Seamless Recursive Autonoma: An interview with photographer Paul Berger

From World Info, 1992-4.
From Paul Berger’s World Info, 1992-4.

To paraphrase William Carlos Williams, it is common enough to praise the geniuses of the past while completely overlooking the genius in one’s own backyard. Art historians are certainly as culpable for this as any one; indeed, more culpable. Any new form of expression tends to be viewed with immense disdain and the arrogance that goes along with a lack of understanding.

Photography has survived numerous battles about whether or not it is an art, and still continues to produce many geniuses. And, accordingly, these geniuses are overlooked in favor of those photographers who have entered the art history canon: Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand etc. This of course contributes to further myth about photography being at a standstill.

Paul Berger is a genius in the backyard of Seattle, and his work is certainly not at a standstill. From his first major work in sequential photography, Mathematics, in 1976, to his recent Panorama, Berger has produced some of the most remarkable images and ideas in contemporary photography. Whether it be his experiments in infinitely alterable sequences, such as his Cards series, or his masterful study of the mainstream news media, Seattle Subtext, Berger’s work is always thought-provoking and powerful.

I spoke with Berger in his office at the University of Washington, in March of 1996 about his role as teacher and photographer, and to get his thoughts upon his work and photography in the public image. It was a much different world. This was well before everyone had a computer with wireless broadband access, and before the explosion of digital cameras. Professor Berger adopted the new technology as readily as he has always adopted new technologies. His work has changed and grown as a result. It shows the influence not only of the new digital camera and its imaging methods (Panorama, 2008-10), but also other types of digital imagery, including video games (Second Life, 2006-09). He recently retired from the University of Washington Digital Arts program.


Omar Willey: From the point of view of a photographer–not necessarily as a teacher of photography– how would you go about explaining the strategy of photograph-taking? For instance, how do you explain to a layman the reading, the way of looking at a photograph?

Paul BergerPaul Berger: There’s a nice statement by the photographer Brassai. I don’t remember it word for word, but basically it’s the idea that the photograph has a sort of dual identity. There’s a duality between it being a picture, but also being a picture anchored in a specific time. The layman tends to use the camera to note important parts of their lives. The historic part is front and center. The picture aspect of it is usually not addressed, even though there are recognizable genres within their pictures. Photography unlike most other arts has an extremely high “use value” that affects art photography and the rest of photography in complex ways. Artists being artists sometimes fail to realize that.

For the average person looking at a photograph, the place to wade into it is to notice the dynamic: what part shows you a specific space at a specific time–the historical aspect–and what part shows you the hand of the photographer? What makes it look nice or casual or surprising? What is this purporting to show? What slippage is there between it being a document and something that makes it imply something that isn’t necessarily true? The average person should always have these questions.

OW: I remember a picture from the McCarthy era of the Secretary of the Army where he was trying to prove that the Secretary was a communist. He took a photograph that shows the Secretary greeting a Soviet commander as the commander was coming off a plane. All you see in the photograph is the Secretary, looking solicitous, and the Commander and the plane in the background–a sure “proof” that they must be associates. But McCarthy had cropped the picture, so that you cannot see the armed guards and the stern-faced advisors in the background, which doesn’t make it look at all like he’s happy to be there. Luckily someone recovered the original photograph.

There’s a political use to the photograph as a document. In John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, he notes that the ambiguity between the photograph as a document and the photograph as a composition allows for any photograph to be put to a use totally at odds with the purpose of the photograph, especially when it’s linked with words, which limits the number of interpretations.

Berger: Well, the idea is the difference between the intent and the effect of something is a problem in any art to some degree, but a photograph especially. Because of the way a photograph is made, it renders a cat on a table just as faithfully as an assassination. The picture plane makes things equal. Photography more often than other arts has this skewing of intent.

There are more subtle ways it works, too. Specifically, because the photo is so explicitly time-dated, if you look at a photo from say sixty or seventy years ago, you’ll probably be struck first and foremost by the clothes that people are wearing and the cars or horses, the landscape. That’s kind of the first thing you see is the time become visible. Without intending to do that photographs do that explicitly.


OW: That’s an interesting bridge to the exhibit you curated at the Henry Art Gallery in 1983, Radical Rational Space Time. You wrote an essay in that book called “Doubling: This Then That” which deals with that very passage of time. Primarily you were dealing with photographic pairs which vary immensely in subject.

Eve Sonneman, Sunday Bathers
Eve Sonneman, Sunday Bathers

Berger: That exhibition considered different kinds of strategies, some of them in a grid, others definitely looser. Using Muybridge as the founder, the jumping-off point, there were some straight temporal pairs, as in the Rephotographic Survey Project over roughly 100 years, and then the Frank Gohlke pairs over one year, and Eve Sonneman, dealing with just seconds apart. The idea of time, in the RSP survey particularly, was that the photographer like a scientist was measuring the land, taking a measure of it. Now, of course, the irony here is that though these photographs were meant to be as dispassionate as a scientific measurement, they played very much into the desires of the time to prove one thing or another. For starters, like any bureaucratic organization, they wanted to prove that this survey should go on. So they wanted to deliver pictures that were stunning in some way. So as by-products of the surveys, for example, William Henry Jackson’s photographs of Yosemite were used to lobby for the creation of the national parks system. They related to landscape painting at the time, but it was intelligible on the level that these lands were our belonging.

OW: There’s definitely a sense of ownership in the pictures.

Frank Gohlke, Aftermath, No. 19A and 19B - 4679 University, looking west, 1979/1980.
Frank Gohlke, Aftermath, No. 19A and 19B – 4679 University, looking west, 1979/1980.

Berger: Oh, definitely. The Rephotographic Survey Project was also a project of the USGS, by a geologist, examining the idea that over a hundred years, even though it’s not much geological time, for certain things, certain things would be visible. But the RSP people were very much pursuing an art idea, even though Mark Klett was trained as a geographer. The first thing you think about in the pairs is the before and after aspect. You expect a hundred years is a lot of time, there should be some difference or you overlay the idea that it must have been more pastoral then, or that it used to look nice then and now it’s all screwed up or whatever–stereotypical ideas about what a hundred years would show. In fact, when you look through them, they’re really all over the place. There are a few where there is almost no change or the change is almost insignificant (the picture with a missing boulder), some actually reverse what you might expect, and there are a couple of ironic pictures, such as one where the picture is virtually identical but the name of the lake and the mountain had been changed. Some of them start to look strange, because the contemporary picture looks like an odd photo, one you wouldn’t choose to make. Which then becomes another irony, because that seems like a very contemporary thing to do, to obscure the composition.

OW: It’s a very difficult thing to answer someone when they ask what they are supposed to be seeing in the RSP photos. I think that’s largely because they’re unaware of the historical dimension of photography.

Berger: It’s also difficult to show those reproductions when you can only show two. Which two do you show? It’s the body of the work that really matters.

OW: It’s a different type of concern when it’s a large-scale project like that, instead of it being the work of a single photographer taking two pictures of the same place. You really notice that in the work of Bill Ganzel. His work seems much more personal.

Berger: It’s also much more loose. You could question sometimes how he tries in some cases to make his subjects take a similar pose as in the original photos. That was a group that does need text. It really fleshes out when you find that Vernon Leonard, the guy who had the “Oregon or Bust” sign on his car, is back in South Dakota, or the Migrant Mother

OW: A totally iconic photograph in history–

Berger: Yes. The icon had cancer and was trying to raise money. She died shortly thereafter. And the Texas woman, standing by her door, who was in just as bad a shape as in the Depression when the first picture was taken. So you think the Depression is gone, things have got better, but in this case that’s untrue.

OW: It’s a very different sense of time from the RSP photographs.

Berger: Right. The RSP photographs, because they exceed a human lifetime, often become cryptic for that reason. In the Ganzel pictures, you get this great encapsulation of what probably happens when you see your parents grow older.

OW: In both projects, you’re dealing with a type of sequential photography, but it’s an implied sequence, because it isn’t specifically designed by one artist over time. Whereas Eve Sonneman, or Frank Gohlke–they are designed by one person. Do you find that concentrating on a single image, taken out of sequence, taken out of context, makes photographic interpretation more difficult?

Berger: I don’t know that it makes it more difficult. It makes sense culturally that that would happen. Again, because of the mechanics of roll film–which is a roll, a sequence of twenty-four pictures or whatever that do have a relationship–one might see a sequence. With the familiar snapshot, it shows a sequence of maybe four months of the taker’s life. But generally one wants either the best picture for their personal history (the best picture of Gran’ma) or what they consider the nicest looking picture in a stereotypical way, although the way you could read that roll may be a lot more interesting than trying to decide what the best picture is.

OW: Sort of what Bernadette Mayer did with her Memory installation, taking a series of snapshots to preserve moments but without throwing any of them out.

Berger: I think that it’s very rare for a person to walk into a room and see one image on the wall. Most times they’re looking through a magazine where they’re seeing a whole bunch of images, though not necessarily designed as a sequence–although you stumble across some that are, like an article that contains four or five photographs about Bosnia, or whatever. But in a sense without your wanting to, you’re put in a position of analyzing the magazine, how the magazines uses pictures. You’ve experienced it whether you reflect on it or not, so the combination of when is it an ad, when is it an editorial–all those things kind of get mixed together.

From Mathematics, #26, 1976-77
Mathematics #26, 1976-77


OW: My interest is in sequential photography, more than single image photography because it seems less manipulative in a sense. You think more about narrative, about how a single image falls into a context more than a single photo. It’s a lot easier to manipulate a single image by putting a piece of text beneath it and forcing an interpretation, much more so than in a sequence. In your own sequential work, how do you juggle that relationship between images?

Berger: Well, usually there are other things that help frame it. I’ve never done anything that’s a sequence that’s just a serial presentation of a number of pictures. There’s always some structure, whether it’s a continuity of background, like in the Mathematics series, where they’re all floated in a black void, or a physical structure, like the digital series I’m doing now where the entire sequence takes place against a graph paper.

OW: It seems in everything I’ve seen of yours from Mathematics all the way up to Cards you work a lot more with text than other photographers.

Berger: Less so now, although other elements that are text-like or that aren’t explicit picture space, like the television frames.

OW: After you did Mathematics you did a series, Camera Text or Picture, that’s very comic strip-like, very simply arranged from left to right, not nearly as complex as your later work. How did you hit on that as the structure that would fit the series?

Berger: That came really from the Mathematics pictures, where I was exposing individual frames, but overlapping, where it wasn’t really a multiple exposure. I was interested in photographing spaces that had already been designed once. When I tried using that in relation to the regular world, it became too complex very quickly. So I tried photographing television, because it was easier to manipulate physically and because television itself was a site that I was interested in because of what it means socially. I thought of those constructions in terms of the double-page spread, though the comic strip is legitimate. But the format really was arbitrary. When I jumped to Seattle Subtext, which had the structure of a stripped-down news magazine, the structure was directly related to what the imagery was about.


OW: I think it’s an absolute miracle of a book. It definitely proved to me that the type of photography you do is much more suitable to book format than a gallery wall. Particularly in Seattle Subtext, the act of holding the book, the act of reading creates a context that is utterly ironic compared to what you’re seeing as you read. In Seattle Subtext it seemed to me that you were conjuring up the external form and conventional layout of a magazine and putting it to a totally different purpose. How would you contrast your version with a regular magazine?

"Cinema," from Seattle Subtext, 1982
“Cinema,” from Seattle Subtext, 1982

Berger: Okay, the first level, when you look at it–anyone who’s ever seen an issue of Time magazine–it immediately evokes that magazine. The actual structure was from Newsweek. In 1981 or 1982 when I was shooting, the width of a column in Newsweek was almost exactly the width of a 2 1/4″ strip of film. So it was a direct graphic substitution, using a sort of overlap, as in the Mathematics series.

There are two really basic changes: there are photographic plates where there wouldn’t normally be plates, photographs used the way captions would be used; and there are vertical strips, which would normally be just text, using a sort of video text, which was either literally text from a video, or video images that were layered together like a text. The second level is that what Time magazine is famous for is breaking news down into these kind of standardized parts, and impersonal writing that seemed as if one person could be writing all the text. So although Seattle Subtext starts with categories that really are in Time or Newsweek, once you get to the middle, it starts to change. Same typeface and all that, but categories that don’t appear in Newsweek, like “Reading,” “Memory,” and so forth.

OW: The most remarkable thing about it to me are the Display pages.

Berger: That’s kind of the third level. On a personal level, it’s from that Ronald Reagan photograph where it seems to me there was a clear instance of a photograph to prove something that was exactly the opposite of what the situation was. There’s no digital enhancement, no airbrushing, no cropping or anything like that, but in the sequence of what really happened you couldn’t have found any picture less representative of what actually occurred.

Display page for "Cinema"
Display page for “Cinema”

Going from that general premise, the Display pages occur between double page sections such that the one on the left hand side is like a thumbnail of the double page section you’ve just come from, and the one on the right hand side shows a thumbnail sketch of the section you’re about to turn to. There the place where the text would normally be were the actual printouts, listings from a database that I actually had of the video snippets I was pulling imagery from. The idea there was that the raw material (literally) showed all the possible things I could have chosen from, and a thumbnail suggestion of what the page could be like, before you see the final thing. That’s the actual “subtext” part of the magazine, which you don’t see in a magazine–the parts that were edited out–and gives you some sense that there’s another version, another way of thinking about it.

OW: The thing I notice most about the Display pages is that it seems like you are going out of your way, as a strategy, to point out the layout itself, the bare composition of how a magazine is put together, as a diagram of choices that a reader himself might make. Not only about what a reader has already read, but what he might read as well.

Berger: It was very important that the thumbnails of both the pages not be the same. They couldn’t be totally different, but they’d have to be suggestive of a version, a simpler, smaller version, not as complex. Of course at the very the end of the book, there’s a complete reversal of the meaning of the categories. The last one is “World,” but it’s literally my family snapshots.

OW: One photo that really stands out, in the “Photography” section of Seattle Subtext, is the photograph of the park, with the caption that says “A park in Paris, no, I think it’s in Italy,” and underneath the writing is not even in Italian, but translated into French. It’s like a parody of the objective captions in news magazines.

Berger: Yes, the captions were a lot of fun to do.

OW: Well, to put the book in context, it seems that the book is an exploration of the way a person perceives media. Namely, it’s a direct attempt to draw the reader into being active, instead of the simple, passive way one usually receives information.

Berger: Kind of fleshing out some of the structure again, for instance, you wouldn’t see a national magazine called Seattle Subtext, so there’s a definite attempt to tool it to the reader. Actually, the subtitle, Seamless Recursive Autonoma is kind of a chant.

OW: Oh, that idea of autonoma, did that come out of your Mathematics series originally?

Berger: Yes, it actually came from one of the mathematicians I met who was involved in autonoma theory, where there are machines or boxes, non-trivial, where the machine would give you unexpected results. And recursion too came from mathematics. The text at the very end of Seattle Subtext in fact was from her thesis, where her text was in a field as abstract as you could possibly imagine, yet the imagery is very concrete.

OW: Seattle Subtext is very much the diametrical opposite of the regular media, which is impersonal, abstract and detached. Here the very narrative structure is to draw you into something that’s very personal, going so far as to include autobiographical shots or even shots from your earlier Mathematics series. Even the subtitle of the picture is like the recall of a memory, “This is where I took this,” which is almost completely opposite with the use of captions in standard media, where it’s not “This is where I took this” but rather “This is what this means.” Yours serves a more interpretive function.


OW: Okay, you went from this to curating the Radical Rational Space Time exhibit in 1983. After that, you did Print Out, your exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum in 1986. Now, this was your first experiment with digital imaging?

Berger: Well, I’d started doing it really with Seattle Subtext, but very cursory. Print Out was digital and straight photography combined. In a very crude system, the Apple II days. The camera was set up on a tripod and you’d unplug the video and plug in the computer to produce multiple exposures.

DevMan 24, from Print Out 1984-6
DevMan, from Print Out, 1984-6

OW: And at this time, you were in an exhibit called Stills: Cinema and Video Transformed, which used a couple of your selections from Camera Text Picture and Print Out.

Berger: Yes.

OW: How do you feel about using the video image as your source rather than the traditional negative? Does that add more difficulty or another layer of irony to the interpretation of a photograph?

Berger: It can. There’s a little difference at that point between two-dimensional and 3-D imaging, because with 3-D imaging you can have something compelling as shapes or forms that is wrapped completely by things that are impossible or ridiculous. You can have something that’s utterly convincing as a form in 3-D space, but it’s a mahogany pistol or something otherwise silly.

OW: What’s the difference between your own method of working, where you choose images to incorporate into your own work, and your method of working as a curator, where you choose other photographer’s images for an exhibit?

Berger: Well, I’ve only curated that one exhibit, so I can only speak to that. That one really grew out of a class I was teaching. We were looking at two side by side images, on a slide projector in class, which would change from year to year, depending on what the subject of the class was. It really got me to thinking a lot about Muybridge and what his work really suggested, outside of the obvious. It also struck me that there are other instances of clustering of images, whether literally in a grid or a serial presentation or whatever–other strategies by other people that I thought would be really interesting to see all together. I was pretty specifically looking for a conceptual expansion of Muybridge. Muybridge is, of course, time oriented, but there are also ones that involve spatial array, like Bob Flick, or Bill Paris, and also ones that are conceptual/categorical, like the Bechers.

OW: Thinking about sequences as linear I’m sure comes out of the nature of the camera film roll itself, but many photographers use nonlinear approaches to sequence as well, certainly the matrix and the grid, but also the style of assemblage in Esther Parada’s work or Ray Metzker’s. Yet there is virtually nothing intelligent written on sequences in photography.

Berger: The French are into it a lot more, especially in its relation to cinema, but I’m not sure why that is, why there’s that lack. It seems odd.

OW: Inevitably we see photographs together with words; inevitably they’re used for publicity. We seldom have any way to grapple really with single images, and then we’re suddenly confronted with a sequence, where the individual images take on an entirely different context. And as Bernie Krigstein, the comics artist, said once, it’s not really what is in the pictures so much as what’s between the pictures that matters.

Berger: I think also part of it is that the most obvious place where people see sequences is in comic books. Unfortunately that’s associated with lots of bad things, colorful costumes, kiddie trash, what have you. Again, not so much in France, but certainly here. The other place, which I’m actually a fan of, is cards. Not the sports cards, but the non-sports cards. There’s some amazing stuff there.

OW: They’re less finite. The combinations are a lot more elaborate.

Sixteen Cards from Cards series, 1989
Sixteen Cards from Cards series, 1989

Berger: Actually, some of my favorites are some of the facsimile cards, like the detective/pulp magazine cards of the 30s, where you have a vernacular format that develops individually among artists, and a style emerges that’s rigorous and interesting, and gets the job done. And they make great cards. You wouldn’t keep them in alphabetical or chronological order, but you do get a lot looking at them together.

OW: Another thing John Berger said that struck me was that why our public photographs don’t work well is that they’re unrelated to anything we ever experience directly. They’re taken out of our cultural history, out of the moment, and they are, as you said earlier, formally stylized and occupying a sort of dead-end aesthetic, or they are completely formal exercises.

Berger: Do you know about this thing that was in Le Monde? It was also on one of the TV stations at the end of the day, and it was called “A Picture in a Minute,” or something like that. What they did there was to reproduce a photo, which could be anywhere from a famous photo to something rather eclectic or weird, something one hadn’t seen before but may be reminiscent of something else. Then a producer or someone would choose a well-known person, like an actor or such, to comment on it. The person didn’t know the photographer, and someone else actually chose the photograph and put the person together with the photograph. So you’d see the photograph and you’d hear the person commenting on it. You’d get responses all the way from someone really trying to penetrate the image and think about what it meant, to someone saying that it just reminded them of something else. It was really nice, because it showed photographs working in many different ways. In a very simple way, it was a powerful little deal, and in a sense working so differently from all the rest of the photographs in the newspaper, or on TV.

OW: Goodness knows how many millions of images people have seen in their lives, but the standard question about a photograph is still “Where was that taken?” It’s such a trap to fall into that, to be so tied down to a place or moment to see that it’s not just about that moment but rather why it was taken at that moment, what it relates to outside of that. I think public education’s really failed there, particularly on a secondary or primary school level when it comes to getting students to think about media.

Berger: Or even just pictures in general. I had this seminal experience in fourth grade where we were doing poster painting, and this teacher brought in this reproduction that must have been Corot, of a haystack and farm. So he holds it up and says, “See, doesn’t this look really sunny? But there’s no sun in there, right?” And I was, like, “Wow! Why didn’t you show us this before?” It was a great thing to do at that point in education, but I suppose we had other things to think about…

OW: There’s no real bridge, it seems like, to the next level. If you deal with picture study at all, it’s generally on the university level. You teach at the university level. Do you suppose there’s any way to build a visual education into public education?

Berger: It’d be really tough. A way you might approach it would be sort of like what schools have to do now with music. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing where you can add one class to a teaching certificate and expect it to do any good. There have been some experiments with it over time. Ironically, I suppose, maybe the online World Wide Web material may help. Who knows?

Categories 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

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