Where We Live: Photographs Of America From The Berman Collection

by Matt Damsker


Share This

Share on facebookShare on twitterShare on linkedinShare on pinterestShare on tumblrShare via email

Published in conjunction with the recent exhibition of the same name at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. 227 pages; approximately 160 color plates. Getty Publications, 1200 Getty Center Dr., Suite 500, Los Angeles, CA 90049-1682. Information: http://www.getty.edu .

The more than 7,000 works of color photography amassed by Hollywood film executive Bruce Berman and his wife, Nancy, are certainly among the great art collections of the day--and not so much on the basis of quantity or dollar value as because of their wonderful thematic consistency. For more than 15 years, the Berman collection has brought together the output of the key photographers who have made Backyard America their great subject--and, in the process, the Bermans have constructed a remarkable photo-mosaic that somehow defines the American landscape of the last three decades, in all its random, hardscrabble, and somehow haunted splendor. With this recent exhibition, the Getty Museum paid tribute to the Bermans as benefactors, displaying an important cross-section of their holdings. As a result, this splendid exhibition publication affords a close look at some of the most evocative and influential color work of the '70s, '80s, '90s, and beyond.

There's no question that the figure at the center of this brand of available-light, color-saturated, seemingly flat-footed photography is William Eggleston, whose affectless 1970s photos of common objects and All-American banalities were true provocations to the established, black-and-white rule of fine-art photography. Eggleston's snapshots--a Maytag washing machine with a crewneck sweater drying on top of it, the fenders of junky cars, or a length of telephone cord and a vacuum cleaner hose tangled on a floor somewhere, anywhere, nowhere--suggested some great invisible context of American life, a life lived in suburbias, small towns, a life connected to the great engines of progress and prosperity, yet all the same removed from it and spiritually exhausted by it. Indeed, most of Eggleston's shots were all context, with no human subject matter (what humans there were in his photos seemed to be no more than products of their environment), and the notion emerged that all this forgettable substance that artists had never deemed worth capturing was, all the same, the substance of our lives. One doesn't necessarily like Eggleston's photography; it trades in recognition, not visual pleasure.

Since then, the spirit of Eggleston's breakthrough has survived in the work of many of the photographers collected by the Bermans. Doug Dubois's 1990 studies of his grandparents' house and the fading economy of his Pennsylvania small-town roots are drenched in colors that belie the grayness of the lives lived there. Mitch Epstein's shuttered row houses evoke Edward Hopper's painterly American Gothic, while his wonderful image of his father's battered briefcase on a bare mattress, or the clogged house-key board at his family's real estate business, suggest industriousness with not much payoff. The personal dimension of these photos is where they part ways with Eggleston's objectivity, but many of the other artists in the Berman collection--like Alex Harris--pick up on Eggleston's road-trip sensibility, focusing on weathered architecture, scabby lawns, kitschy domestic ornaments and the totemic presence of old American cars.

William Christenberry, on the other hand, turns an abandoned red building in a forest into an icon, while John Divola seeks out small structures and houses isolated in open spaces, and creates almost conceptual portraits of human endeavor striving for order in the void, while Sheron Rupp and Rhea Garen explore gardens and dense foliage intersecting with domesticity. And David Husom focuses on great barn-like fairground buildings that are immensely empty. The diversity sprawls--Joel Sternfeld's agricultural vistas and rural facades, Adam Bartos's shots of families and friends idling away at state parks in New York, Camilo Jose Vergara's full-frontal shots of tiny, idiosyncratic churches, Karen Halvorson's dreamscape panorama of Mullholland Drive above Los Angeles--but the connecting thread is the palpable sense of America being itself, and of the rich color that flares, surprisingly, from its odd corners and mostly unsung spaces.

An interesting adjunct to this grand Getty compilation is the catalogue of "Selected Photographs from the collection of Bruce and Nancy Berman," a recent exhibition curated by Rose Shoshana at her RoseGallery in Santa Monica, California. The catalogue focuses on the photos that hang in the various offices and corridors of Bruce Berman's corporate headquarters, Village Roadshow Pictures, in Burbank, and features some classic black-and-white images from the lobby, including photos by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Weegee and Robert Frank, as well as some vintage Mike Disfarmer portraits (from Bruce's office), along with many of the color images that largely define the Berman collection. Published by Lea Russo and Associates; phone: 310-396-6474; email: lea.russo@verizon.net .

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.