Bazin’s The Ontology of the Photographic Image.  Bazin (1960: 7) argues:

The quarrel over realism in art stems from a misunderstanding, from a confusion between the aesthetic and the psychological; between true realism, the need that is to give significant expression to the world both concretely and in its essence, and the pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye (or for that matter the mind) ; a pseudorealism content in other words with illusory appearances.

So what do we understand by realism? According to the Metropolitan Museum it is the art movement introduced shortly after the French Revolution that depicted ordinary working people, like farmers and peasants, and daily everyday scenes as worthy topics for painting. The painters, such as Gustave Courbet, painted these scenes without embellishment, more concerned about the true state of society as it was, warts and all.

That photography is a more realistic medium than painting leaves little doubt, and the way we view them affects us differently. Viewing a photograph of a war scene versus looking at a painting or drawing of a war scene makes a very different impression on one. The photography has an immediacy that the painting or drawing lacks and it is this realism which is at the core of this essay.  We are reminded not to confuse a photograph with the real object which it depicts, as unlike Bazin’s statement at the beginning of the essay, the photograph is not the object. Photo manipulation can take place in the darkroom, or digital darkroom. The making of the photograph is also influenced by the photographer’s culture, prejudices and attitude and even view point. But even if the photograph has been manipulated by rearranging the scene or giving direction to the subjects on where/how to stand, we cannot get away from the fact that the resulting image is a product of something that did actually exist before the lens. Unlike painting where the painter can choose to work solely from his imagination if he so wishes. It is this aspect of realism that is quite unique to photography. Photo manipulation is not necessarily a bad thing in creative photography, but I would argue that it is definitely not ethical for documentary photography as these photographs should be accurate representations of the scene before the photographer so that the viewer/public  is not misled.

Photographs provide us with another way of seeing. When we pick up a photograph we are in actual fact looking through it to a time past. This is what Walton refers to as transparency. He argues that some might rather prefer the term perceive when looking at photos of ancestors as opposed to seeing someone in the flesh. But I think perception has more to do with becoming aware/understanding something. To me that means a gradual process. No, when I pick up a photograph of my mother, father who have passed, or relatives who I have never met, I am seeing them. I am instantly transported to that moment when the photo was made. I do not have to understand what is happening in the photograph, but I am looking through it (in time) and connecting with with that person.


Bazin, A. (1960) ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ In: Film Quarterly 13 (4) pp.4–9.

Richman-Abdou, K. (2018) What is Realism Art? Exploring the Pioneers Behind the Groundbreaking Movement. At: https://mymodernmet.com/what-is-realism-art-definition/ (Accessed on 26 April 2019)

Walton, K.L. (1984) ‘Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism’ In: Critical Inquiry 11 (2) pp.246–277.

Historical Developments in Documentary Photography – Research Point

The term ‘documentary’ was first coined by John Grierson (1898 – 1972), who was a director, producer and writer within the visual media. However, documentary photography existed long before this.

Mission Héliographiques

In 1851 the French government selected five photographers to document the French medieval and Gothic architecture in France. This group was known as the Mission Héliographiques and their work would aid the Historic Monuments Commission to determine the urgency and nature of restoration that was required. Photography would provide a more accurate record than the previous architectural drawings hitherto relied upon and it would also be quicker. The chosen photographers were Hippolyte Bayard, Edouard Baldus, Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq, and O. Mestral who were all members of the Société Héliographique, the first photographic society. Each photographer was assigned a specific area of France to document and presented with a list of monuments to photograph. Edouard Baldus was commissioned to document the Church of Saint-Trophîme in Arles. He designed a method for creating a large print by joining ten negatives together and doing retouches where necessary.

Edouard Baldus, Cloiser of Saint-Trophîme, Arles, 1951. Partly hand-painted paper print. Musée National des Monuments Français, Paris.

Henri Le Secq was also a painter and he produced photographs with finely detailed registers of architecture and sculpture – Tour des Rois (Reims Cathedral). Gustave Le Gray was sent to the south-west to the châteaux of the Loire Valley—Blois, Chambord, Amboise, and Chenonceaux, and also to small towns along pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, and the Dordogne. Hippolyte Bayard was sent west to Brittany and Normandy, including Caen, Bayeux, and Rouen. Mestral‘s area covered south-central and central France (the fortified town of Carcassonne , Albi, Perpignan, Le Puy, Clermont-Ferrand.

The five photographers completed their assignment in the summer and autumn of  1851 and handed in 258 prints to the government. Sadly the government simply locked the prints away and the public were never able to see them. Today the prints, with the except of Bayard’s are at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Roger Fenton

Roger Fenton helped to found the Photographic Society in 1853 which later went on to become the Royal Photographic Society.  Fenton was a lawyer by trade but also studied painting. He learned the waxed-paper photographic process of Gustave Le Gray (of the Mission Héliographiques). Fenton was commissioned to make photographs of the Crimean War by Thomas Agnew & Sons in Manchester in order to counteract the negative press on the way the war was being handled by the British government. These photographs were later exhibited but Agnew retained the rights and published 160 photographs which could be purchased either individually or in bound volumes. Fenton’s war photographs were not explicit. He did not depict any of the hardships the troops underwent – the illnesses, the loss of limbs from frostbite – nor did he depict any war casualties. His main focus was on photographing the military leaders and the troops in camp partaking of normal social activities they might have done at home, ‘all tableaux of military life behind the front lines’ [Sontag, 2003: 50]. Graham Clarke describes Fenton’s work as reinforcing cultural assumptions in a similar manner that eighteenth century painting did for their patrons [Clarke, 1997: 45]. The photograph for which he is most famous, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855 was entirely staged as it was taken a few months after the actual battle had taken place – Fenton had not yet arrived at that time. He made two images from the same viewpoint. In the first image the road leading through the valley shows cannon balls strewn in the ditch next to the road. Before making the second image Fenton had the cannon balls redistributed so that the road was littered with cannon balls. This is the image that is usually shown [Bronx Documentary Center]. Both images can be seen here.

Félice A. Beato

Félice Beato was a pioneer war photographer, recording the Crimean War in 1855–56, the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny in 1858–59, the Second Opium War in 1860, and the American expedition to Korea in 1871. His battlefield photography was the first to show images of the dead.

After documenting the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny with his brother-in-law, James Robertson, Beato went with the Anglo-French troops to China in 1860 during the Second Opium War (1856-60). The opium trade was very profitable to the British, French, Dutch and Americans, even though the Chinese government had outlawed it. Beato photographed the aftermath of the battle at Taku, near Tientsin on the advance to Peking and was probably one of the first photographers to do ‘late photography’. Mary Warner Marien writes that Beato was known to have corpses moved and arranged into the scenes he wanted to photograph. I have to wonder if he learned this technique from Roger Fenton who moved cannon balls into his scenes.

Félice A. Beato, Interior of the Angle of North Fort at Taku on August 21, 1860, 1860. Albumen print. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Timothy O’Sullivan

O’Sullivan served as Mathew Brady’s apprentice and photographed the Civil War with him. In 1867 O’Sullivan took part in a survey expedition that was sponsored by the US Congress. The objective was to photograph along the 40th parallel from the Rocky Mountains and the great basin west of that. The survey was headed up by Clarence R King and it followed the proposed westward railway route. In 1870 O’Sullivan also took part in The Darién Survey Expedition to Panama. Other surveys he took part in were the US Geographical Survey West of the 100th Meridian (1871), an independent survey sponsored by Wheeler to survey the Native Americans and the ancient ruins of Cañon de Chelle, which is in Arizona.

More about Timothy O’Sullivan’s work can be seen on my Landscape blog at: Exercise 1.2 Photography in the Museum or the Gallery?; Exercise 2.1 “Territorial Photography” (Part 1); Exercise 2.1 “Territorial Photography” (Part 2).

Head of Cañon de Chelle, Looking Down, Walls About 1,200 Feet in Height, 1873 by Timothy O’Sullivan

William Henry Jackson

Jackson began his photographic career by retouching and colouring photographs. He derived his influences from writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Jackson used words such as “temple” and “castle” to describe sites at Yellowstone. His photography style was described as “descriptive” and “pictorial” [Smithsonian American Art Museum]. He briefly settled in Omaha and took up a studio photographic practice doing portraiture and photographing the local Native Americans in that vicinity. In 1871 he joined the first official government and scientific survey of the Yellowstone area. His photographs of this area played a huge role in persuading Congress to pass a bill declaring Yellowstone a national park – the first national park in the USA. He was often commissioned by the railroads to photograph new routes and in the 1880’s and 1890’s he made many large scale panoramas which were commissioned by the various railroad companies in the US.

Grand Cañon of the Colorado, 1880 by William H. Jackson courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum

Albert Khan

Albert Khan was a French banker and philanthropist. In 1909 he made use of the first colour photographic process invented by the Lumiere brothers, called autochrome.  He commissioned photographers go to over 50 countries and take photographs of “human tribes of the world” [Popova, n.d.]. He wanted to create a catalogue to record human life in order to foster peace and cross-cultural understanding in the world. The 72,000 images that were recorded formed one of the most important and influential colour collections. Sadly his project came to an end when the Depression ruined Khan and his collection remained in obscurity until it was rediscovered in the 1980’s. I found the images and the colour renditions absolutely fascinating and so much more informative than monochrome would have been as one can sees in this video of Khan’s collection.


Bronx Documentary Center (s.d.) The Valley of the Shadow of Death, Crimea, Ukraine 1955 Photo by Roger Fenton. At: http://www.alteredimagesbdc.org/fenton (Accessed on 24 April 2019)

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Daniel, A.M. (2004) Mission Héliographique, 1851 | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art. At: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/heli/hd_heli.htm (Accessed on 23 April 2019)

Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road (Getty Center Exhibitions) (s.d.) At: http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/beato/index.html (Accessed on 24 April 2019)

Popova, M. (s.d.) The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Catalog of Humanity – Brain Pickings. At: https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/02/23/the-dawn-of-the-color-photograph-albert-kahn/ (Accessed on 25 April 2019)

Smithsonian American Art Museum (s.d.) Timothy H. O’Sullivan | Smithsonian American Art Museum. At: https://americanart.si.edu/artist/timothy-h-osullivan-3600 (Accessed on 25 April 2019)

Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History. (4th ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing.


Albert Kahn (1860-1940) – Photography for a Vision of World Peace. (2013) [user-generated content online] Directed by John Hall. 16 September 2013 At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNDXSdZsWLM (Accessed on 25 April 2019)

Baldus, E. (1851) Cloister of Saint-Trophîme, Arles, 1851. (Getty Museum). At: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/41280/ (Accessed on 24 April 2019)

Beato, F. (1860) Interior of the English Entrance to North Fort on the Peiho River on the 21st Aug. 1860 (Getty Museum). At: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/104454/ (Accessed on 24 April 2019)

Jackson, W.H. (1880) Grand Cañon of the Colorado | Smithsonian American Art Museum. At: https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/grand-canon-colorado-34267 (Accessed on 25 April 2019)

O’Sullivan, T. (1873) Head of Cañon de Chelle, Looking Down, Walls About 1,200 Feet in Height (Getty Museum). At: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/40216/ (Accessed on 25 April 2019)