The Recursions of Paul Berger

From Paul Berger’s Mathematics, 1976-77

“If I were a member of this community,” Sir Thomas said, “really I should get weary of being looked on as a sort of aesthetic dustbin.” (Seattle Star, November 15, 1941)

As a native son, I’ve certainly felt Sir Thomas Beecham’s irritation with Northwest provincialism over the years. Seattleites apparently never get tired of being looked upon as an aesthetic dustbin, or worse, a mere stepping-stone to a “real” career somewhere else. This plays out time and time again in my city, how Seattleites ignore their own and praise the foreign to their own detriment.

This is foolishness.

I am more cosmopolitan than most Seattleites, and I am not half so blinkered as to believe that the world revolves around my city, or that every single brilliant idea known to humankind originates here or reaches here easily. But I also believe in the obvious strength of Seattle’s arts. They have their own identity (even when Seattleites won’t accept it) and their own power that is just as strong as anything else in the world.

I’ve been writing about Paul Berger’s work for almost twenty years. Since first I interviewed him for my magazine Lines of Sight way back in 1995, Mr. Berger has had four one-person exhibitions–and not a single one in Seattle. Meanwhile he has listed on his CV fifty group exhibitions since then, and his work has been printed in at least fifteen books since then, with a few magazines besides.

Why does Seattle ignore his work? It isn’t that he’s been idle. Mr. Berger has never rested on his laurels. He’s completed six major serial photography projects since then, and in 2008 began a new exploration into high-density composite photography that continues to this day. After thirty-five years of teaching at the University of Washington, where he founded the photography program in 1978 and the renowned DXARTS digital arts program in 1985, he became professor emeritus four years ago yet remains active with artist talks and special projects. It is perhaps no small irony that the motto of one of his recent series, Second Life, is Ovid’s quotation, Bene vixit qui bene latuit.

“Spider Code” from Berger’s Print Out series, 1984-87.

In a world of ubiquitous digital data, it is perhaps to feel that nothing ever came before our divinely enlightened generation, that everything is new, that no one ever thought as we do before the magical device of the Internet came to us as the gift of a wise and benevolent deity and made us the chosen people.

Yet Mr. Berger has been working with graphical computers and digital imaging since the 1980s, beginning with his extraordinary book, Seattle Subtext, and continuing since then with his explorations of Print Out and Cards, all done with a Targa board well before anyone knew what Photoshop was. With his World Info series, Mr. Berger also incorporated the new techniques of Photoshop transformation into his work, giving his images an eerie, antiseptic quality that paired intriguingly with the brusqueness of the computers at the time.

From Portraits and Plans, 1986-88.

Virtually all of Mr. Berger’s work plays with sequential photography. He is deeply interested in sequential strategies, from the seemingly straightforward arrangement of comic strips (Camera Text or Picture) to the more complex combinations of card decks (Cards) to the extremely elaborate design of a news magazine (Seattle Subtext). His most extreme exploration of the sequential array is his series, Warp and Weft.

Taking from the jargon of weaving, Warp and Weft uses a visual analogy: the photographs represent interwoven threads in a tapestry. As a tapestry has a front side traditionally visible to a viewer, it also has a reverse side that few ever see. This is what Mr. Berger exploits in his series. The Warp (Figure) tiles represent the “front” of tapestry, while the Weft (Ground) tiles represent the “back.”

As a strategy, Warp and Weft is essentially two series of two interlocking grids, one 3 x 4, the other 4 x 3. Where the two grids overlap within a series, two further grids of much smaller size are created. Sometimes the smaller grids continue the pictorial content of the larger grids but most often they are subtle variations, just distinct enough from the main subject to catch and hold one’s eye.

The pieces has notable similarities to Robbert Flick’s exquisite Sequential Views, but Mr. Berger’s purpose is quite different. Both photographers upset the idea of the single frame photograph as the sole carrier of information and the definer of context, as Mr. Flick notes in his book, Trajectories. But where Robbert Flick’s work deals with a continuum of surface through a fairly linear grid, Mr. Berger’s work is less interested in the surface itself than in its arrangement. He tries to capture not the surface of a photograph, but rather its backside.

This all sounds quite arty ‘n’ stuff, I’m sure, but it is much easier seen than discussed.

“Water” from Warp and Weft (Figure), 2000-05.

Detail of “Water” from Warp and Weft (Figure).

“Winter” from Warp and Weft (Ground), 2000-05.

Detail of “Winter,” Warp and Weft (Ground)Detail of “Winter,” Warp and Weft (Ground).

With his most recent series Panoramas, Mr. Berger has returned to a kind of simplicity in his sequential studies. Gone is the elaborate structure in which he visualizes the form of a relational database. Instead, the seemingly continuous panorama is actually a composite of pictures.

As he writes, “This stream begins with a sequence of seven to ten wide-angle (24mm) individual photographs, taken with a digital camera attached to a tripod on a head that allows for rotation
about the ‘nodal’ point of the lens. The resulting images are merged, in software, into either a cylindrical or spherical digital space.”

Number 4 from Panorama, 2008-10.

The strategy is complex, but the appearance is simple. These look like unaltered, “straight” landscapes, but of course in the digital world there is no such thing–in fact, there never was.

I’ve always felt Paul Berger is one of our country’s great photographers. That he has not really gained the recognition in the world at large he deserves does not surprise me. But even that world at large has done much better recognizing him even than the city where he works.

This is a pity. His work deserves far more attention than a hundred others I could name. It is high time to put that right.

Update: I wrote the first draft of this piece for the Degenerate Art Ensemble’s stream back in 2013. Just last week, Mr. Berger himself contacted me to inform me that this fall he is finally having a “comprehensive book” of his works released this fall, by Minor Matters, who published the excellent All Power: Visual Legacies of the Black Panther Party, as well as books by Alice Wheeler, David Hilliard, Lisa Leone, and others. I could hardly be happier. It’s a long overdue retrospective of one of our country’s finest photographers.

More of Paul Berger’s work at the Paul Berger Photography website

Filed under Photography

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net