07 June 2010

Robert Bergman and "the democracy of universal vulnerability"

Untitled © Robert Bergman.

What could make a photographer happier than to have two high-profile critics arguing over her work in a high profile venue? Of course, the premise is that 'it doesn't matter what they say, so long as they are talking about you.' Have a look at this exchange between Andy Grundberg and David Levi Strauss occasioned by a review the former wrote for Aperture of a recent exhibition of work by Robert Bergman.* The exchange (which links to the original review) is located on the Aperture blog "Exposures." I doubt Bergman finds it edifying.

In his review Grundberg devotes many of his column inches to channeling Susan Sontag's moralism and directing it at Bergman. This is a critical approach that I wish Sontag had taken with her. Here is the gist of his criticism:

Nevertheless, there’s a temptation to dismiss Bergman’s pictures as latter-day Bowery Bum photography. Most of his ink-jet-produced, moderately sized prints show us the faces of people he encountered on the streets of major cities in the Midwest and eastern United States. They are posed portraits: the subjects gaze down or away into the distance, or else stare confrontationally at the camera. For the most par t, the people appear to be downtrodden or at least on the outs with conventional society; more than a few seem afflicted with a wasting disease. Unfortunately it is impossible to verify any of the questions a viewer might have about these people, since Bergman calls each image “Untitled” and provides it with only a date. No name, no location, no facts except those given by the lens—presumably Bergman wants his subjects to be open to whatever preconceptions and prejudices his viewers may project onto them. In the context of the gallery, though, this denial of extra pictorial detail seems less a social statement than an aesthetic position: we are forced back on Bergman’s compositions, his use of color, the consistency of his choices of framing, even his decision about which subjects to shoot.

[. . .]

Beyond this, though, it is really Bergman’s motives for choosing to photograph the people he does that remain the central question. Surely he can’t be concerned that these pictures in any way improve the lives of the people they portray, since we don’t know where or who they are. Perhaps the ambition is for our regard of the pain of others to make us more attuned to human suffering in general (come back, Susan Sontag, please), but this aim is attenuated by our prior experience of pictures in the same vein. We might expect anyone conversant with recent photographic practice to know this as an existing critical problem, which leaves us with a far less ennobled idea of what is afoot here: that Bergman is out to convince us that he is a great photographer.

Compare what Grundberg says here with the nearly identical complaints Sontag levels at Arbus in On Photography or Salgado in Regarding the Pain of Others. Pretty remarkable. Pretty banal. Moreover, in the current context this complaint is especially perplexing. Bergman hardly has been self-promoting, at least successfully so. Until recently (and he is in his mid-sixties) he has not sold his work or had gallery representation. This exhibition is, I believe, his first solo show at a prominent venue. As Levi Strauss points out, while his work is not "new," he has not been a denizen of the photo/art world.

Like Sontag, Grundberg seems to miss the point entirely. Maybe Bergman has, as he says, simply been trying to make great photographs. I recommend this interview in The Brooklyn Rail. That is different from trying "to convince us that he is a great photographer." Perhaps in his portraits Bergman is attempting to depict what, in a phrase he takes from a poet who was the mother of his late friend Danny Seymour, he terms "the democracy of universal vulnerability." Perhaps that is a naive view - we are not all equally vulnerable, after all. But still, we all are vulnerable. And it doesn't take much. What I am suggesting here is surely difficult to sort out. I grant that. But it seems likely to be considerably more useful than following Grundberg and Sontag's ghost down the path of moralism.
* You can find other reviews of the exhibition, which ran last fall, here at The Washington Post, here at npr, and here The Wall Street Journal.

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Blogger Stan B. said...

Although it's not an approach I would always want to see, I think Bergman's anonymous everyman works wonders here. His portraits are not only universal of the human condition, they are also timeless- I'd swear many, if not most, are denizens of the Renaissance.

I'm happy he's no longer solely confined to the dusty bins of second hand book shops. And needless to say, I do so love that he came and operates from without the confines of the established art world.

07 June, 2010 11:18  

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