photography, writing and the spaces between
The clash between the bright optimism of America’s Dream and the tawdry gaudiness of its day-to-day reality is a subject that has been well covered in many artistic media. Authors from Arthur Miller to J. D. Salinger and Jonathan Franzen have filtered national disappointment through individual characters; photographers Robert Frank, W. Eugene Smith and Lee Friedlander have given us visual odes to American dysphoria; Joni Mitchell has sung about how “we paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Given this artistic bounty, one may well ask, is there anything new to say on the subject?
Bergerson, who characterizes himself as “an empathetic Canadian neighbor,” has spent twenty years making road trips around the United States. During that time, he has captured America’s psyche through objects such as signage, murals, mannequins and old magazine covers. Unlike his predecessors Frank and Smith, Bergerson doesn’t photograph people, but rather works like an archaeologist, offering penetrating insights into a culture by examining the artifacts people leave behind.
“I’m looking beneath the surface of things to find some personal expression of someone’s life experience in America: a shard they have left behind, either knowingly or not,” the photographer writes in an artist’s statement on his website. “Of course I know I’m not an archaeologist and am lacking their skill set and training….but I take on the persona of one while working.”
Given that many of the objects here have been abandoned, the book has a decidedly retro feel. We see failing and shuttered shops, murals whose paint is peeling, mannequins and clothing displays that look like they come from the nineteen fifties. Many of the images have layers upon layers. In the cover image, for example, a beaten-up old car sits in a decrepit junkyard on top of a shipping container whose sides are decorated with an idyllic mural of a lake and snow-capped mountains. As if that wasn’t ironic enough, in the distance beyond the junkyard are actual snow-capped mountains. Meanwhile, in an image on the facing page, healthy green grass pokes through the concrete plaza of an abandoned gas station, as if in a reversal of the iconic Joni Mitchell song.
But if Bergerson is attuned to these kinds of revealing scenarios, he also has en eye for small, easy-to-overlook details that speak volumes. One pathos-filled image in the book shows a lost-looking armless mannequin in Naval uniform standing in front of an American flag. In another, of retouched and restored photographs in a shop window, a photograph of a pretty young woman trumpets proudly that it is “Fixed,” while another, of an African-American man, reads, “Colorized.” The lack of social awareness in these displays is stunning, but it also signals a kind of innocence that is almost touching.
Like the best literature, Bergerson’s images become richer and more textured with repeated viewings. The pairing and sequencing in the book is often telling, too, and contains sly humor–such as when an image of a rack of pornographic magazines under two portraits of innocent-looking children is paired with an image of a mural featuring a young baseball player and, next to him, a shady man looking at his reflection in a mirror.
Bergerson was also smart enough to entice the great Canadian author Margaret Atwood to contribute to the book. I know people who worship Atwood, and she was a fairly seminal author for me too. She is, I think, one of the few novelists who can write a novel of Big Ideas that never seems abstract or overly intellectual. She’s also one of the few female authors who doesn’t get written off as a “woman writer,” but is just a writer, period.
Rather than writing a traditional essay introduction to Bergerson’s work, Atwood has contributed excerpts from her book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, which was originally delivered as five one-hour lectures in different Canadian cities, and was also adapted into an acclaimed documentary. The effect of this is a little jarring at first, because Bergerson’s book is about more than debt. But the interplay between Atwood’s words and Bergerson’s images soon becomes apparent, and in these writings about debt there are many nuggets of gold, so to speak. Take this part, where Atwood meditates on economic theory:
“The trickle-down theory of economics has it that it’s good for rich people to get even richer because some of their wealth will trickle down, through their no doubt lavish spending, upon those who stand below them on the economic ladder. Notice that the metaphor is not that of a gushing waterfall but of a leaking tap: even the most optimistic endorsers of this concept do not picture very much real flow, as their language reveals. But everything in the human imagination and consequently in human life has both a positive and a negative version, and if the trickle-down theory of wealth is positive, the negative is the trickle-down theory of debt.”
After reading that passage, look at any number of Bergerson’s images (the abandoned gas station, for example, or a forsaken storefront in Birmingham, Alabama with an old sign reading, “School Uniform on Sale” and a blanket-wrapped homeless body in front) and they may take on new levels of meaning.
In addition to this focus on economics, Bergerson is very interested in religion. This chimes nicely with Atwood’s confession that, as a child of biologists, she was up to speed on sex but intensely ignorant and curious about the two other taboos, money and religion. In Bergerson’s case, his curiosity about how religion defines and divides American society leads him to capture many fascinating images, from sacred-heart Jesus figurines (one of which shares space with a bust of Elvis) to signs denouncing a local preacher to a wall spray-painted with the words, “Religion is the problem, not the answer.”
All of this is thought-provoking and oddly moving, a potent mix of nostalgia and social anthropology. I’m going to break away from the objective book reviewing stance here and make a confession: I didn’t expect to like this book nearly as much as I did. This kind of work (by which I mean formal, artistic landscape and still life photography), can sometimes seem academic and clinical to me, and more than a little pretentious. But in American Artifacts, Bergerson proves that you can make humanistic photography without featuring actual human beings. The book is bursting with life on every page; its images are poetic in the best possible way. It is a triumphant blend of humor and heartbreak, irony and innocence—in other words, a spot-on depiction of past and present America.
Phil Bergerson’s website is here.
Watch the trailer for the documentary Payback here.