Phil Bergerson: A Retrospective

Introduction by Robert Burley

Photographic Journeys

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 for asking questions that, to put it mildly, could not be easily answered. During the more than four decades I’ve known and worked with Bergerson, I’ve been drawn into his expeditions with a kind of inevitability, and also with a guarantee of the shotgun seat beside him.

Even when I thought I knew where we were headed and why, I probably didn’t. Behind the wheel and elsewhere, Bergerson was first a photographer and a teacher, but also a cultural animateur and a guide: a person who took you on serpentine routes, pointing out things you would have otherwise missed. He was process personified; the destination was the journey, fuelled by the restless certainty he imparted to you that every interesting stop would invariably lead to a more interesting one a few miles down the road. At least I was smart enough then not to ask him if we were there yet.

My first meeting with Bergerson the teacher was in the 1970s at Ryerson in Toronto, when I was a Photographic Arts student. At that time, the school was a committed polytechnic, and photography was primarily taught as a technical application, but one that increasingly encompassed expressive aspiration. Bergerson, then in his twenties, was already a prolific artist who was convinced that photography’s historic quest for art status was finally being realized.

Over the few short years I spent at Ryerson as an undergraduate, he introduced me to some of the greatest names working in the medium, not only through his slide lectures in class, but in the flesh, via the remarkable public symposia he organized. I had the opportunity to meet artists W. Eugene Smith, Berenice Abbott, Robert Frank and Mary Ellen Mark, among others. Later came the theorists: Rudolf Arnheim and Allan Sekula; historians: Peter Bunnell and Helmut Gernsheim; and curators: John Szarkowski and Nathan Lyons. Looking back at this extraordinary line- up, a photography Who’s Who, it occurs to me that I wasn’t only a student being mentored by Bergerson, I was along for a different kind of ride, his own experience of learning and discovery.

Twenty years after I graduated, I found myself inside Bergerson’s unique sphere again—this time teaching alongside him in what was now the School of Image Arts at Ryerson. His own skills as a teacher had become more focussed and eclectic at once. He continued to work out of a small, packed-to-the-rafters second-floor office that also served as a color darkroom.

In a hundred and fifty square feet of ordered chaos, he met with students, made photographs, and contributed plans for the most fertile creative-learning environment I’d ever encountered. One of his achievements at this point had actually been hatched during my undergraduate years: a plan to create a museum of photography (which later reemerged as The Ryerson Image Centre) to accommodate the small but increasingly significant photography collection housed in the school’s resource centre. But maybe most important, while all this was occupying him, Bergerson embarked on a groundbreaking direction in his own photographic work.

What had begun as a study of the U.S.–Canada border soon morphed into an extended investigation of the American social landscape—a distillation of the good dreams and bad dreams that coexisted there. I didn’t accompany him on his prolific car trips, but I was witness to the results, a continuous stream of exquisite colour photographs that appeared on the tables of the design room. His images of architecture and streets were devoid of people, but replete with their voices, in the form of a panoply of signs with cryptic messages, all of which gave you the feeling they’d been left expressly for Bergerson to find.

Unanswerable questions and inscrutable directions, from anonymous yet distinctly American authors living in places where, it seems, something is not right, has gone wrong, or is about to go wrong. Bergerson’s photographs show us what’s in front of his camera, but they also listen to their unseen subjects with a concentration that approaches reverence. A curious circle of empathy joins Bergerson, the creators of the signs, and the texts they’ve left there.

Judgement and condescension are not invited. It’s rare to feel love expressed for five words on a placard in a bleak shop window, but Bergerson pulls it off. He is simultaneously a stranger in a strange land and a kindred spirit, right at home. The colors in his images are consumer-driven, the colors of Western culture. The images themselves are as mysteriously plain, and plainly mysterious, as we are.

With this book, we have the opportunity to read about, see, and understand Bergerson’s ongoing photographic odyssey. Insightful essays by fellow travellers Don Snyder and Peter Higdon offer a historical and critical context, letting us meet the artist at work and the multitudes he contains: the seemingly limitless energy, the off-beat sense of humour, the mix of warmth and edginess, all of the ingredients heading to one place and one place only. Recently, Phil Bergerson replaced his aging camper van with a newer, more roadworthy model. Should an intrepid passenger today finally ask him, “Are we there yet?”, I think I finally know what his answer would be: “We are, because we aren’t.”

Phil Bergerson

Phil Bergerson has been showing his work internationally for fifty years and his work can be found in many prestigious collections including the National Gallery of Canada, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, the Harry Ransom Center, Austin, and the Creative Center for Photography Collections in Tucson. His work, spanning his fifty year career, will be featured in a solo exhibition at the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto in late March 2020 on the occasion of the gallery's 25th anniversary.

Robert Burley

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)