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Robert Bergman at The National Gallery of Art exhibition review

November 19, 2009

Robert Bergman, Untitled, 1989 At the mere age of six Robert Bergman began to explore the world of photography, and he has been hooked ever since. The now sixty-five year old has been waiting since that young age for his work to be recognized, and it finally seems his wish has been granted. This recognition has come in the form of his own exhibition, taking place in two galleries: one at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C, and the other at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York City.

Last week, I had the opportunity to check out Bergman’s exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in D.C and was impressed to see the usually conservative gallery give such prominence to Bergman’s provocative photographs. Found on the first floor and housed directly adjacent to sculptures of 19th century nudes, the placement of Bergman’s work in the museum could not be more fitting, the subjects of his photographs conveying such a private emotional state that they seem almost naked themselves.  

At first glance the portraits are jarring to say the least. Each shot is candid and taken of such a personal moment that I felt as though I was violating the subjects by simply looking at them. The vulnerability that I saw made me feel uneasy, as though I was seeing a forbidden part of these people, and yet the effect was so alluring that I found myself desperate for more information about them.

My search was in vain, however, as all that I found was a small imprint on the wall next to the photograph stating the year it was taken. The exhibition contains no background information about the subjects, no location information, nor any titles to help influence a viewer as to who these people really are.  As Bergman says in his interview with the Washington Post,

It is my aesthetic stance. I don’t want you to have any escape from simply reacting to the art…it undercuts your ability to understand and interact with the art.”

Robert Bergman, Untitled, 1986
This is one of the main facets of Bergman’s art, and quite the controversial one. Without any textual information to influence his audience, Bergman’s viewers are forced to make assumptions about the pieces themselves.

What is gained from this discretion is the viewer’s ability to familiarize oneself with the stranger and to understand their emotions as ones that you yourself can relate to.  In short: you stop looking at the people in the portrait as “the other” but as glimpses of yourself- what you are, have been, or could be.  Toni Morrison states in her introduction to Bergman’s book “A Kind of Rapture,”

“There are no strangers, there are only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we protect ourselves from.”

Robert Bergman, Untitled, 1989There is, however, a danger that can come from this association. My second time visiting the exhibition, I found myself once again staring at one of my favorite pieces: a white woman, possibly in her mid 30’s with pockmarks on her face.  I was thrown off guard mid contemplation from hearing a passerby’s commentary on the work. The passerby divulged to his friend that she reminded him of a drug addict he had come in contact with in the past and stated that her expression was pathetic and helpless, one of a victim. I found myself angry at this man for saying such things about the woman in the portrait, whom I felt I knew almost as well as myself.  How could he be so wrong?  My interpretation of the piece was vastly different, as I found in the woman a look of sheer resolve and determination throughout hardship.  To me, she was not a victim but a survivor.  I didn’t understand why I was so enraged at his commentary at first and even contemplated correcting this man when I realized that his version of this stranger was equally as valid as mine.

Robert Bergman, Untitled, 1989What I had found myself guilty of doing was an “owning of the stranger,” as Toni Morrison calls it.  In order to connect with the stranger in the picture, I too closely identified my own emotions with hers. In order to make myself feel comfortable with her vulnerability, I had unknowingly labeled the woman and therefore discounted the possibility that her reality may be far different from what I had imagined.

This understanding brought me back to the initial feeling I had when first viewing these individuals in their seemingly naked state but for a far different reason. I had felt that the subjects were exposing so much of themselves to the viewers that they were almost exploited. I soon realized that I felt uncomfortable not because these strangers’ lives were on display but because of the fact that they were not. I was uneasy with the fact that I couldn’t completely figure these people out and therefore made my own assumptions in order to make myself feel at ease.  The portraits that I had thought were so exposed were in fact covered up in the anonymity that Bergman gave them.

Bergman’s portraits showcase everyday people revealing very extraordinary emotions. The individuals featured in the gallery are no different than those we see on a daily basis, and yet he fashions his pieces so that we are forced to look more deeply inside of them than we do with the average stranger.  One may find pieces of one’s own self in these strangers’ faces; however, the most revealing moment for me was in realizing that I didn’t know anything about them at all.

“Robert Bergman: Portraits, 1986-1995” will be on display through January 10th, 2010 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., while “Robert Bergman:Selected Portraits” will be on display through January 4th, 2010 at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York City.

  1. Johann Glansdorp permalink
    November 19, 2009 11:01 pm

    This is such an interesting article that it draws the reader into wanting to visit the exhibit.

  2. Guinnevee Velez permalink
    November 21, 2009 3:49 pm

    The writer had me completely captivated in the article and has sparked an interest in knowing more about Robert Bergman. I hope to view more writings from Mikhel Wirtanen.

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