Berger's novel G., a picaresque romance set in Europe in 1898, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Booker Prize in 1972. Berger donated half the Booker cash prize to the Black Panther Party in Britain, and retained half to support his work on the study on migrant workers that became A Seventh Man, asserting that both endeavors represented aspects of his political struggle.
Berger was born on 5 November 1926 in Stoke Newington, London, the first of two children of Miriam and Stanley Berger.
Berger began his career as a Painter and exhibited works at a number of London galleries in the late 1940s. His art has been shown at the Wildenstein, Redfern and Leicester Galleries in London.
His grandfather was from Trieste, and his father, Stanley, raised as a non-observant Jew who converted to Catholicism, had been an infantry officer on the Western Front during the First World War and was awarded the Military Cross and an OBE. Berger was educated at St Edward's School, Oxford. He served in the British Army from 1944 to 1946. He enrolled in the Chelsea School of Art and the Central School of Art in London.
Berger married three times, first to Artist and Illustrator Patt Marriott in 1949; the marriage was childless and the couple divorced. In the mid-1950s, he married the Russian Anya Bostock (née Anna Sisserman), with whom he had two children, Katya Berger and Jacob Berger; the couple divorced in the mid-1970s. Soon afterwards, he married Beverly Bancroft, with whom he had one child, Yves. Beverly died in 2013.
In 1958, Berger published his first novel, A Painter of Our Time, which tells the story of the disappearance of Janos Lavin, a fictional exiled Hungarian Painter, and his diary's discovery by an art critic friend called John. The work was withdrawn by the publisher under pressure from the Congress for Cultural Freedom a month after its publication. His next novels were The Foot of Clive and Corker's Freedom; both of which presented an urban English life of alienation and melancholy. Berger moved to Quincy in the Haute-Savoie, France in 1962 due to his distaste for life in Britain.
Berger's sociological writings include A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor (1967) and A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe (1975). Berger and Photographer Jean Mohr, his frequent collaborator, sought to document and understand the experiences of peasants. Their subsequent book, Another Way of Telling, discusses and illustrates their documentary technique and treats the theory of photography through Berger's essays and Mohr's photographs. His studies of individual artists include The Success and Failure of Picasso (1965), a survey of that modernist's career, and Art and Revolution: Ernst Neizvestny, Endurance, and the Role of the Artist in the USSR (1969).
In the 1970s, Berger collaborated on three films with the Swiss Director Alain Tanner: He wrote or co-wrote La Salamandre (1971), The Middle of the World (1974), and Jonah who will be 25 in the year 2000 (1976). His major fictional work of the 1980s, the trilogy Into Their Labours (consisting of the novels Pig Earth, Once in Europa, and Lilac and Flag), treats the European peasant experience from its farming roots to contemporary economic and political displacement and urban poverty. In 1974, Berger co-founded the Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative Ltd in London with Arnold Wesker, Lisa Appignanesi, Richard Appignanesi, Chris Searle, Glenn Thompson, Siân Williams, and others. The cooperative was active until the early 1980s.
In 1972, the BBC broadcast his television series Ways of Seeing and published its companion text, an introduction to the study of images. The work was derived in part from Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction".
Berger's 1980 volume About Looking includes an influential chapter, "Why Look at Animals?" It is cited by numerous scholars in the interdisciplinary field of animal studies. The chapter was later reproduced in a Penguin Great Ideas selection of essays of the same title.
In 1999, Berger voiced both twin brother characters Archie and Albert Crisp in the video game Grand Theft Auto: London 1969.
Berger's novel From A to X was long-listed for the 2008 Booker Prize; Bento's Sketchbook (2011) has been described as "a characteristically sui generis work combining an engagement with the thought of the 17th-century lens grinder, draughtsman, and Philosopher Baruch Spinoza, with a study of drawing and a series of semi-autobiographical sketches". Among his last works is Confabulations (essays, 2016).
Berger died at his home in Antony, France on 2 January 2017 at the age of 90.
Berger was never a formal member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB): rather he was a close associate of it and its front, the Artists’ International Association (AIA), until the latter disappeared in 1953. He was active in the Geneva Club, a discussion group that appears to have overlapped with British communist circles in the 1950s.