Robert Bergman, Emerging From The Darkroom The artist-photographer has never exhibited and has published just one book. Now his striking, enigmatic portraits are being celebrated in not one but two major exhibitions. As NPR's Claire O'Neill explains, it's Bergman's patience and his perfectionism that have caught the eye of curators.
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Robert Bergman, Emerging From The Darkroom

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Robert Bergman, Emerging From The Darkroom

Robert Bergman, Emerging From The Darkroom

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Robert Bergman has been taking photographs for nearly six decades. Curators have been well aware of his work, but he's never had a solo show until now. And the show is not just anywhere, it's at the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, D.C.

NPR's Claire O'Neill met up with the mysterious Robert Bergman.

Mr. ROBERT BERGMAN (Artist-Photographer): I like pictures of people.

CLAIRE O'NEILL: Meet Robert Bergman. He's an artist-photographer with glasses and white, wavy hair. And until recently, he's been almost completely off the radar - no exhibitions, very few reviews, one book published back in 1998. But now...

Mr. BERGMAN: I am springing out of the head of Zeus like Athena.

O'NEILL: In other words, he's finally showing his work. According to Sarah Greenough, the exhibition curator, it's well-deserved.

Ms. SARAH GREENOUGH (Exhibition Curator, National Gallery of Art): What's really extraordinary about Bob's photographs is the way he presents people.

O'NEILL: He's photographed a lot of them, starting in New Orleans at the ripe, young age of 6.

Mr. BERGMAN: Scopophilia was encouraged in my family. My father was an eye doctor. He brought home microscopes, telescopes, cameras - and yeah, I loved taking pictures.

O'NEILL: His photos, something along the lines of street photography, color portraiture, but it gets more complicated.

Mr. BERGMAN: It wasn't exploring the putative differentia of the media... circumlocutory way of saying that my, what one might call the discourse is chained to the academic deconstructivist theory... modus operandi and conceptualism... reacting to the cumulative effect of sequencing.

O'NEILL: Yeah, so let's break it down, after all, how complicated can portraits really be? Maybe Sarah Greenough can explain what Bergman's photography is all about.

Ms. GREENOUGH: Bob does something very different. He's not catching people unaware as so many other street photographers are. Instead, he finds an individual who he thinks has an interesting face, asks them if he can make their picture, and then, gives that person time to compose themselves.

O'NEILL: But this kind of photography, those intimate and close-up street portraits, can sometimes be cliched or even moralizing. Photos of the disadvantaged that just make us feel guilty and helpless. And at first glance, Bergman's photos may not seem that different: an emaciated man looks pensively to the side, an old woman with frizzy gray hair stares directly at the lens, directly at you. These photos all have something in common, and it seems to be the usual commentary on class.

Mr. BERGMAN: You're wrong. There's a housewife, there are three artists, there's two actors, there's the son of a millionaire and the granddaughter of a billionaire.

O'NEILL: But you can't tell who's who and Bergman won't say. He makes a point of including very little information in his photos - no captions, no titles, no names. He doesn't even include the scene. They're tightly centered around the face. And that's what makes them slightly uncomfortable, because they're the life-size faces of people that most of us usually overlook, or think we have all figured out.

Mr. BERGMAN: I would say that anytime we meet a person is impossible for us to not somehow figure out what they're about. We start doing that instinctively. Remember, I'm dumbing this down because you asked me to dumb it down. We figure them out by projecting our own fantasies on them. That's called stereotyping or typologizing. We sentimentalize them even if we think we're glorifying them.

O'NEILL: And so ultimately, his photos are just about looking at people, really, really, looking. That's why he won't give any information, because his camera is something like a grand equalizer.

Ms. GREENOUGH: The end result is that the people sort of seem to reveal their own humanity in front of the camera.

O'NEILL: Says Sarah Greenough, the exhibition curator. So to put it simply, it's about people recognizing one another.

Mr. BERGMAN: Well, it's about art. I'm an artist. I'm not a social scientist. I'm not a do-gooder. I'm not a documentarian. I'm not a journalist.

Ms. GREENOUGH: He's an absolute perfectionist.

O'NEILL: And maybe that's what makes these photos worthy of an exhibition after all these years. That ultimately, they're so artfully crafted. Greenough explains.

Ms. GREENOUGH: He's just got this extraordinary understanding of color and composition and merging the two together. They are inkjet prints. But to call them inkjet prints greatly belies the amazing complexity of how he creates these prints. And you should ask him to explain it because I couldn't try to do it.

O'NEILL: Complexity of inkjets? Like that little cartridge in my printer?

Mr. BERGMAN: Multiple impression inkjets with various isolation coats of chemicals used to intensify the colors, some of them with three days of hand-applied microcrystalline waxes. Five people working for two and a half years made those prints.

O'NEILL: His printing process is one of a kind. He basically invented it, which shows that he's not only a perfectionist, but also very, very patient. He waited over a year for Toni Morrison to agree to write the introduction of his book, "A Kind of Rapture," and he waited six decades for this exhibition.

Mr. BERGMAN: So I've learned in life that waiting pays.

O'NEILL: That's a simple lesson. And for all the fancy jargon, there's another one at the heart of Bergman's work.

Mr. BERGMAN: I like pictures of people.

O'NEILL: So watch out, art world, because Robert Bergman is finally making his way onto the scene. Like Athena, jumping out of Zeus' head?

Mr. BERGMAN: That was maybe too abstruse for the radio.

O'NEILL: Claire O'Neill, NPR News, Washington.

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