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Robert Bergman: More Than Human

The photographer has been quietly capturing the soul of America for half a century. Only recently hailed as one of our era’s greatest art photographers, his first London show is on now at Michael Hoppen Contemporary

Robert Bergman struggled for recognition among art and photography institutions for most of his life, becoming widely known in America last year when he held his first solo shows at the age of 65. Recently hailed as one of the 20th century’s most significant art photographers, he has a way of extracting the character and intense depth of his subjects – men, women and children he finds in the streets – in a way that makes us want to discover these people and the emotions that have taken their faces hostage. With his compassionate gaze, he brings us to a realisation: that we rarely pause long enough to truly observe the individuality of strangers.

As a teenager, New Orleans-born Bergman invested his time in psychoanalytic theory, poetry and philosophy, obsessed with the idea that he could solve the philosophical ‘mind-body problem’ (concerning the relationship of the mind and the physical body). His father died when he was ten, and he says there is no doubt that his interest derived from that experience of: “Where did Daddy go when he died?” But by the time he met Danny Seymour, Bergman had realised he wasn’t going to better Descartes. Both men wanted to become “visionary photographers”, and quit university to pursue their dream. “I felt that I was really making myself crazy in academia. I quit, and Danny quit, and it’s a lovely thing to look back on – these two young guys who were deadly serious about wanting to be geniuses. It’s nothing I’m claiming for myself at this point,” he laughs.

Seymour was a member of the eminent Gardner family, and stood to inherit $4 million. After quitting, “aggressively implored” Bergman to take the first half-million of his trust fund, insisting that the money would destroy him if he kept it. Bergman declined, even though he would later have to take odd jobs to survive, while Seymour, the talented young filmmaker and photographer, moved to New York and became the great documentary photographer Robert Frank’s best friend. They directed the debauched Rolling Stones tour film Cocksucker Blues around the time that Seymour’s heroin habit became serious, and he disappeared soon afterwards, most likely murdered during a drug deal.

At that time, Bergman was working on black-and-white abstracts of objects that he constructed and painted, photographed, and then destroyed, but he could only afford to make prototypes of the mural-sized prints. “I made those in the worst years of poverty that I ever had,” he says, “in a room in a house that didn’t even have a shower that worked.” More recently, he has been able to create five of the prints, at $15,000 each.

For years Bergman worked only in black-and-white; the longer lifespan of monochrome photographs satisfied his archivist’s nature. But when he realized that his work did not fit with the formalist orthodoxy at the (once) all-powerful MoMA, Bergman embarked on what he defines as an act of self-destruction.
“When I felt that my work would never be known, I thought, ‘I may as well shoot colour because who the hell cares?’ I right away learned that I could do something in colour that I didn’t expect I could do. It was at the same moment that I was attempting to find out what a portrait was for me. I also felt impelled to find out who was out there in America.”

The following body of work was influenced by the photographers Edward Weston and Robert Frank, whose essential photo book The Americans, while formalist in one sense, spearheaded a new, subjective approach that took the viewer inside the experience. The revelations in Bergman’s photographs are profound: the inner complexities of individuals are revealed to us through untitled portraits, while we simultaneously recognise in the spectrum of emotions written on their faces a common humanity that reflects our gaze back on ourselves, forcing us to contemplate our way of treating others.

Bergman chooses subjects for whom he gets a feeling for the individuality of the person. “I wouldn’t have that same feeling if it weren’t also for what they’re wearing, for the background elements,” he says. “The same person with the same personality in a park wearing a pink Mickey Mouse t-shirt might not cause me to stop, because I, as an artist, have only one language and that is the visual language.” Taken using a handheld 35mm camera, and always with available light, Bergman will usually spend a short time with each “collaborator”. “I’ve had very few refusals. But at least half of the time, the person says, ‘Why?’ And I say the simplest thing and the most honest thing: ‘I’m an artist and I like your face.’ They could be what the world calls ugly, but I have to like their face.”

Recognised by the few as one of art photography’s great visionaries when he published these photographs in his book A Kind Of Rapture (1998) featuring a compelling foreword by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, the cumulative effect of the pictures as a statement reveals Bergman’s authorial presence as a poet of America’s people. Tightly sequenced, it is to be read like a poem from first line to last. The frontispiece is of a man who appears to be looking into the book as if the action is about to start; a short night-time passage opens up into bright sunshine; and so on, until you realise that the whole book is a universe of discourse between subjects. People have had strong reactions to this cumulative effect – once Bergman was phoned by a Buddhist monk, who said, “The effect of looking at the whole book is that you induce the ‘no-mind’ and reveal the Buddha nature better sometimes even than scripture…”

His debut solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in 2009 was followed by shows at MoMA affiliate P.S.1 and Yossi Milo, and a current London exhibition at Michael Hoppen Contemporary. “Maybe the times are changing, I don’t know,” he says. “Or maybe it’s just an anomaly and I’ll fade away instantly. As a photographer who works a lot, and who takes many bad pictures, I really need now to compress or destroy a lot of the photographs and try to define an oeuvre.” One could argue that even with the small selection of pictures we’ve seen, he already has. Perhaps Robert Bergman has also, in his own way, solved that philosophical problem he laboured over all those years ago: not with words, but by unveiling the inextricable relationship that exists between the minds of these Americans and their creased, blemished, radiant and proud faces.

Robert Bergman’s show at Michael Hoppen Contemporary, London runs until November 27, 2010

A Kind Of Rapture by Robert Bergman is published by Pantheon Books.

All images copyright Robert Bergman, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Yossi Milo Gallery and the artist