The Photography of Robert Bergman
Robert Bergman: Between Anonymity and Invisibility
Robert Bergman is a photographer who extends out of the tradition of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, poets who possessed a bottomless empathy for their subjects. And, like a poet, his work can be found in a book, rather than in a gallery. The only way you could know about his work is if you have seen his monograph, A Kind of Rapture (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), with an Introduction by Toni Morrison and an Afterword by Meyer Schapiro. If you don’t know of this book, and you haven’t heard anyone talk about it, it might be because the photographs are neither diaristic nor fictional. Simply put, they aren’t fashionable, which means there hasn’t been a lot of hoopla surrounding them. For one thing, in ways that aren’t immediately obvious and certainly are never announced by Bergman, these works undermine a lot of assumptions about straightforward photographs, particularly those taken outside, on the streets. They make you think twice, which is about all one can hope for these days.
The fact that so little has been written about these photographs is interesting or, depending on your mindset, bewildering when you consider that Bergman’s subject matter is portraiture. Given the amount of attention that has been paid to Chuck Close, Alex Katz, and Elizabeth Peyton—three painters for whom portraiture is crucial—it is telling that Bergman has been flying under the radar for more than fifteen years. It becomes even more telling if we remember that both Nan Goldin and Thomas Ruff have made portraits. I believe one reason that Bergman’s work has not, to date, gotten more attention is because there is a conscientiously defined strain of resistance on his part. It is why he neither exhibits his photographs, which would make them part of the commercial mainstream, nor provides you with any supplementary information about the photographs. Putting them in a book is different than putting them on the wall. Books can be widely disseminated. They have a longer life than an exhibition.
I think the other reason Bergman doesn’t exhibit his work is because we have come to think of photographs as bringing us news from there. Looking at photographs while standing in a gallery, we are voyeurs rather than witnesses, bystanders rather than participants. In his work, Bergman both rejects and critiques the comforting distance that is an inherent aspect of the diaristic views of Ryan McGinley or the wild fictions of Charles White. Bergman neither sensationalizes the lives of his subjects nor turns them into objects in an alien landscape. A Kind of Rapture contains no captions, nothing to tell you how to see the contents, which consists of fifty-two closely cropped, color portraits. You never learn the name of any individual or where Bergman was when he took the photograph.
It is not that Bergman’s portraits are "untitled," it is that he doesn’t even title them "untitled." This is because he doesn’t want language to function as a proscenium, a way of distancing yourself from his subjects. At the same time, in having the subjects remain anonymous, he reminds us that this is the condition most of us inhabit. We are more anonymous than we care to realize. As city dwellers, each of us is just a face that others briefly look at, and perhaps even think about for a moment. And then we are gone, back into the miasma of urban reality. At the end of the day, whose face or faces do we remember? Or have they all become one indistinguishable blur?
Bergman uses a 35mm camera and no tripod. These are not studio portraits. It is clear that he asks his subjects if he can photograph them. This doesn’t mean they look at the camera. Whether his light source is daylight, dusk, or neon, the color is as distinct as the silvery light of Velasquez’s Las Meninas. And like Velasquez, who identified with all of his figures, both the royal children and the dwarfs, Bergman uses the camera to establish an intimate relationship with his subjects. Except for one photograph, which focuses on a man, who is wearing a well-worn suit, from just above his shoulders to his knees, all of the other photographs are close-up views, mostly of the head and shoulders. At most, there is just a hint of the environment. This goes against many of our long held assumptions about what a photographer working in the urban environment focuses on. We are used to looking at a figure in a landscape; it is the narrative of there that we want.
Robert Bergman is a street photographer who doesn’t photograph the street. In this regard, he is on the other end of the spectrum from Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, and William Eggleston. Whereas they locate the figure in a distinct environment, Bergman doesn’t show us much more than the person’s head and shoulders. The different kinds of light one finds in the photographs could be the subject of another essay. But, while Bergman may be on the other end of the aesthetic spectrum from these photographers, he is certainly in their league.
There are many reasons why Bergman doesn’t place his figure in a situation. If he did, we would most likely see them as types rather than as individuals. The environment would help us determine if they were members of a certain class or inhabitants of a particular milieu. Bergman isn’t interested in the social, at least not as a way of reassuring us. He wants us to be aware of both our prejudices about class and our predilection to typecast. For him, it is the individual that matters, one’s face (or human identity) are the markers that most quickly distinguishes each of us. We don’t look long at others, averting one’s eyes is a sign of good manners. Also, cities have changed a lot since Arbus, Frank, and Winogrand prowled the streets. Cities are afflicted in one way or another. There are less and less neighborhoods and more and more high rises. Most city centers are deserted by 5 p.m. They are places to work, not places to live.
Eggleston is largely credited with raising color photography to a new level of seriousness. One day Bergman will get credit for the richness of his photographs, the way they transcend image. One of the things you notice about Bergman’s photographs is that there are many more tonalities than one is used to seeing in even the most sumptuous color photographs. Bergman’s photographs don’t seem like images, but like densely colored prints, which is what they are. It is impossible to tell how many plates he used (if that is what he did) to get such rich color.
Often the subject inhabits a zone of colored light. It is not the buttery light of Vermeer but the neon and electric light celebrated by the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby. This is the light we live in. With the photographs, the faces are larger than life size, but not monumental. Scale is important to Bergman. He wants you to contemplate, as well as reflect upon, what you see, but don’t look at, every single day that you go outside.
Towards the end of his life, Andy Warhol combined images of himself with a camouflage pattern. The combination strikes right at a particularly American issue, which is that we want to fit in, as well as be singled out and noticed. Bergman’s photographs go right to the crux of this tension between fitting in and being noticed. Many of his individuals seem like they don’t fit in, and are unsure if they want to be noticed or not. If you think that all of Bergman’s subjects come from the same class, you better look at the work again.
Bergman’s photographs are riveting. We want to look at them slowly, as well as (if we are truly honest with ourselves) look away. The reason we want to look away isn’t because of how Bergman’s subjects appear. It isn’t necessarily because they remind us of how far we have drifted from our own ability to be tender to others. It is because his photographs speak directly to the crisis that is America. And the crisis is that we have become increasingly comfortable with the idea that there is them and us. We belong to something that the others (the Others) don’t. Bergman’s photographs propose that we reconsider that understanding of reality. With neither fanfare nor flourish, he endows each of his subjects with dignity, something all of us desperately want.
Robert Bergman’s photographs combine the traditions of classical portraiture and documentary photography. Bergman’s work encompasses the latter because he includes people hurt by all the things that can go wrong in life. Suffering, whether existential, psychological, or social, has long been a subject of documentary photographers, from August Sander to Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine to Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to Robert Frank.
For earlier generations, documentary photography was intended almost solely as propaganda, as a weapon in the battle to move people and governments. Sometimes it even worked, as in Hine’s photographs of small children working under terrible factory conditions, which were one force behind the reform of child labor laws. But gradually, as the social expectations and institutions for photography changed (museums and magazines, the increasing market), the line between documentary and art photography softened. Older documentary photographs, like those of Evans, came out of FSA files and Life magazine and into frames, galleries, and museums. And younger photographers, like Arbus, moved easily between journalistic assignments and art exhibitions. In this context, the aestheticization of suffering, along with power relations between artist and subject, and the objectification of individuals have all become hot topics in photography history, criticism, and practice.
These are real problems, not just the nit picking of the self-righteous (although they can be that as well). Looking at some documentary photographs is painful: the subjects seem pinned to the wall, laid bare, even distorted—how are we to know whether we see real individuals, or just some familiar cliché of pitifulness? Richard Avedon’s stark style seems perfectly fair, even appropriate, to depict Henry Kissinger, but becomes harsh and dominating in pictures of oil field workers and drifters in the American West. Margaret Bourke-White made very different choices for her Depression photographs, wielding harsh lighting, high angles, and the element of surprise, but, like Avedon, she renders her subjects helpless and pathetic. Both effects, of realism and romanticism, seem entirely the creation of the photographer.
Bergman’s work seems almost miraculously suspended between these two poles. On the shooting end, he aims for matter-of-factness: a 35mm camera, amateur film, no artificial lighting. On the printing end of things, romanticism reigns in the photographs’ lush and saturated color. As with Walker Evans, the aestheticization is part of the content of these portraits. And like Evans, who made the spareness of destitution look like a style, the colors Bergman chooses seem to arise naturally from the urban landscape of neon and bright paint.
The subjects of these portraits have no single pose or attitude: some of the people look out at the camera, while many turn their gaze inward, or toward some unknown point. They are direct, proud, crazy, sexy, intelligent, despairing, and strong
in turn; no dominant message about dignity, or conversely, abjectness reigns. Instead, Bergman gives the illusion of contact with individuals, and his photographs themselves are strongly individual.
The fundamental strangeness of documentary photography is the split between who it is of and who it is for—the split between its subjects and its audience. The documentary photograph is intended to move "you" (the middle class magazine or newspaper reader or the upper middle class art lover) to do something. Here’s a test: what does any given photograph make you want to do? Lewis Hine says change the child labor laws; Margaret Bourke-White says add fluoride to the water, give at your church, and stay the hell away from the bad side of town; Dorothea Lange says improve the treatment of migrant workers; Robert Frank says quit your job and see America (but you won’t always like what you see); Richard Avedon says look as long as you like—they can’t see you or stop you; Martha Rosler says leave the bums alone. When you look at a Robert Bergman photograph, you don’t think "Oh gee, I should give more to the United Way," but that maybe "you" are missing something by not treating everyone you encounter as a full human being.
Photography has consigned thousands to the files of the forgotten-but-not-gone. Attics and flea markets are thronged with a populace no one can name, photographs of people who were once important to others but no longer are. Why do we look at portraits of people who have no claim on us? Often we don’t—there are plenty of boring people right around the corner and we don’t need to search for more. But occasionally anonymous portraits tell us something significant about what it means to be human; attention must be paid.
Robert Bergman’s photographs render his subjects in a kind of exceptional fullness, as if, though their thoughts might have strayed, every ounce of their being, every scintilla of whatever made them who they are, was present in the moment. Here they are: truculent, injured, too knowing, innocent…how did he get them to give themselves so fully to a stranger, to give themselves away? I thought that people had acquired a distrust of cameras, but then, the people in this book probably haven’t read the critics on the subject of photographers exploiting their subjects.
These pictures are on the side of sympathy; they feel like an encounter between—I almost said between equals, but the photographer always has the advantage. (And the painter. John Singer Sargent said, "Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend.") Still, Bergman achieves a degree of trust that even friends don’t always offer one another, perhaps through his evident recognition that whatever sufferings or dilemmas these people have, whatever their insufficiencies and physical and emotional frailties, they are trapped in the same human predicament as we.
Still, they’re extraordinary, though far from wealth or fame or (most of them) from beauty. One man looks like a contemporary version of Jesus living on the streets. A young, bearded, blue-eyed man has been transported from a painting by Rogier Van der Weyden. A woman manages to be grand when she hasn’t any reasonable hope of being so.
The photographer reportedly uses no special lighting, yet an elderly woman’s gray hair abruptly turns gold and spins her a halo, a red-head’s flesh is as green as brackish water, the skin of a light-haired woman glows golden as pollen. As the neck and forehead of a black man take fire from his red shirt, a color chart bisects his eye, which may explain some of the extravagant hues—a neon or electric signboard is apparently performing its offices gratis.
Bergman has a painter’s eye for color and composition, which helps bestow dignity on people who might otherwise not have so much. A man is photographed twice with his head backed by different mandorlas as if he were a saint carrying his haloes through various atmospheres. A woman wearing a dull tomato-red scarf stands before a mint-green wall. A man wearing an electric blue cap and jacket and red shirt collar is photographed before a deep turquoise background.
Bergman’s book is called A Kind of Rapture, and it fits. There is an intensity here, whether of shyness, defeat, wariness, confrontation, or merely reverie, that amounts to being carried away, if only momentarily, by the vicissitudes of being human. Anonymous they remain, but these people have roundness and depth, a fierce emotional force and a peculiar nobility. However minor their impact on the world’s affairs, the subjects of these photographs become powerful in the light of Robert Bergman’s lens.
Robert Bergman: Pictures of Faces
I read recently that around sixty billion photographs are taken each year; the majority of these are portraits. Picturing the family, at home or on vacation, remains the core practice of photography, especially as formation of a family produces an overwhelming social and subjective demand for photographic documentation. Most of these pictures remain private; the most generally circulated portraits are images of celebrities and quasi-celebrities, together with those given momentary or short-run fame in the pages of newspapers: a dying mother waiting for her son to return from the front; a couple featured in the weekend wedding pages.
The photographs that originally aspired to, and achieved, the dignity of art were for the most part not portraits, but new-technology versions of higher artistic genres like landscape, the nude, and history painting. However, nineteenth-century developments like realism and the artistic acceptability of society portraiture (as practiced, for example, by Sargent, Whistler, Eakins, and Manet) created places within art for photographs of individuals in the form of documentary and studio portraiture. With the widening of the museum’s embrace of photography, the flood of daguerreotype and other early portraits entered the world of art, and the majority of their subjects, whose names we don’t recognize, might as well be anonymous. The centrality of documentary work to the professional practice of photography worked in the same direction, as the canon embraced pictures of farm families, urban workers, and socialites unknown to most viewers.
The result is, one might say, a new artistic genre: anonymous portraiture. Of course, the effects of time have produced something analogous in painting, as past personages become unknown to the museumgoers of the present. But portraits of sixteenth-century Italian merchants or seventeenth-century Dutch burghers have certain built-in features of interest: their places in art history, and their formal properties as examples of the transformation of paint and canvas into images. Photographs that have entered into history can share these features, as with the now iconic status of Walker Evans’s sharecroppers or the technical mastery animating a Stieglitz portrait of a young woman in shorts. History and excellence create a context in which we are free to respond to them as pictures of unknown individuals without worrying about who those people are.
Contemporary anonymous portraits, however, raise a question that applies to all such images: why would we want to look at portraits of people we don’t know? In general, we answer the question, even without asking it, by seeking documentary significance and formal interest. Why would someone hang one of Rineke Dijkstra’s pictures of awkward teenagers on her wall, or go to an exhibition full of them? Their large size and the high quality of their production points to their location in the art context, and this opens the way to, say, a sociological reading that the photo of a friend’s teen daughter does not evoke. Robert Bergman’s pictures raise the same question, but at their best, answer it in a different way.
Take, for instance, one of my favorite pictures in A Kind of Rapture: a portrait of a middle-aged woman wearing a stars-and-stripes headscarf and holding a bag of groceries. Her mouth is compressed into a wide tight line, but her gaze communicates a willingness to make contact even while maintaining the privacy appropriate to the situation of being photographed by a perfect stranger. Her social location, in the American working class, is evident from her clothing, the way her face is lined, and her expression. And the image is beautifully made, with Bergman’s signature use of saturated color to create atmosphere rather than background for the face that is his main interest. But both photographic skill and sociological information serve something else, which (despite my fin-de-siècle fear of sentimentality) I might as well call an encounter with an individual.
In this regard, Bergman’s picture works like some Renaissance portraits. In the case of a picture by Holbein, for example, our distance from the conventions of dress, habitus, and portraiture itself circa 1500 (along, of course, with a drawing style dedicated to a realism that moderns can read as quasi-photographic) make possible the illusion of direct contact with someone we don’t know. Bergman’s photograph achieves a similar effect by making the subject more important than the documentary values she can carry. In this image, as in many of his pictures, he accomplishes this primarily (in a manner reminiscent of Rembrandt’s portraits) through his treatment of the eyes, by selecting a shutter-release moment when the subject is looking at the photographer with a willingness to engage that stems from her own interest in the other. As well, Bergman’s attention to the texture of skin and the shaping and marking of the face (and, in some portraits, hands) that life brings, clarified by his exquisite color sense, creates an image of the body as lived in, of a person’s physical presence in the world. A physically present person must be recognized, even if we don’t know her. Bergman’s pictures can create an analogous experience. There might, that is, be no particular reason to look at this stranger’s portrait; but once we have seen it, we are forced to acknowledge, however fleetingly or weakly, that person’s claim to an importance equal to our own.
On Seeing Robert Bergman’s Photographs
When my mother died, I was holding her face in my hands and looking into her eyes. I wanted to see what she was seeing, then, but I couldn’t. I could feel it, but I couldn’t see it. I thought that I should be able to save her, and I tried to hold her gaze, to hold her here, but the moment she died, her eyes went out, and I was left alone.
In the last weeks, the skin of her face had pulled taut around her skull to create a face I had never seen before, though I’d known her all my life. It was her face, definitely, but she’d never shown it to the world before this. It was her true face, and it was new, and it was the most beautiful face I have ever seen.
This is what I remembered when I first saw Robert Bergman’s photograph of the old woman in a lavender robe, with light on her hair and behind her eyes. It’s the first photograph in his extraordinary book, and it’s still the hardest one for me to look at.
Cartier-Bresson has said that one of the most difficult things to do in photography is to make a portrait. It’s no problem, of course, to aim a camera and shoot someone, but to portray (literally, to draw forth or reveal) another is something else entirely. Cartier-Bresson said his passion "has never been for photography ‘in itself,’ but for the possibility—through forgetting yourself—of recording in a fraction of a second the emotion of the subject, and the beauty of the form: that is, a geometry awakened by what’s offered." The poet Robert Duncan wrote that "To see the face rightly, one must see the skull in the face; to see the skull rightly, one must see the face."
The faces in Robert Bergman’s photographs are all so penetrating that one must spend a good deal of time looking at them to begin to realize their scope. Finally, it is difficult to identify a human emotion that is not revealed in them.
The truth is, photography can only do a couple of things really well. It can make visible the tracery of a relation, beginning with the relation between the photographer and his or her subject, and it can reflect on death. Neither of these effects is automatic, by any means, but it is possible. One would think that, out of the millions of photographs that have been made between people over the last 165 years, it would have happened more often, but in fact it is exceedingly rare.
I guess that’s because real portraits enact a contradiction: that each human being is unique and, at the same time, alike. There is no such thing as a "typical person." People are very different, one from another. But when you get down below the surface, to the skull, we’re ultimately the same.
Robert Bergman is a great portraitist. What’s going on in these images can’t be faked. We’ve never met, but based on these portraits, I trust him. I would even have trusted him with my mother’s face.
—David Levi Strauss
ContributorsDavid Levi Strauss
DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.John Yau
PAUL MATTICK'S book, Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (Reaktion, 2011) is based on articles written for the Rail.Vicki Goldberg