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RIP John Berger (1925–2017)

Critic, writer, and playwright John Berger (1925–2017), one of the twentieth century’s most important art critical voices (linking to the Guardian piece, as its the most thorough) died on January 2, 2017. Best known for the four-part BBC series Ways of Seeing (1972) and its accompanying critical text, Berger there offered a Marxist response to another (banal and apolitical) take on the history of culture, also produced by the BBC, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (1969). Hyperallergic was first with a tribute, which includes this anecdote:

Speaking to Kate Kellaway, Berger explained his interest in labor and social issues. “The connection between the human condition and labour is frequently forgotten, and for me was always so important. At 16, I went down a coal mine in Derbyshire and spent a day on the coal face – just watching the miners. It had a profound effect,” he told her. When she asked how it made him feel. He responded quietly. “Respect. Just respect. There are two kinds. Respect to do with ceremony – what happens when you visit the House of Lords. And a completely different respect associated with danger,” he said. “This is not a prescription for others, but when I look back on my life I think it’s very significant I never went to a university. I refused to go. Lots of people were pushing me and I said, ‘No. I don’t want to’, because those years at university form a whole way of thinking.”

Verso Books is the place to go for the Berger back catalog, but over the years, UCP and its distributed presses have published a handful of titles about his life and work, a few of which are noted below.

A Jar of Wild Flowers: Essays in Celebration of John Berger (ed. Yasmin Gunaratnam and Amarjit Chandan, Zed Books, 2016)

This international and cross-cultural collection includes short pieces by thirty of Berger’s friends, artistic collaborators, and others inspired by his work on the occasion of this ninetieth birthday, including Julie Christie, Sally Potter, Ram Rahman, Ali Smith, Nick Thorpe, Hsiao-Hung Pai, and many others.


John Berger (Andy Merrifield, Reaktion Books, 2012)

In this concise yet detailed study of Berger’s life and work, the first for decades, Andy Merrifield sheds light on Berger the man, the artist, and the concerned citizen. Merrifield shows Berger to be a figure who constantly strives to open up new horizons, and also reveals the depth of feeling that infuses even his most intellectual work.


And, finally, from Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence:

“Continuing this tradition of photography criticism is John Berger, the most morally cogent and emotionally perceptive critic that photography has produced. “My first interest in photography was passionate,” Berger has written; and when you read his work, you know this is so. (As a young man, Berger dreamed of composing a book of love poems illustrated with photographs.) Berger has frequently included photographs in his books. More important, he has argued that photographs represent an “opposition to history” by which ordinary people affirm the subjective experiences that modernity, science, and industrial capitalism have done so much to crush: “And so, hundreds of millions of photographs, fragile images, often carried next to the heart or placed by the side of the bed, are used to refer to that which historical time has no right to destroy.” Like Sontag, Berger is acutely aware of the central place that photography occupies in modern life; unlike Sontag, he respects the prosaic yet meaningful ways in which people throughout the world use photographs.”


To read more on works about John Berger published by the University of Chicago Press or those presses it distributes, click here.