First off, congratulations to NGA curator Sarah Greenough for winning a Lucie for the NGA’s exhibition of Robert Frank: The Americans, well-deserved honors for the woman behind many of my favorite exhibitions in Washington, and who consistently prefaces photography in Washington’s art scene. Well done! And speaking of Robert Frank, on Oct. 10, an exhibition of photographer Robert Bergman’s portraits (who says his viewing of The Americans changed his life), collected over nine years from 1986 to 1995, opened and will run till Jan. 10, 2010. The show has gotten some good press already, most notably in the Wall Street Journal by Judith Dobrzynski, in part because of the apparent long-awaited spontaneous combustion that is happening for Bergman right now with simultaneous shows at the NGA, PS1 in New York, and next month’s opening at photographic savant Yosi Milo‘s gallery.
I believe the gallery owns about 98 Bergman prints, right now, of which not all are shown, which I think is a good thing, because stylistically they are all the same, and the two rooms filled with them are more than enough to give one a good taste of Bergman’s work, without the overkill that can accompany a monumental show built upon one typology. And while the Bergman show is not a typology, per se, his evocative portraits do intentionally strip most of the environment from the subject, leaving a person who, more often than not, conveys some angst-ridden inner drama, sunken-cheeked hollow-eyed gaze, and taken cumulatively left this viewer with the feeling despite the photographer’s intention to the contrary I had learned less about the people being portrayed than the mind-set of the photographer who created them.
The inkjet prints, which are about 16×24″ are beautifully printed, with few exceptions, evoking lush colors and composed artfully, befitting the experience of a photographer who studied and painted for years. He modus operandi was not to pose the subjects but take them en situ, working the situation, and making a few frames until he had what he wanted. His decision to identify the works just by the year Bergman contends is to strip all the excess information so that the viewer is forced to contend with the human condition.
I think this is a bunch of hooey, myself. Admittedly, I am someone who when in the kitchen of an accomplished chef, to use the words of Robert Olen Butler, I am someone who will want ” . . . to understand everything. His kitchen was full of such smells that you knew you had to understand everything or be incomplete forever.”
So I like the environmental details, I like their names, where they are from. I am one of those horrid people who likes to locate people on their particular nexus so that I might understand in my own small way where they are coming from, I had not realized that I was robbing them of their humanity by doing so. I say this, because my own particular nexus was uprooted so often that I find it reassuring to have something to hold on to. This is my bias. And I also prefer mise en scenes. So there you have it.
© Robert Bergman
This image is the one that disturbed me most in the entire show, it is a fuzzy print, and really so out of place and brought down the exhibition, so that I was puzzled by its inclusion. The hands are charged with tension to be sure, indicative of a psychological state, but technically not up to the rest of the show.
The gripping stares, the lush colors, accomplished compositions and excellent printing make this a show well worth your time. I am glad to see the National Gallery of Art bringing a heretofore unknown photographer to light (though his simultaneous exhibitions do deflate from the sense of discovery). Also opening at the Gallery this Sunday is In the Darkroom: Photographic Processes – which I peaked into while visiting Bergman (right next door) and am super-excited to go see and review. I’m sure these will both make your experience at the National Gallery a worthwhile one.