A Photography Debut, 65 Years in the Making

BY Arts Desk  November 17, 2009 at 3:25 PM EDT

'Untitled' by Robert Bergman. Image Courtesy of the ArtistHolding out for the course of a career that spans more than 40 years, photographer Robert Bergman refused to compromise on when and where he would hold his first show — standing by a personal philosophy of “getting it right,” he patiently waited for the right time.

When it came this year, the 65 year-old artist landed not just one exhibition, but three. ‘Robert Bergman: Portraits, 1986-1995,’ which opened in October at the National Gallery of Art, showcases 33 portraits Bergman took while traveling around American cities. In addition, ‘Robert Bergman: Selected Portraits’ is at P.S.1 in Queens (a branch of the Museum of Modern Art), as well as ‘Robert Bergman: A Kind of Rapture’ at the Yossi Milo gallery in New York City.

Born in New Orleans in 1944 and raised in Minnesota, Bergman began to explore photography at around the age of 5, snapping photos and developing his own negatives before he gave it up as an adolescent. At 20, when he dropped out of college, he “followed [his] instincts again.” He picked the work back up, and hasn’t put his 35mm Nikon down since.

Part of a project Bergman undertook to document people within the American cityscape, the subjects in the photographs at the National Gallery are all individuals he encountered within a 12-year period of cross-country travel during the 1980s and 90s. When he encountered people that interested him, he would get out of the car to ask permission to take their picture; rarely did they say no.

The portraits feature individuals of all ages, races and socio-economic class, whose facial expressions seem to reveal complex emotions and the physical evidence of struggle and life experience. Bergman also hones in on posture, gesture and a sense of form.

“I think that people who look at the imagery carefully will begin to see that psychological complexity of the people that he is depicting,” said Sarah Greenough, the senior curator of photography at the National Gallery of Art, and the curator of Bergman’s exhibit.

Art Beat talked to curator Sarah Greenough about the impact of Bergman’s work and the variety of emotions the portraits reveal.

For his 1998 book of portraits, “A Kind of Rapture,” Bergman approached Toni Morrison to write the introduction. But Morrison politely declined, stating she wanted to focus on her own work. So Bergman persisted and waited, and finally received what he wanted: an essay called ‘The Fisherwoman,’ a tale reflecting on “the other” and universal humanity. “Occasionally there arises an event or a moment that one knows immediately will forever mark a place in the history of artistic endeavor,” wrote Morrison. “Robert Bergman’s portraits represent such a moment, such an event.”

Despite the publication of his monograph, there had been still no literal event for Bergman, no right moment for his first show — until now. “I think the idea of an exhibition…gradually evolved over time,” explained Sarah Greenough.

Bergman is hesitant to offer an artist statement. “I don’t know how to elicit an artist statement from myself…I just don’t have an interest in limiting the response to the work.”

“Many artists are hesitant to define what they want people to get from their works because each person will approach it with a completely different life experience, a completely different understanding and one doesn’t want to limit it and prescribe it ahead of time,” says Greenough.

Bergman is willing, though, to talk about what he, as a viewer, “got” from the work of another photographer. Robert Frank’s famous series ‘The Americans’ had a particular impact on Bergman’s work, and on his philosophy regarding instinct and intuition. “Frank’s influence was profound…He confirmed what I felt as a child — both in photography and in archery — which was that, first, one had to have a vision. And second, that the faculties of being human that serve that vision are those of intuition and emotion and sense of form.”

“I just went on instinct,” says Bergman. “I trust intuition…Always, I go on instinct.”

‘Robert Bergman: Portraits, 1986-1995,’ is at the National Gallery of Art until January 10, 2010; P.S.1’s ‘Robert Bergman: Selected Portraits’ is up until January 4, 2010, and ‘Robert Bergman: A Kind of Rapture’ at the Yossi Milo gallery runs through January 9, 2010.