Comments/Context: In the past month or so, the photography press has been full of the underdog makes good story of the photographer Robert Bergman. After toiling in self-imposed obscurity for decades and intermittently digesting more than his fill of rejection and discouragement, Bergman now has three shows on simultaneously: museum exhibits at the National Gallery and PS1, and this show at Yossi Milo. The works on view at all three locations were published in a monograph in 1998, so it's taken a more than a decade for these exhibitions to come to fruition.
Part of the reason I think Bergman's work was backburnered for so long is that it almost perfectly contrarian: it rejects virtually all of the major trends that have dominated contemporary photography in recent years - it is not cool or detached, it is not staged, it makes no appropriations, it isn't interested in process, it is not manipulated or altered, it has no biting commentary, conceptual framework or ironic viewpoint. That said, I don't think Bergman made his pictures to buck the trends or thumb his nose at the establishment; my guess is that he just wasn't very interested by all of what has been going on and instead closed himself off and looked back to the traditions of painting for his education.
When we apply the word painterly to photography, it is often used to describe color used in different ways (Impressionistic, Expressionistic etc.) or to explain surface texture reminiscent of hand applied paint (Pictorialism, Pointilism etc.). Bergman's lush, saturated portraits are unabashedly painterly, but in an entirely different manner. They are structurally painterly, formally composed in such a way as to draw on the lessons of the Old Masters, where attention is focused on the face of the sitter, and the rest of the elements of composition (hair, clothing, background, even color itself) are used as carefully controlled supporting features to enhance the overall feeling of the work.
All of the images in the show are head or torso shots, blown up to larger than life size. The best of the works are penetrating, evocative and viscerally human: the visage of the man in the tan fur-lined coat clutching a book with his long fingers (reproduced above) stares powerfully out from the frame. Bergman's portrait of this man could easily hold the wall with an Old Master portrait of a priest or nobleman; they draw on the same aesthetic conventions, albeit with different subject matter. To my eye, a handful of the works in this show rise to this searing level of success, the rest falling back into well-crafted if less than entirely moving street portraits of people from all walks of life. I also think that many of close-up heads are printed too big; they would work better and capture a more intimate mood if scaled to match normal human proportions.
Overall, I think it is no accident that Bergman's portraits have resurfaced during these uncertain economic times. Perhaps we are searching for a much needed dose of authenticity, of real people with less than perfect lives with whom we can empathize. We need somewhere to project our own anxieties and see reflected back some unexpected strength of spirit, and Bergman's portraits fill this niche in a way that few others have bothered to consider.Collector's POV: The prints in the show are priced at $12500 each. Bergman's work is not available in the secondary markets, so gallery retail is the only option for interested collectors at this point.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
- Exhibits: NGA (here), PS1 (here)
- Book: A Kind of Rapture, 1998, Pantheon (here)
- Features: WSJ (here), Washington Post (here), New York (here)
- Interview: Brooklyn Rail (here)
Through January 9th
Yossi Milo Gallery
525 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001