America Through the Eyes of Phil Bergerson

by Photo Life

Featured image: Untitled, New York, NY, 2018 © Phil Bergerson

Phil Bergerson: A Retrospective
Hardcover with dust jacket
13 x 10 ½ | 219 pp
140 colour photographs
US $50.00 | CAN $64.99
ISBN: 9781942084785
Daylight, May 2020

Untitled, Oklahoma City, OK, 2016

Phil Bergerson: A Retrospective (Daylight, May 2020) is a survey of the illustrious 50-year career of Canadian photographer and educator Phil Bergerson (b. 1947, Toronto, Canada) which began in the 1970s with his exploration of performance art, drawing, painting and printmaking, before embracing photography exclusively. His early imagery includes an investigation of vernacular photography by manipulating found family snapshots to imbue them with new meanings, and the creation of grid-based works presenting multiple images that comment on the excesses of consumer culture.

In the late 1980s while on a sabbatical from teaching at Ryerson University, Bergerson found his calling as a photographer in the American social and cultural landscape. 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 made by various people for a variety of personal, political or commercial reasons. Bergerson’s unique vantage point in making these images of America’s social fabric has always been that of the “empathetic neighbour.”

Untitled, Le Mars, IA, 2007

Bergerson’s American work dominates the second half of the book which covers his 25-year photographic odyssey searching for remnants of a recent, yet bygone era in America that he documents through meticulously composed photographs that demonstrate his masterful use of color and light, and engaging sense of humor. Bergerson has described his photographs as poetic statements full of irony and pathos that ” … collectively capture what I as a Canadian see and feel about America. It is a personal view that does not attempt to be all inclusive but strives instead to be meaningfully expressive about those things discovered throughout my journeys.”

“… Bergerson finds his material amid the melancholic detritus of the urban fabric: in modest store window displays, hand-painted murals, graffiti, and crudely made signs. A chaotic urban landscape emerges, one engendered by unmoored dreams, raw desires, simmering fears, commercial fantasies, rampant patriotism, and smoldering violence.” — David Harris, Independent Curator, Photography Historian, Professor Emeritus, Ryerson University, author of Eugène Atget: Unknown Paris

Phil Bergerson: A Retrospective is supported by insightful texts by writer and teacher Don Snyder and Peter Higdon, the Founding Collections Curator at Ryerson Image Centre, Ryerson University; and Robert Burley, an internationally exhibiting photographer. The book’s first section features a foreword by Burley, and an extensive illustrated essay by Higdon that addresses Bergerson’s student days, early teaching and organizing years at Ryerson University, and his various early photographic projects (1967-1989). In the book’s second part, Snyder contributes an extensive analysis of Bergerson’s photographs of America.

Higdon writes about Bergerson’s journeys across America that ignited his fascination: “At each border crossing, he had been struck by signs, both literal and figurative, of a culture radically different from his own. Billboards loudly advertising the services of personal injury lawyers, a relentless profusion of roadside signs for products and services, and abandoned buildings deteriorating in the landscape were all emblematic of a shift in place and attitude that challenged the Canadian restraint and order he was used to. It was precisely these characteristics that led Bergerson to consider that he might be focusing on the wrong country, and that he was more likely to find a rich vein of ironic expression in the urban landscape of his sprawling, extroverted neighbour to the south.”

In his artist statement, Bergerson writes: “Drawing from the tradition of sequence construction developed by photographers such as Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Nathan Lyons, I constructed the poetic fragments into an ensemble that could collectively express something genuine and meaningful about the mysteries of this complex nation. What I hope for in response to my work was summed up by Robert Frank, ‘When people look at my pictures, I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.'”

About Phil Bergerson
Phil Bergerson was born in 1947 in Toronto, where he currently lives and works. Bergerson has been photographing and exhibiting internationally for over 45 years. His work can be found in many significant public and private collections, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, the Harry Ransom Center, Austin, and the Creative Center for Photography, Tucson. He has been awarded several Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council grants and his photographs have been published in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine as well as in Toronto Life and Walrus. His critically acclaimed book, Shards of America was published in 2004 by New York’s Quantuck Lane Press. Now Professor Emeritus, Bergerson taught photography at Ryerson University from 1975 until his retirement in 2005. There he received many awards including the prestigious Sahota Award for excellence in teaching and creative research. His influential organizational achievements include the establishment of the annual international “Kodak Lecture Series”, a National Conference on Photography in Canada, (“Canadian Perspectives”), and the first International Symposium on Photographic Theory. He also established and directed several photographic study trips to Europe and Asia. In 2014, his book American Artifacts was published by BlackDog Press, London, England, with essays by Margaret Atwood and Nathan Lyons. It was launched at the RIC’s opening of Bergerson’s 2014 exhibition “Emblems and Remnants of the American Dream”. Phil Bergerson is represented by Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto.

About the Contributors
Don Snyder studied photography with Walker Evans at Yale University and with Minor White in the graduate program at MIT. Before joining Ryerson University’s faculty, he held an appointment as the first Curator of Photography at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, .Massachusetts, where he established the gallery’s photography exhibition program. He has written on photographic history and criticism for a number of periodicals, has edited four books, curated more than sixty exhibitions in Canada and the U.S., and held appointments at SUNY Buffalo and Bennington College. At Ryerson, he established the Ryerson Gallery at 80 Spadina, an exhibition space in the downtown arts district, and was instrumental in the founding of Function, the school’s annual publication of student work, essays, and interviews. Between 2005 and 2010, he served as the Chair of Ryerson’s School of Image Arts. He also taught in Ryerson’s graduate programs in Communication and Culture, Photographic Preservation and Collections Management, and the Documentary Media MFA program. His selected writings can be viewed at www.imagearts.ryerson.ca/dsnyder.

Peter Higdon studied photography with David Heath and art history with Ian Wallace. He was the Founding Collections Curator of the Ryerson Image Centre, (RIC), Ryerson University. Over a period of thirty-six years, he drove the expansion of its photographs collection through numerous acquisitions, among them the Black Star Collection of photojournalism (292,000 prints). Funding accompanying this major donation allowed commencement of a long-sought building project that yielded museum-standard exhibition spaces and a research centre incorporating a print storage vault. He was also instrumental in the RIC’s acquisition of the Berenice Abbott Archive. While building the collection, his work with the Department of Canadian Heritage required extensive written contextual justification and many detailed artist biographies. For ten years, he was consultant to the graduate students in Ryerson’s collections management program, (FPPCM), and for more than twenty years was the coordinator of Ryerson’s Photography Workshop in France. Upon retirement in 2014, the RIC’s Research Centre was named in his honour, and an annual graduate scholarship established in his name.

Robert Burley is an artist working in photo-based media whose practice explores the built environment, history, and visual studies. His past projects have received widespread recognition through numerous grants, awards, and media coverage. Burley’s works have been exhibited around the globe and can be found in museum collections, including the National Gallery of Canada, Musée de l’Elysée, George Eastman Museum, Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, and Musée Nicéphore Niépce. His recent books include The Disappearance of Darkness (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012) and An Enduring Wilderness (ECW Press, 2017). Burley has lectured about his photographic projects through the Rouse Visiting Artist Program at Harvard University and the Senior Mellon Fellowship Program at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. In addition to his activities as an artist, Burley has undertaken many initiatives as an educator with the goal of expanding resources and curricula at Ryerson University where he currently holds the position of Professor in the School of Image Arts. These include his role as founding Program Director of the MA program in Film & Photographic Preservation, his work to establish and expand collections in The Ryerson Image Centre and Special Collections-Ryerson Library, and the management of numerous cultural programs such as the Kodak Lectures and The Ryerson Gallery.

Untitled, Poplar Bluff, MO, 2016

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