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Walking out of Robert Bergman's "Selected Portraits" at P.S. 1, you may find yourself staring in rapt amazement at the faces of people around you. After spending an hour with these photographs of strangers on the streets of American cities, it's shocking to realize how little we look at people we don't know. And odd to think that "stranger" is the word used to describe them.
Robert Bergman is a 65-year-old photographer whose work has never been shown publicly until this month, despite having garnered praise from Toni Morrison and the late art historian Meyer Schapiro more than a decade ago. Bergman was born in New Orleans, and developed his first photographs at the age of six. He attended the University of Minnesota, steeping himself in linguistic philosophy, existentialism, and French poetry, and befriending the young photographer Danny Seymour, before dropping out three credits short of graduation. "To paraphrase Plato, sound reason crumbles in the presence of the poetry of madmen," Bergman tells me by phone from Washington, D.C., where the National Gallery of Art is currently holding a separate exhibit of his portraits. "I was more interested in the poetry of madmen."
In the '70s, Bergman studied painting and worked sporadically on a series of black-and-white portraits of nursing home patients. But his work remained neglected by the powers that be, personified by John Szarkowski, MOMA's director of photography from 1962 to 1991. Szarkowski's taste for minimalist formalism precluded the reactive, personally engaged style of photographers like Bergman and Robert Frank. In 1985, despairing over his work's lack of recognition, Bergman loaded a Nikon 35mm with color film and traveled to cities like Gary, Youngstown, Cincinnati, and New York, looking for individuals to photograph. Spying someone of interest, he'd leap from his car and ask permission to take his picture. If the person asked why, he'd say, "I'm an artist, and I like your face."
"Virtually everyone I met in America said yes," he says.
The 24 large-scale color portraits at P.S.1, taken between 1985 and 1997, are the result of Bergman's peregrinations. Most of them first appeared in his acclaimed book, A Kind of Rapture (Pantheon, 1998). No captions accompany these portraits, not even a date or an "Untitled." The backgrounds are apparently urban but otherwise unrecognizable; each environment seems blurred by the aura of the human presence in its midst. When trying to reckon who these people are, all we have is the evidence of their clothes, their hair, and their expression, viewed from a distance that would, in person, be uncomfortably intimate. They stare away or straight at us, as if they just realized, with varying degrees of sadness and understanding, that we are unable to see the aching solitude inside them.
And yet the depth of human solitude is one thing these portraits portray. John Berger wrote that a photograph "always and by its nature refers to what is not seen"—"what it shows invokes what is not shown." Bergman's portraits manage to invoke a person's life story—hidden in the past, yet embodied in the moment the shutter snapped. That his subjects' life story is somehow evident in their eyes, the folds of their skin, and the set of their lips is the essential mystery of these works.
It is often hard to tell whether Bergman's people are destitute, middle class, or quietly prospering. A lack of information prevents us from typecasting them. "My ambition is to subvert types," Bergman remarks, "and to absent myself in order that the essential particularity of a person shines through." The only place you see the artist's hand, as it were, is in the formal qualities, the rhythms between shapes and colors. "Taking these pictures was a collaborative act," he continues. "Had the guy with a black shirt beside a gray wall been wearing a pink shirt and a Mickey Mouse hat beside a blue wall, the picture wouldn't have worked."
Bergman's obscurity so far is partly due to his indifference to the fashionable. His work stands aloof from the enduring vogue for diaristic photography, practiced to great effect by Ryan McGinley, who benefits from the seduction of memoir. And Bergman's style is contrary to the popular German formalism of Thomas Ruff, whose stark passport-like portraits willfully deny the subject's emotions.
"I never work from the intellect," Bergman confesses. "I have no preconceptions, no intelligible goals. I operate according to animal instinct, I guess, and what I hope is an astute perception of mental and spiritual states." He's fond of a passage from Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince, also a favorite of Robert Frank's: "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye."
In "Selected Portraits," an old man in a black coat and bowler hat—a ringer for Beckett's Estragon—stares past us with a kind of stunned and plaintive gratitude, as if Godot has finally shown up. A youngish man with fresh cuts on his forehead, wearing four layers of soiled button-downs, has closed his eyes in what could be flattered self-effacement ("Aw, you don't wanna take my picture") or mocking self-love ("I'm pretty, aren't I?"). A shirtless black man posed before a glowing golden wall appears at once thankful for the attention and apprehensive about what the camera will reveal, the mask he might normally wear melted away by the warmth of Bergman's gaze.