WAYS OF SEEING
In 1972 an extraordinary paperback book was published by the BBC and Penguin Books. Everything about it was innovative and exceptional. It was an art book illustrated only with black-and-white photographs; the cover was a reproduction of the inside opening page; of its seven chapters, the second, fourth and fifth contained no words at all, only images; it juxtaposed cultures high and low—Gainsboroughs with Warhols, an Ingres odalisque with pinups; and it was a feminist text written by a Marxist man. Perhaps the most curious and striking thing of all was the book’s typography. “The very book itself said that something new is being said,” according to Christopher Butler, the author of Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction.
Ways of Seeing, the book, followed fast on the heels of the successful BBC2 TV series of the same name, a commissioned series of four 30-minute films written and presented by the artist, art critic and novelist John Berger and directed by Michael Dibb. The series explored the idea of art as commodity and how the ways we see art—and other things—have changed and continue to change. As the book’s designer, Richard Hollis, remembers it, Ways of Seeing was put together in somewhat of a rush, as everyone was keen to capitalize on the success of the program as quickly as possible. Even 40 years ago, BBC publications stood to make big sales on the back of a successful show. “We worked in a rented office in central London,” says Hollis. “We all met for two days trying to sort out what went where, and in the end it was really left to Mike Dibb and me to put the thing together.”
“It was a very good book and Berger was in a way very ahead of his time,” says Hollis, “although he was very influenced by continental thinkers and of course by his Marxist views. It was very fresh at the time, and for the BBC to give him four programs was extraordinary. It came about partly because of the way the BBC worked then, so totally different from now.” Dibb, he says, could just go to his producer, the next in line above him at the BBC with an idea and an outline for a program.
The television show was really an answer to the 1969 series created by a self-proclaimed stick-in-the-mud, the art historian Kenneth Clark (who became Baron Clark when he was awarded a life peerage the same year), Civilisation. The program outlined the history of Western art, architecture and philosophy since the Dark Ages. “It was very popular,” says Hollis, “but Kenneth Clark, who was very grand, went round to places where paintings were hanging in galleries and so on, and stood there in front of them talking about the pictures, which Berger never did.” By contrast, Ways of Seeing opens with Berger taking a knife to a mock-up of Botticelli’s Venus and Mars in London’s National Gallery, cutting out a rectangle from the goddess’s face while his voice is heard saying that he intends “to question some of the assumptions usually made about the tradition of European painting.” The camera cuts to a closeup of the cut-out Venus as Berger tells us that what he wants to consider isn’t so much the painting themselves, but how we now see them. Then the camera pans out and we see that in fact we are looking at just one of many images of various National Gallery artworks being mass-produced on a printing press to make the gallery postcards.
To make a book from such a single-vision series required a different approach. To begin with, who was the author? Part nod to the collaborative process of TV production, or perhaps the Marxist precept “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” the credit lists five people: John Berger, Sven Blomberg, Chris Fox, Michael Dibbs and Richard Hollis. “It was complicated,” says Hollis. Berger wrote the text and Dibbs directed the TV show; “I’m not sure what Chris Fox did” (he’s listed as a researcher on the TV credits); Hollis designed the book. Sven Blomberg was a Scandinavian sculptor who lived in France. “He’d made these montages—none of us quite understood what they were about. I asked Sven, ‘What is this meant to be doing?’ He just folded his arms, said ‘Fucking obvious,’ and left abruptly. That was the last we saw of him.”
When it came to creating Ways of Seeing, author and designer already knew each other well. They’d first met when Hollis was a student at the Chelsea School of Art, where Berger taught drawing in the evenings. Their paths crossed again in the late 1960s when Hollis became art director of the liberal social and cultural comment weekly New Society, to which Berger was a regular contributor. After Hollis criticized a voiceover that Berger had done for a film about Corbusier’s buildings at Chandigarh—“I said it was ‘cornily Marxistic,’ I think,” says Hollis—the indignant Berger asked, “Where were you educated?” Hollis had the satisfaction of being able to tell him that he’d been his teacher just a few years before.
The two had run into each other again at a party. “We went back to the tenement flat in Clerkenwell where I was living and talked for a long time,” says Hollis. “After that he asked me to illustrate G, the historical novel he was in the middle of writing.” (It won the Booker Prize in 1972.) As with one of his previous novels, Berger wanted to show images along with the text in G, although eventually they used only one little diagrammatic drawing. Hollis worked alongside Berger pasting up the book and remembers how accommodating he was to work with: “Berger had been a journalist for the Evening Standard, so if a sentence or a chapter ended awkwardly I could say to him, ‘Can you cut this?’ and he’d say, ‘Of course.’”
This relaxed teamwork between writer and designer was perhaps unusual in a relationship that can often be a tussle between words and pictures culminating in a grudging compromise; Berger, however, is clearly a writer who knows and respects images, and Hollis is a highly literate designer who has written extensively about the history of design (full disclosure: he taught me graphic design at London’s Central School of Art & Design), and neither side overwhelmed the other. Or, to look at it another way: in Ways of Seeing, the pictures are as important as the text. It’s an egalitarian solution. The text is based on a heavily edited version of the original script of the TV series, and although the book and the show shared many images, the book needed others to replace much of the TV footage. Hollis felt it was important that the pictures appeared exactly where they were mentioned in the text. “The integration of word and image worked well,” points out the artist Derek Boshier, “perhaps because it came out of the television series.” The French writer, photographer and filmmaker Chris Marker’s Commentaires (1961 & 1967), in which the images were embedded in the text in the same way, were a big influence on the layout. In many ways this factor dictated the design as a whole.
There were no significant issues with the publisher about the design, either; the BBC was the client, not Penguin, and it was the BBC’s then art editor, Peter Campbell, who told Penguin, “This is the cover.” “In those days,” says Hollis, “publishing houses were very controlling, so this combination was a very happy accident. There was just the one cover. There were no alternatives.” This didn’t stop some of the Penguin people complaining, even if they couldn’t do anything about it. Hans Schmoller, the production manager in charge of typography, who had been assistant to the great Jan Tschichold, Penguin’s head of design in the 1940s, hated it. It still delights Hollis to think of Schmoller’s reaction. “Schmoller was a very good traditional typographer. When Ways of Seeing arrived on his desk, he threw it down the corridor, saying, ‘I want this nowhere near me,’ because he couldn’t bear it.” The cover came back to Hollis covered in Schmoller’s handwriting with remarks like “Is this meant to be centred?”
The layout of Ways of Seeing was intended to reproduce some of the feel of the program. “Plainly, when you’re on television you can have a voice, literally a voiceover, so you can look and listen at the same time,” says Hollis. “But in a book that isn’t possible.” At the time, sans serif typefaces were generally considered unappealing and hard to read for continuous text (as opposed to being used in small amounts of display type for headlines or titles or emphasis); but the sans serif Univers, the heavy, bold, “grotesque” face used for Ways of Seeing, was designed to evoke the energetic delivery of the programs. The idea was to render the weight of the voice/words as heavy as that of the images, so that the reader took them in together. It signaled, “Read me. Don’t just look at the pictures.”
This was a pretty extraordinary thing to do. Typographically the design breaks many rules; using a bold sans serif face is just hardly ever done. In addition, Hollis kept the text unjustified (something much commoner today than it was then)—that is, instead of butting out in a straight line at the right-hand margin of the page, its right edge is ragged; this helped prevent odd-looking “rivers” of white space running through the very black-looking type area, but it also helped in the book’s layout. With the pictures laid out to interrupt the text, and sized neither so large that they took up whole pages nor so reduced that they could be moved into the margins, the bold, unjustified setting can work standing alone as a line or two—if that’s how the text happens to flow when it’s talking about a picture—or can work as a whole block of text. The unjustified setting also stresses that the next block of text is a continuation of what has come before rather than a whole new thought, as it might appear if justified.
The typography was also an attempt to make the book’s impact very direct, a reflection of Berger’s articulateness and passion in the TV series. “A grotesque typeface was something you didn’t have in art books,” says Hollis. “It was something you didn’t have very much at all at the time.” Hollis discovered later that several years before Ways of Seeing, one of his graphic heroes, Karl Gerstner, had used bold type in political pamphlets. Since Hollis hadn’t known about this at the time it couldn’t be called an influence, but he feels it was definitely one of those zeitgeist things that’s in the air: “People wanted to arrive somehow at the same place with the same aim of trying to make things straightforward and direct.” The unjustified setting emphasized this informality, too. Another feature of the design is the text’s huge paragraph indents (as wide as a thumb). “I wanted to break it up as much as possible, to make it more accessible; but it was also a formal device so that the pictures could either be ranged left with the text or with the indent.” The total effect of all this rule-breaking seems at once both striking and harmonious.
The book also eliminated captions under the pictures. Since Berger doesn’t necessarily identify each painting in the text, but often uses them as examples of the people or whatever may be portrayed in them, Hollis felt there was less need for conventional captions. “With most art books you can simply look at the pictures without reading the text,“ he points out. “Sometimes the captions are explanatory, but often they only carry the title of the work, the name of the artist, the date, and—usually in quite large letters—that it was reproduced by permission of somebody.” Instead, the Ways of Seeing reproductions carry the artist’s name and the work’s title and date running up the side of the images, which Hollis felt made them less of a distraction: “You hoped people only went to look at it if they really wanted to know.”
Black and white
Another innovative design decision was to reproduce all the book’s illustrations in black and white. Even 40 years ago most art books were produced in color (they all are now, of course) and by the early ’70s Sunday newspaper color supplements had been around for nearly 10 years, so people were used to looking at color reproductions. Hollis says it was entirely for financial reasons, but it seems a deliberate stroke of design brilliance rather than an economic one. “Berger is talking mainly about content,” says Hollis, “so the content is the image. A color photograph has just so much information.” He points to a recent exhibition of Hungarian photography at London’s Royal Academy where all the pictures are black and white. “You look at them in a completely different way, because you see what seems to be a factual document of an event at a moment in time. Whereas if you see the same thing in color you’re somehow much more aware of a process, perhaps because you know that it’s not actually what you were seeing. And you see everything in color.” Hollis feels that color would have made it a very different book: “The lack of color is important, as it does make you look at the image.”
In those days books usually took at least six months to design and produce; Ways of Seeing was done in less than six weeks. With Berger back home in France, there wasn’t much to-ing and fro-ing of proofs. “There wasn’t time,” says Hollis. Hollis marked up the manuscript; a photo typesetter produced proofs, which Hollis cut up and pasted in position—“a lot of bits of paper”—much as a magazine would have been pasted up at the time. The paste-up went to the printer to be made into camera-ready artwork and was printed. There was never any grid for the layouts, says Hollis. “I would just give the printer a standard layout and say, this is what fits into it. Plainly I would get the right number of lines on a page.” How the lines fell was very important; on some pages the way the text broke from one page to the next was carefully worked out so that when a page was turned there was a surprise or a new idea on the other side. One example of this is the treatment of van Gogh’s painting Wheatfield with Crows, which is reproduced at the bottom of a right-hand page. Above it is written:
”This is a landscape of a cornfield with birds flying out of it. Look at it for a moment. Then turn the page.”
When the page is turned the picture is repeated, but the handwritten line underneath it says:
”This is the last picture that van Gogh painted before he killed himself.”
Suddenly the crows look menacing and the picture is seen in a new way.
The new edition
That specific example of the painstaking way in which the meaning of the text of Ways of Seeing was integrated with and enhanced by its look and layout is, unfortunately, entirely lost in the new Penguin edition, “based on the original design by Richard Hollis.” All the text about Wheatfield with Crows is now on the same page and the point of turning the page to learn hitherto unknown information that changes one’s view of the painting is therefore lost. “That sort of thing drives one crazy,” says Hollis. “Berger didn’t care until Mike Dibb and I really made a fuss.”
Among many other changes, the new edition also has no prelims—that is, the usual pages at the front for the title, acknowledgments, a dedication or foreword, a table of contents, and so forth, before the main text starts. These are the pages that usually tell you what a book is about and who made it. The omission seems to have been the result of some confusion as to the purposes of the original cover, which used the first proper page of text from inside the book as the cover. It looked like a cover, but it also looked like a page—the title and Berger’s name are at the top, while below is a block of text that begins “Seeing comes before words,” interrupted by a painting by René Magritte of mislabeled everyday things. The left side of the painting aligns to the big paragraph indents of the text. The thinking was that by the time the reader had looked at the cover, opened the book, turned a few pages—including the title page and the “note to the reader” page, which explains the reasons for making the book the way it is—and reached the real opening page, the point of the cover would make sense and the truly surreal nature of the image on the cover would become clear. “I believe that people need to be intrigued by what they see in the bookshop,” says Hollis, “and that was the intention of doing it like this.”
The designers of the new edition (a company called Yes, of all things) missed this point entirely. Now the cover really is page 1, so that moment of “Wait a minute, I’ve seen that page somewhere before” has vanished. Instead, when you read the cover and open the book, with no title page or note to tell you what it’s all about (all the front matter has been moved to the back), you’re plunged straight into page 2. All the intelligence has been stripped from the idea. An unforeseen consequence, Hollis notes, is that the first page of the new edition gets completely lost when libraries rebind their copies, as they usually do. Hollis doesn’t like either the book’s reduced size or the new stiff paper, and, he adds, “When they reprinted it they also changed the cover type to upper- and lowercase Gill, which immediately made it horrible.”
Given the high regard in which the book’s design is held, Penguin’s decision to mess with Hollis’s design seems a curious one, particularly when to do the same with Berger’s words would be unthinkable. Perhaps it’s about time that some designs, like revered buildings, had preservation orders placed upon them, if only to keep them looking modern.—LUCY SISMAN
See for yourself
Forty years later, many of Berger’s insights in Ways of Seeing seem as fresh as the day they were written. Here, for example, is an experiment you can try by opening almost any magazine and following Berger’s instructions:
But the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from men—not because the feminine is different from the masculine, but because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him.
If you have any doubt that this is so, make the following experiment. Choose an image of a traditional nude…. Transform the woman into a man…. In your mind’s eye…. Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer.