John Berger - artist, writer, critic and broadcaster - has died at the age of 90. His best-known work was Ways of Seeing, a criticism of western cultural aesthetics. For Newsnight, Gavin Esler, met him back in 2011.
How we made: John Berger and Michael Dibb on Ways of Seeing
'Our first audience was one of fridges, cookers and washing machines'
Monday 2 April 2012
John Berger, presenter
We were a small group: Mike, me, a soundman, an editor called David Gladwell, and the director of the BBC department who commissioned it, Stephen Hearst. Stephen left us alone for six months to get on with it. Those circumstances were really special, even then; now, they are unimaginable. No broadcaster is going to give four crazy guys six months to make four half-hour films.
During those six months, we shot and reshot with total liberty, on a very small budget. We couldn't afford a studio; we were in what looked like a Nissen hut in Ealing. There was no sound-proofing and it was near a road, so if a lorry passed when we were filming, we had to stop, wait and retake.
We had thousands of disagreements, about tiny details like the timing of cuts, though they often shaped the show's overall arguments. I was the writer, but the script was the result of all our dissatisfactions and discussions; I gave a voice to those ideas.
John Berger and Susan Sontag
The show argued three new things. First, that the availability of visual art had changed; people could now see images at home [in books], not just in galleries. The second was about the view of women. Although there were no women on our team, we were all in sympathy with the feminist struggles of the time. We said things about the male gaze that just weren't said on the BBC, though I wouldn't claim we were the first to think of them. The third, the most prophetic, was about the cultural importance of publicity, the way art and religion are used to encourage the buying of commodities.
We used to laugh about the lack of continuity. In those six months, my hair was cut: sometimes it's over my ears and sometimes it's not. But I was always wearing the same shirt and assumed people wouldn't notice.
The BBC showed it very late at night [in 1972], because they didn't trust us. They accepted the shows but weren't enthusiastic. Then we got hold of the turn-off rate, which, compared to other art shows, was minimal. We approached the higher-ups and said, "Look at that." Then they broadcast it at a more accessible hour.
The most ground-breaking thing we did was address the public in a way that was non-elitist, equal, really looking into their eyes. There's one point at which I say something like, "Question now what I'm saying, think about it, disagree if you want to." That voice – companionable, a little conspiratorial – was the most important thing.
Michael Dibb, director
Growing up, I had been influenced by John's writing in the New Statesman. It's rather rare to work so well with someone who has informed the way you think. We shared a political and cultural perspective; there were never arguments about the direction we were going in, only about how to get there.
John is a beautiful writer with a wonderful presence and a terrific way of verbally shaping an idea. That gave me a solid scaffolding on which I could build a collage of images and sequences. People often think [Berger's book of the same name] came first, but it would never have been written the way it was if we hadn't had months of slowly constructing the films.
He said we should begin by reading Walter Benjamin's [1936 essay] The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Our challenge was to take this complicated text and make something playful from it.
Instead of making pilgrimages to galleries, the works of art came to us as reproductions – except on one occasion, when John went to the National Gallery and stood in front of Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks. Otherwise, we filmed it all in an electrical goods warehouse. Our first audience was one of fridges, cookers and washing machines.
It was an accident that he was in front of a blue screen for most of each episode. (John, who normally wears a blue shirt, had to rush out and buy two new shirts.) We were going to inlay art works into that background, but we filmed it on film and the technology wasn't good enough; we would have had no flexibility in the edit. The blue screen gave an impression that John was delivering the tablet from on high. People have made a lot of that, but it was just a fortunate accident.
It was interesting to deconstruct the way art had been presented on television. We made the act of seeing self-conscious for the viewer; we said, 'Get up off your knees, don't worship art.' Parts two and three came from things John had written before, about the female nude and oil painting.
We didn't know what the final episode was about when we started filming. For a while it was going to be about the deconstruction of national heritage. Then, one night, John was on the Tube and realised the gestures, poses, the presentation of social and sexual relationships, all those things we had been looking at had a new life in advertising. We looked into shop windows, stared at hoardings, and built up a vast vocabulary of images for the final film.
The BBC didn't make a song and dance about the first broadcast. There were few reviews. The Radio Times did an interview with John, and didn't publish it. The whole series was a journey of discovery. I've got all the scripts, which show it was rewritten and rewritten. In all creative things, you go into a world where you flounder around for a long time before you end up with the final thing.