Saturday, December 5, 2009
"Looking: Robert Bergman's Portraits" by Kevin Romoser
copyright Robert Bergman
Of all the photography I have seen this fall, the work that has resonated with me the most are portraits by Robert Bergman that have recently surfaced in the art world after decades of the photographer's obscurity. I discovered his work shortly before the opening of his current show at Yossi Milo and was surprised never to have seen it before. His haunting portraits left a deep spell on me in the way that the best kind of artwork can.
I recently asked students in my photography class at William Paterson University to visit a photo exhibition of their choice and come back with a paper about the work to present to our class. One of my students, Kevin Romoser, read a beautifully written and insightful short essay about Robert Bergmans's show at P.S.1. It was so uncanny given my own response to Bergman's work, I took the liberty to share it on my blog.
Looking: Robert Bergman's Portraits
Perhaps more than anything else, Robert Bergman's solo show, "Selected Portraits" at P.S.1 in Long Island City is an exploration of the human act of looking. In one way, each of the 24 untitled pieces is a standard portrait photograph. Tightly framed, classically composed and shot with a handheld 35mm camera in natural light, the portraits refer back to a rich history of anonymous portrait photography. They have the pathos of Dorothea Lange's Depression-era series and the haunting atmosphere of Diane Arbus' work. However, Bergman's work accomplishes its mission of conveying the depths of human experience with a refined subtlety, relying on mood-evoking color and most importantly, the human stare.
Some of Bergman's subjects stare directly into his camera, or perhaps more accurately, directly at the viewer, while some seem to avoid it. Some appear to look right through the viewer, and others still seem oblivious to the presence of the camera or viewer at all. What their gazes all share, though, is profound but not overwrought expression. There is always emotional conflict; slight smiles betray forlorn eyes. And every subject conveys a sadness that is not maudlin. It could be the sadness of the acceptance of a burdened life. Or maybe, it is a yearning for the sense of connection that they have found in the momentary click of the camera.
The momentary nature of photography is important in Bergman's work because through the captured instant, the subjects' expressions tell of lifetimes. The photographs speak intricate stories whose details remain mysterious. The lives of his subjects are full, dimensional lives, complete with disappointment and promise. There is very little about the settings or the subjects' dress that indicate the particularities of their lives. But ultimately, for Bergman, these particularities are unimportant. It is the empathy and the connection between subject and viewer that give these portraits their poignant, haunting power.
- Kevin Romoser, November 2009
Robert Bergman: Selected Portraits
P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center
22-25 Jackson Avenue
October 15 - January 4, 2010
Robert Bergman: A Kind of Rapture
525 West 25th Street
November 5 - January 9, 2010
copyright Robert Bergman