By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 23, 2009
The 30 unidentified faces in "Robert Bergman: Portraits, 1986-1995" tell no tales. They are not even, strictly speaking, all faces. One photograph focuses on a man's hand, gaudy rings and tattered, fingerless red gloves -- his face a blur in the background. Another cuts off its subject's head entirely. It's all body language: a figure pressed into an urban doorway, as if hunted .
The pictures don't give up much in the way of biography. Shot in city streets -- where Bergman would befriend, and then disarm, total strangers before talking them into sitting for his camera -- each person is utterly anonymous. Sometimes it's hard to tell a subject's age or sex. One or two might be cross-dressers. Others seem prematurely ravaged by disease, drugs or alcohol. A few look ancient but almost certainly aren't. Only a handful are good-looking, young and healthy, though several are children.
What, then, is revealed when we look at them?
By stripping away almost all narrative context, Bergman invites us to search for something other than the trappings of his subjects' lives. (Though homelessness is an all-too-apparent subtext of the show.) Something in the eye between fear and hope, between fragility and resolve, something approaching, in many cases, a kind of transcendence. It's no stretch that the 1998 book of photos from this series is called "A Kind of Rapture."
In the end, it isn't so much a question of what we see as what we feel. Bergman's portraits are about the agony and the ecstasy of other people's lives, but it is the viewer who aches from their bruised beauty.
Robert Bergman: Portraits, 1986-1995 Through Jan. 10 at the National Gallery of Art, West Building, Constitution Avenue at Sixth Street NW (Metro: Archives). 202-737-4215 (TDD: 202-842-6176). http://www.nga.gov. Hours: Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission: Free Program: On Nov. 1 at 2 p.m., Toni Morrison will read "The Fisherwoman," her introductory essay to "A Kind of Rapture," Bergman's 1998 book of the photographs. East Building Auditorium.