JOHN BERGER WAS AN EXTRAORDINARY INDIVIDUAL—extraordinary in the range of his creation and his criticism. But also extraordinary as a presence. He had the least sense of hierarchy of anyone I have ever known. And he was uniquely interested in the present moment. So whoever he was with, young or old, rich or poor, famous or unknown, man or woman, had his complete attention. This was, in its way, unnerving: You had to think about what you were saying because you were being listened to with a quite unusual concentration. And you had to listen with real intensity because what was being said was being said for you and, it felt, for you alone. But if it was unnerving, it was also immensely invigorating. You became more intelligent and more consequent, more insightful, and more amusing. And what John said stayed with you and transformed you.
This may all sound quite pious. John could well have been an actor—there was something of the ham in his performances. He was also a seducer. But neither of these facts detract from the wonderful pleasure of his company. Indeed, they were an essential part of it.
He was the best and most reliable of friends, always willing to lend a hand, to encourage, to enthuse, and—very important—to criticize when it was necessary. His range was extraordinary: major art critic, great novelist, gifted filmmaker. With his close friend Jean Mohr, he even invented a genre: the committed use of photography and prose to render invisible elements of the social visible. They started with A Fortunate Man in 1967 but developed this further with A Seventh Man (1975), which John thought his best book. It is forty years since A Seventh Man was composed, but the analysis of the crucial role of migrant labor in contemporary capitalism could have been written tomorrow.
It is foolish to predict reputation into the future, but I hope that people go on reading and watching John because he joined the demand for social justice to the recognition of the centrality of desire and the importance of form. His death brought to me three quotes from his writing that touch on each of these emphases.
“To be desired is perhaps the closest anybody in this life can reach to feeling immortal.”
—“The Museum of Desire,” 2001
“The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied . . . but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.”
— “Keeping a Rendezvous,” published in The Brick Reader, 1991
“What makes photography a strange invention—with unforeseeable consequences—is that its primary raw materials are light and time.”
—Another Way of Telling, 1982
Colin MacCabe teaches English and film at the University of Pittsburgh. He is co-director of the film The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger (2016), and author, most recently, of Perpetual Carnival: Essays on Film and Literature (Oxford University Press, 2017).
For additional John Berger Passages, see the forthcoming March issue of Artforum.