Every now and then, the art world offers up an unlikely story, and Robert Bergman's is one of them. The 65-year-old photographer went his own way over the past four decades, never selling a work until two years ago, but he nevertheless is about to burst onto the scene with two museum exhibitions this month. One is at the prestigious, conservative National Gallery of Art in Washington. The other is at P.S.1 in Queens, the adventurous branch of the Museum of Modern Art. And next month he will have his first show at a commercial gallery, Yossi Milo in Chelsea.
© Robert Bergman, Courtesy National Gallery of Art
Finally, and separately, Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery, and Phong Bui, a curatorial adviser at P.S.1, decided to give Mr. Bergman shows. The works that will go on display later this month were shot from the mid-1980s to about 1996. They are intense, soul-stirring, intimate color portraits, all untitled, all unlabeled as to place or person: There's just a date and a few technical details. Stripped of information, the viewer is forced to consider the human condition.
Mr. Bergman won't explain his art: "It's visual," he says. "I don't need to talk about it." But he does tell the story of a subject in the Bronx who asked him where he was from. When Mr. Bergman said "Minnesota," the man said, "You come all this way only to see yourself."
The pictures are wonders, sharp, beautifully lit, with a background that can look staged. It's not, and the lighting is natural. Mr. Bergman shoots with a 35-millimeter Nikon camera, always asking permission of his chosen people, but never posing them. He does the moving around, somehow managing in the viewfinder to fuse face and setting. For any given person, he says, there are "only a few shutter releases," though he has taken "thousands of bad pictures that are not up to what I want to say."
The method requires patience, and Mr. Bergman likes to describe himself overall as "the man who waited." For what? For a chance to have acceptance and acknowledgement on his terms.
The 45-year wait began when he dropped out of the University of Minnesota at 20 and "turned away from the intellect toward art." Mr. Bergman picked up an 8-by-10-inch format camera and started shooting, using his mother's laundry room as a darkroom. One day, in 1966, a friend showed him a book that changed his life—Robert Frank's "The Americans." As soon as he saw Frank's empathetic pictures of ordinary people, he purchased a Nikon 35mm.
It wasn't that Mr. Bergman imitated Mr. Frank. Rather, he says, "what was so breathtaking about Frank was that his work proved that the main thing one needed was a personal vision, and the main thing one needed to serve that vision was intuition and feeling."
These early photographs (a few appear in the P.S.1 catalog) show Mr. Bergman's talent for poetic images, for composition and for, well, art. But they did not earn him a living. John Szarkowski, MoMA's director of photography from 1962 to 1991 and the single most important arbiter of the medium, was spouting a different gospel. He championed documentary photographers like Diane Arbus and movements like formalism, an emphasis on the structure of works. More recently, tastes have spawned conceptual works that fabricate reality, blank-stare portraits, and pictures that glamorize subcultures. Little of this interests Mr. Bergman.
Isolated from the photography world, Mr. Bergman studied books about painting, moved most by Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. He survived on odd jobs like lawn care, plus some money from his mother, drifting among the homes of friends and rooming houses in Minneapolis. He tried "a little medical research" early on, and once went to an employment agency. "They told me that I didn't fit the work world."
Little wonder that, from about 1976 to 1985, Mr. Bergman no longer even tried to show his work to curators. Then, in 1985, he put a roll of color film into the Nikon. "Something happened," he says. "I decided to make these portraits of people."
Mr. Bergman started by walking around Minneapolis, just turning corners. "I moved slowly, and stopped people, and I'd say 'may I take your picture?' Now, because I had studied paintings, I looked through the viewfinder and Rothkos would appear"—ideally. "The person, shapes, forms, colors and light—all had to be right. Also the costume, the background—all the formal and human elements had to come together," he explains. Soon, he was on the road, with a friend driving. If Mr. Bergman saw someone he liked, he'd cry "stop" and jump out, Nikon in hand. This went on for about 12 years: Every spring and summer, Mr. Bergman edged east, stopping over at places such as Chicago, Detroit, Gary, Ind., Cleveland, Cincinnati and Youngstown, Ohio, and New York. During fall and winter, he was back in Minneapolis, processing and printing.
Soon after he began the portrait series, again at the urging of friends—who were still supporting him, along with "varying amounts of patronage"—he started to let curators of photography see his work. Again, no exhibits materialized. So instead, Mr. Bergman says, "I decided to show it to people who can see, people with an eye." He approached Meyer Schapiro, the brilliant critic, art historian and teacher who, though then in his 80s (he died in 1996) and retired from Columbia University, picked up his own phone there. Mr. Bergman told Schapiro that he wouldn't expect him to write or utter a word about his work—that he would feel better knowing just that someone with his eye had seen a few of his prints. Schapiro agreed.
Mr. Bergman was devastated when his FedEx package to Schapiro "came back almost immediately." But inside, he says, he found a "glowing letter" inviting him to show Schapiro more of his work and to visit. Emboldened, Mr. Bergman approached others whose eye he admired. In 1990, for example, John Russell, then chief art critic of the New York Times, provided an admiring quote that Mr. Bergman used to raise money to keep working.
Schapiro eventually provided an afterword for Mr. Bergman's book, "A Kind of Rapture," which was published two years after Schapiro died. Schapiro called the portraits "truly profound," "masterful revelations" and "a new and moving experience of photography as art" that reminded him of "the greatest painted portraits."
Mr. Bergman had one more person to wait for. He wanted Toni Morrison, whose writing he deeply admires, to see and write about his work. She told him no, looked, relented, then asked him to wait until she finished her own novel before providing an introduction for his book.
"A Kind of Rapture" was favorably reviewed, and in 2002 Mr. Bergman tried to enter the commercial art world. "I needed a gallery," he says. Still, none were interested—even though Agnes Gund, president emerita of MoMA and one the country's biggest collectors (she had bought the only two works Mr. Bergman had ever sold by that point), wrote to a few on his behalf.
It fell to the museum curators organizing his exhibits to catapult Mr. Bergman into the art world. Ms. Greenough began to visit Mr. Bergman in the mid-1990s; Mr. Bui saw his work through Schapiro in the early 1990s. Both have been quiet backers ever since. As for Mr. Bergman, he says he never doubted his work, but he did wonder many times if it would ever be known. He still has no confidence that it will "enter art history," and adds, "this is my coming-out party."