Monday, 13 April 2015

Good Fortune

A Fortunate Man
John Berger and Jean Mohr (photographer)
Allan Lane, 1967
(this cover Penguin, 1969)

A wonderful collaboration between writer John Berger and photographer Jean Mohr, observing the life of an English country doctor in a small rural community in the mid-1960s. Berger's reportage and left-leaning social commentary is concise, admiring the many qualities of the doctor and the village in which he works, while acknowledging their limitations and the problems they face in a changing world.

Swiss photographer Jean Mohr worked with Berger on at least three further books, him imagery capturing the small-scale, timeless rustic beauty of the landscape, and achieving an intimacy with the locals that echoes their close relationship with their doctor. This is the same world inhabited by the lyrical documentaries 'Requiem for a Village' and 'The Moon and the Sledgehammer', capturing the end of an age as old country practices were dying out in the face of economic pressures and rapid social and technological changes.

In fact, this volume is almost a documentary film in a book. The design layout gives generous space to images and has a carefully considered composition of word and image. This truly is a photobook, images complimenting text and also acting in place of words when an image better communicates a point. 

One can hear Berger's voice as narrator and Mohr's photography is perfect in revealing the locale and the relationship and emotions of the doctor and his patients. Contemporary NHS managers would be advised to read this book and consider the deeper role of rural GPs within the society they care for.

They don't make faces like these any more.

It is noted in the book that the doctor, John Sassall, was prone to periodic deep depression, plagued by self-doubt and worries about his inadequacy and inability to help his fellow man. Fifteen years after the book's publication Sassall shot himself, an act which Berger suggests makes the tone of the book not darker but more mysterious. Thanks to Berger and Mohr, both current members of the medical profession and general reader alike will still empathize with the doctor's predicament.

Live BergerFest event this week at the Royal College of Art.

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