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From The Head Of Zeus To The National Gallery Of Art

As recently as last month, reading material on photographer Robert Bergman was really scarce. There were a few reviews of his 1998 book, A Kind of Rapture, floating around, but that's about it. So it was hard to figure out why, after nearly 60 years as a photographer, he is just now exhibiting his work — and not just anywhere, but at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
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The opening of this exhibition last month, succinctly titled "Portraits, 1986—1995," yielded an explosion of material about Bergman. We now know that he was born in New Orleans, the son of an eye doctor; began photographing at a very young age; and has read pretty much every philosophy book under the sun — or so it seems. But the questions still remain: Why has he been off the radar for so long, and what makes his photos special?

At first glance, Bergman might be easily labeled a street photographer. The people in his photos seem to be ordinary folks in ordinary environments doing ordinary things. And yet the more time you spend with them, the more they come to life.

For one, Bergman includes no information with his photos — no captions, no titles, no names. These people are total strangers ... but they're presented in such an intimate manner — tightly cropped around the face, eyes piercing through the lens — that they somehow seem familiar. At the museum, the portraits are life-sized — they loom and they disconcert. These are the people we pass every day on the street but never really look at. And here they are, staring at us.

It's easy to assume that these portraits, like a lot of those in street photography, represent a certain demographic — and that there just might be an agenda behind it. But according to Bergman, "There's a housewife, there are three artists, there are two actors, an affluent owner of a bar, there's the son of a millionaire and the granddaughter of a billionaire." So much for stereotypes. His agenda, if he even has one, is simply to see people artfully.

Most of all, credit is owed to Bergman for technique. He has an unusual command of light, using only what's available — from the hanging sun at dusk to eerie neon street lights. His personal printing process is both elaborate and time-intensive. And this particularity is precisely why we're only just now hearing about him: Bergman waited a lifetime for what he felt was the right moment to reveal his work. He waited for a book deal, waited a year for Toni Morrison to agree to write the introduction and waited 14 years for this particular exhibition to come together. A patient man, he's now "springing out of the head of Zeus like Athena," or in other words, bursting onto the scene. His work will be met with mixed reviews, but according to Bergman, "waiting pays."

His work is also on display at P.S.1, the Museum of Modern Art's Contemporary Art Center in New York City, where it will be up through January. It remains at the National Gallery through January as well. Tell us what you think. Worth the wait? Do you see familiar strangers?

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