Whilst researching the approach of photographers towards agriculture I looked at the work of Jean Mohr who collaborated on a number of books with John Berger. Berger and Mohr were particularly interested in the relationship between the written and visual narrative and this is very directly explored in A Fortunate Man (1) where Berger’s description of the life of a country doctor is blended and illustrated with Mohr’s photographs. This book contrasts with Eugene Smith’s much discussed picture essay, The Country Doctor, (reviewed here) published in Life Magazine in 1948. Smith’s politically motivated essay (i) is a storyboarded narrative that often feels staged, posed and therefore forced. It is still used as an example of how to structure a picture essay but to the 21st century eye it is, if anything, over-structured and too reliant on the visual narrative with short captions. This suggests that to tell a complex story the balance between pictures and words needs to be carefully judged and usually by necessity weighted towards the written word.
Berger and Mohr take a different approach in A Fortunate Man; Mohr’s photographs are often included in three or four picture sequences to tell a short story, a micro-narrative within the whole, or as single images to illuminate the text as visual soundbites, discrete descriptions of a situation in visual form. There are nearly no captions and Berger’s text outweighs the photographs.
I am unconvinced of the ability of photography to create coherent narratives or even a complete description of a subject or an event; a photograph provides selective descriptional information and in series offers layers of this information, each adding to our knowledge of the subject but rarely penetrating the outer surface or going beyond capturing activities. As such even the most comprehensive portrait series falls far short of a complete description.
In A Fortunate Man Berger provides a written narrative, he describes himself as a story teller, and it is a story that he tells; rather than simply documenting the day-to-day life of the doctor he explores his motivations, philosophies and the emotional and physical impacts of his profession. Berger uses the doctors actions and ideas as springboards into his own thoughts regarding the future of rural doctors and the role of medicine.
Mohr cannot mine these depths with photography but in parallel to the story he provides an accumulative description of the doctor and his patients, their successes and failures and their landscape. Berger described their approach to creating the book “we reworked it so that the words and pictures were like a conversation; building on, rather than mirroring, one another” (2).
Isolating the pictures from the text I am interested in how Mohr builds this portrait. He opens with the landscape; the eighth picture shows the doctor’s house, but it is not until the ninth photograph that he introduces the first patient collecting a prescription from the dispensary. This scene setting is almost cinematic, we can image the opening titles running as the landscape slowly unfolds. In fact Berger adds captions to two of the pictures in this opening sequence, the only captions in the book, adding to the sense of this being the opening titles. Once the stage is set, and in quick succession, we see the waiting room and the doctor treating a patient but images of the main subject at this stage verge on silhouettes.
Having created both geographic and activity context Mohr now focuses in on the doctor himself with a series of portraits that vary between close-up part faces to head and shoulder shots. The doctor does not look at the camera or the photographer and appears to be in thoughtful conversation, perhaps with Berger, but this short sequence positions him as a doctor (engaged in minor surgery) and as a thoughtful man (through gesture and eye line).
Mohr returns to more pictures of the doctor with his patients in-dispersed with contextual shots of his Landrover, answering the phone at his desk and leaving his consulting room. By excluding any photographs of the doctor’s life away from his patients Mohr creates a sense of the job being all consuming which is interestingly reminiscent of the way Eugene Smith structured his much earlier series. We are given the impression that the doctor only exists in his work which speaks to my earlier point about the incompleteness of any portrait series; Gavin Francis, in his 2015 introduction to the book (1 – p14), refers to the concerns of Philip Tonybee, who reviewed the original edition, and who criticised Berger for excluding any reference to the doctor’s wife. In passing, Berger mentions his children so the doctor is a husband and father but these two parts of his identity remain unexplored. The intent, therefore, is not to create a comprehensive portrait of the man, only a portrait of the man as a doctor.
The next group of pictures build a different context for the subject by focusing on the people within his community, not as patients but as individuals. Berger refers to them as ‘the foresters” (1 – p91) suggesting that they are an isolated and unique group. Mohr presents a sub-set of this group in straight portraits, mostly without contextual backgrounds subsequently positioning the doctor into the community by including a sequence of photographs from a village meeting.
This is followed by a series of photographs that are difficult to read in isolation from Berger’s text as both writer and photographer explore the nature of grief and the adult reaction to it. These are the most intimate photographs in the book, pictures that would be intrusive in another context, showing the anguish of loss and contrasting the male (constrained by conventions of manliness) and female reaction. Whilst Eugene Smith tackled the subject of death in his 1945 series Berger and Mohr go much further in exploring the doctor’s all encompassing role as a physician and social worker; to illustrate this breadth Mohr focuses on his role as a psychotherapist using an intimate and disturbing portrait series of a troubled woman.
Until this point Mohr’s photographs very much illustrate the text, the two are in a state of balance but whilst Berger only briefly mentions the specific issues of adolescence, sexual awakening and the young people of the community Mohr provides a sequence of pictures taken at a teenage party that perfectly describe the awkward mating rituals of the 1960s and show, in this instance, the power of the visual over the written description.
The book concludes where it started with the doctor and his patients; perhaps this underlines the fact that his life is ouroborian in nature, a constant cycle of attending births, treating the sick and injured both in body and mind, palliative care, grief counselling, then examining a pregnant women.
Jean Mohr is not to be underestimated as a documentary photographer but the value of A Fortunate Man as a point of reference is significantly increased through his collaboration with John Berger.
The photography was not directed by Berger but he influenced the curation and the structure of his narrative provides the framework within which Mohr presents his pictures. Working together they created a remarkable record of the comprehensive rural medical care that was once provided by lone practitioners or small medical centres and that has long disappeared from Britain.
I have considered how Mohr’s photographs would have worked if they were isolated from Berger’s text and whilst we would certainly know less about the doctor we would still be presented with a insightful and meaningful portrait that would, at least, rank alongside more contemporary single subject series. In terms of approach the main difference between this and, say, Julian Germain’s For Every Minute is that apart from the contextual landscape pictures, all the photographs are of the doctor and his patients which gives the overall series a Life Magazine look and feel. A more contemporary approach would perhaps have included photographs of the tools of his trade or the ephemera of notices, prescriptions and the like.
(1) Berger John & Mohr, Jean (1967) A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. (Originally published by Penguin Books in 1967; this edition published by Canongate Books 2016) London: Canongate
(2) Francis, Gavin (2015) John Berger’s A Fortunate Man: a masterpiece of witness (accessed at The Guardian 26.3.16) – http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/07/john-sassall-country-doctor-a-fortunate-man-john-berger-jean-mohr