Photographer Robert Bergman's Show Opens at the National Gallery of Art

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Robert Bergman is standing in the National Gallery of Art, where for years he has wanted his photographs to hang. Surrounding him are dozens of pairs of eyes staring out from mesmerizing portraits he's taken, each with its own ideas of this space. He is 65, good-looking, trim and spirited, with curly white hair and thin silver-rimmed glasses, dressed in art-gallery black.

And at this moment he is looking at a gaunt face that bears a striking resemblance to Abraham Lincoln's. Bergman doesn't give any hint of what he found intriguing about this man he photographed, or who he is, or where the picture was taken.

It's part of the Bergman creed: no titles for the photographs, no identification of the subject, no information on the location. Just the year, just the close-up.

"It is my aesthetic stance. I don't want you to have any escape from simply reacting to the art," Bergman says, dancing slightly in his black nubuck shoes. "Telling the location sets up false assumptions. It undercuts your ability to understand and interact with the art. It subverts what I am trying to do."

What Bergman has attempted to do for decades is somehow gain recognition for his art. He achieves that this month with an artistic double whammy. His first solo show ever, "Robert Bergman: Portraits, 1986-1995," opened Sunday at the National Gallery. That will be followed later this month by a retrospective at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, the hip outpost of the Museum of Modern Art in Queens, N.Y.

"I am deeply gratified. This is a show that has been gestating for 14 years," Bergman says of the National Gallery exhibition, pointing to the time in 1995 when he met Sarah Greenough, the head of the museum's photography department. "I have learned patience because I wanted to be here. I also don't compromise. I thought the National Gallery is where I should start."

Part of the reason for Bergman's rocky road is that he's an anti-celebrity in an art world that worships self-promotion. He forbids others to take his own photograph, for instance; if he didn't, his accidental subjects might learn to recognize him and that might break the spell of a shadow cameraman bringing fringe subjects into the light.

"When I first saw his photos, I was actually kind of amazed by the strength of the images and the extraordinary use of color. It's beautiful and saturated," Greenough says. "In addition, I admired his ability to put his subjects totally at ease and to capture them with these introspective feelings on their faces."

Bergman was born in New Orleans; his father was a doctor and his mother a local Shakespearean actress. His mother took her two sons to Minneapolis after his father's death. One photo, taken by a young Bergman of his grieving mother and younger brother relaxing on a Pullman car, is included in the P.S.1 catalogue. He continued to take photos before dropping out of the University of Minnesota, at age 20, to pursue "being a genius."

But photography was all he could think of after he encountered the work of Robert Frank, especially his seminal photographic take on common people in "The Americans." Bergman stopped using an 8-by-10 inch format camera, picked up a Nikon 35mm and has stuck with it. Ordinary people, those whose hardships were very evident in their faces, hands and posture, became his passion. Frank had shown him one core purpose, he says: "The artist had to have a personal vision through feeling and intuition."

The photographer set out first to find interesting faces, capturing pain, deep thought and marginal states, initially in black and white, and in color since the mid-1980s. He chose people from the streets in Minnesota, New York and other American byways.

"I kept wanting to be an artist, and people who want to be an artist can have tough times," he says, turning to look at his work. "And this is not fashionable."

During most of Bergman's active years, the Museum of Modern Art in New York was the chief arbiter of what mattered in the world of photography. "I had a general struggle. Most of the time only MoMA had the power to get work recognized. My work was not interesting to them," he says. "You were in, or you were out.

"I suffered a lot from not compromising, both financially and emotionally. I had periods of isolation, periods of self-isolation and rejection."

Until now, the breakthrough moment in his career has been the endorsement of his work by Toni Morrison, the Nobel laureate and superstar of American literature. He had asked her to write an essay for a planned book; her office at first turned down the request. He waited, certain "there was this connection," and she finally agreed to visit his workplace in New York. The result of this collaboration was "A Kind of Rapture," a 1998 portfolio of his work with an introduction by Morrison and an afterword by the late art historian Meyer Schapiro.

Morrison wrote: "In all its burnished majesty his gallery refuses us unearned solace and one by one by one each photograph unveils us . . . asserting a beauty, a kind of rapture, that is as close as can be to a master template of the singularity, the community, the unextinguishable sacredness of the human race." Morrison is making a special trip to Washington to talk about her friend at the gallery on Nov. 1.

With the book's publication, the critics found Bergman, and some were not so complimentary.

"If something seems odd to them, it doesn't faze me. One of them said they all look like they need dental work," says Bergman, laughing and pulling back his own lower lip to show some uneven teeth.

An anonymous donor gave the National Gallery some Bergman prints in 2006 and plans were developed for an exhibition. "Other curators have wanted to do shows, but he has been very reluctant to part with the work. The prints are painstakingly constructed and he is very protective of them," Greenough says.

As he walks among the eyes of his work, Bergman stands by a 1989 portrait of a thin man in a striped shirt. He could be in the Caribbean, or maybe Greenwich Village. Whatever you do, don't ask Bergman.

"There is also a moral dimension" to this, he says. "I did ask permission to take their pictures, but not to tell their stories. And I don't want to subvert your reaction," he says. "I'm looking for work with color, form, surface and intuition. I'm looking for rhythms, spatial dimensions, form and feeling," and for the viewer to fill in the blank slate.

Robert Bergman: Portraits, 1986-1995 runs through Jan. 10 at the National Gallery of Art, Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue NW, 202-737-4215,

© 2009 The Washington Post Company