January 15th, 2019
Wanting to be Held
What can Robert Bergman teach us about the act of seeing?
By Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa
Twenty-one years ago, Robert Bergman published the classic photobook A Kind of Rapture. The book’s title is a quotation from Toni Morrison’s introduction, entitled “The Fisherwoman,” and it encapsulates the alternating currents of sublimity and seizure that define the extraordinary strengths of Bergman’s work. A Kind of Rapture consists of two short essays—the first by Morrison, the second by art historian Meyer Schapiro—and fifty-two closely cropped portraits of fifty-one unnamed Americans made in the twelve years between 1985 and 1996. Each image is crafted from sonorous, deeply congruent shades of color—color that regulates the compositional structure of each portrait so that figures emerge in a thickened, dimensional solidity that roots them in the wider setting that the pictures fractionally describe. With one or two exceptions, the portraits are illuminated by softened, diffuse, and indirect light that tempers the spartan austerity of the framing, so that the stark silhouetting of the figure is suffused by the mellifluous movement of graduated hues and shades.
These qualities combine to describe a series of varied, startlingly immediate faces possessed of a vivid, careworn beauty, which is proffered in knowing and proximate relation to the photographic surface that both divides and conjoins us to one another in complex reciprocity. The absence, within the book, of any identifying information pertaining to the people or places described in the portraits leaves me adrift in the uncertainty of an encounter in which I am looked upon with acuity, with sagacity, or with tensed circumspection—in which I am named as a subject by the intense and irreducible presence of an unknown Other, and yet asked nothing in return. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas describes this experience in his essay “Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity,” when he writes that “in his face, the other appears to me not as an obstacle, not as a menace I evaluate, but as what measures me.”
In this dynamic of being seen while seeing another, John Berger writes that our vision is continually “constituting what is present to us as we are,” reminding us in Ways of Seeing that the “eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world.” Thus, looking at Bergman’s portraits means entering into reciprocal visibility—the portraits make it impossible not to be conscious of our own habits of looking as we engage the people they describe. Leo Steinberg, writing in his 1960 essay “Contemporary Art and the Plight of Its Public,” described this experience in spatial terms, noting that “as soon as you recognize a thing as a face, it is an object no longer, but one pole in a situation of reciprocal consciousness; it has, like one’s own face, absolute ‘Hereness.’” The polarities of a shared world emerge when we experience the reciprocal recognition of a consciousness as present to us as our own mind is to ourselves. We are bonded to the presence of the Other in a form of recognition that cannot be reduced to a meeting of the eyes—we are bonded to a place of shared relation by this fact, and such proximity can “summon a ripple of alarm,” to quote Morrison in “The Fisherwoman.” But I think that it is precisely here, in this reciprocal conjuncture, that rapture plays its part in Bergman’s portraits.
Take the weathered features of a middle-aged white man in one of Bergman’s untitled images. He seems to be seated in front of a wood-paneled wall painted in burnished tones of russet gold, his powder-blue shirt splayed open at the neck to reveal the slender outlines of his collarbones. He is close to the surface of the lens, and thus close to the surface of the frame in which his image is distilled. He lies on the page beneath the thickening glimmer of a delicate varnished coating, the hints of orange flecks in the skin at the base of his throat seeming to draw his chest backward into resonant proximity with the wooden wall behind, the soft flush of salmon pink in his face seeming to rise with the pale hue of his shirt like an inhalation of light ascending from the frame line, and pointing up the faint reflection of a blue window mirrored in his right eye. The wavy blurred creases of his shirt echo the worn lines of his face and the elegant swirl of his thick dark black hair, which is tendrilled faintly by streaks of white.
The confluence of all these elements seems to move, or rather to wend around and toward and away from his face. The right side of his face seems to be shaped by a wordless question that creases his brow and draws his rapt attention outward away from the lens and beyond the frame. The left side of his face is warped by the heavy swollen distension of flesh that bows the clean lines of his brow, marking his left eye with a sense of grim or implacable resolve. A trick of the light makes one eye a darker brown hue than the other, just as the play of contrasts in the thickness of his flesh seems to make of his visage a tale of two irreconcilable halves.
But in the portrait, his lassitude cannot be conclusively divided from deep meditation, nor his nobility from weariness, nor his beauty from damage and aging. The starkness of the frame and the sinuousness of its parts produce a kind of seizure that is also a caress, so that I am drawn into abrupt, sensuous, and wordless proximity with this man—so that I am simultaneously transported and held. I want to work out how to respond to the mystery of this stranger without seeking to reduce him to some manageable position on a calibrated index of difference from which I might separate myself. What I learn to want, in looking at this image, is to be unbound by it, to be decentered by it as I look on in permanent irresolution, so that through this encounter I am compelled to remain open to an inassimilable difference.
At the root of the word rapture, within the diametrically opposing valences of the term rapt, are resonances of spiritual exaltation—what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “the expression of ecstatic feeling”—and also of abduction, violation, and rape, derived from the Latin term raptura, which describes the “act or power of carrying forcibly away.” Bergman’s portraits are defined by their simultaneous articulation of such seemingly contradictory meanings. In them, woundedness and beauty cannot be opposed, nor can the impulse to control be separated from a fear of being subject to the gaze of the Other. That gaze is not reducible to something purely retinal; it does not depend upon an encounter between two sets of eyes, but rather on the disruptive intensity of the presence of someone other than ourselves, and on their capacity to make themselves irreducibly and unmanageably present to us through these radiant images, and thus to disorder our sovereign centrality within the world.
If we are to remain open as we look at Bergman’s portraits, we will have to occupy a liminal position between holding and being held, between beholding and being beheld. In that reciprocal conjuncture, we are confronted not merely by what we do not yet know of one another, but more pressingly by the question of what we owe to one another. The excellence of Bergman’s work is registered by the clarity with which this quandary is formulated in his portraits: what are we to do in the face of the Other? Bergman’s pictures deny us any access to the raptures of their formal beauty that might be severed from the all too injurious work of surviving the ravenous world that we presently, and unevenly, share. Rather, their beauty is indivisible from the fundamental ethical challenges that we all face: their aesthetics are an ethics.
Between the chromatic fullness of the pictures and their formal restraint, there is a kind of precision and an overflowing—a visceral transgression of the two-dimensional threshold of the photographic image. I think that this has to do with love, a seemingly outmoded and nevertheless vital term. Simply put, in our openness to these images we must be willing to be undone by them, just as our openness in love fucks us up. We must be willing to be uncertain in their presence, naked under their gaze—willing, finally, to meet them there at the surface, “at the property line,” as Morrison writes, where we might learn to relinquish possessive instincts, learn not to hold but to be beheld.
Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa is a photographer and a writer. His debut monograph, One Wall a Web, was published by ROMA Publications in 2018, and his forthcoming volume of selected essays is due out from MACK in 2020.