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Book Review: Phil Bergerson: A Retrospective

Untitled, Le Mars, IA, 2007

Canadian photographer and educator Phil Bergerson (b. 1947, Toronto) “found his calling as a photographer in the American social and cultural landscape” in the late 1980s while on a sabbatical from teaching at Ryerson University. “The focus of his work ever since has been the signs, display windows, hand-painted murals and graffiti found in cities and towns throughout the United States,” says the press release and the photographs in this beautifully done tome give testimony of a rich variety of cultural expressions. To my Swiss eyes the creativity displayed looks weird, funny, sad, pathetic, joyous, uplifting – touching expressions of the childlike human nature.

Needless to say, one has to have an especially good eye in order to see what Phil Bergerson saw and documented. Differently put: Not only his outsider view makes him see what many probably don’t, his attitude (“empathetic neighbour”) is equally important. Yet what, in my view, has to be applauded above all is the ingenuity of the folks who came up with all these fascinating and strange things that he photographed.

Untitled, Riviera, TX, 2006

“This book tells the story of Phil Bergerson’s many photographic journeys. Most were taken by car, some with the specific purpose of making photographs, others sparked by his complementary obsessions: an intense curiosity about the world and a penchant to ask questions that, to put it mildly, could not be easily answered,” writes Robert Burley in his foreword. Among these questions is also the fabulous “What On Earth Are You Doing?” which, in my case, leads to quite some other questions, and prominently among them: “Generally speaking or right now?”

The first part of the book features a very detailed illustrated essay by Peter Higdon that addresses Bergerson’s student days, early teaching and organising years at Ryerson University as well as his various photographic projects from 1967 to 1989. For somebody like me, who’s not exactly a believer in institutional learning (besides: I hardly recall anything from my school days), the importance the author attributes to academic learning and teaching I thought somewhat bewildering.

Untitled, San Marcos, TX, 2006

In the second part of the book, Don Snyder contributes an extensive analysis of Bergerson’s photographs of America. Going through an archive that spans nearly three decades it is almost inevitable to ask whether the photographs are somehow linked, whether patterns can be detected, “As he (Bergerson) reflected, he began to articulate how these images gradually became linked in his mind, and ultimately coalesced into what he came to realize was an entirely new style.”

Only in hindsight, it seems to me, are we really able to understand what we are doing. Yet there is a danger that our imagination sometimes may go overboard. I at least found it a bit far-fetched to compare Bergerson’s American journeys to de Tocqueville, Thoreau and Twain. “On all of his trips Bergerson brought with him the intriguing blend of de Tocqueville’s curiosity about American politics and culture, Thoreau’s search to understand the true motivation of his fellow beings, and Twain’s quick eye and deadpan wit.”

There’s lots to be discovered when spending time with this tome not least because looking at a photograph often conjures up many other images in our heads not necessarily related to the one before our eyes. Nevertheless, there are links, always – whether we are aware of them or not. In the afterword of this retrospective, Phil Bergerson, writes: “Nathan Lyons taught me that sequences were like living, breathing things with different elements whispering to each other back and forth about new connections as you move through them. Suddenly on the third or forth reading of the sequence, the fifth picture might give renewed insight into the meaning of an earlier or later image.” Very true yet we should not forget that nothing has meaning per se, to bestow meaning on something is a choice.

PS: The cover alone is worth this book!


Phil Bergerson: A Retrospective
Foreword by Robert Burley
Essays by Don Snyder and Peter Higdon
Daylight, May 2020

https://daylightbooks.org/products/phil-bergerson-a-retrospective


Also published on Medium.


About Hans Durrer

Hans Durrer is an author and addiction counsellor based in Switzerland. www.hansdurrer.com/, 12-step-addiction-treatment.blogspot.ch/. Two of his books are in English: Ways of Perception, Bangkok 2006; Framing the World, Houston 2011.

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