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Lorraine Wild

Wallace Berman's Photographs



Photograph by Wallace Berman, "Shirley Berman," Larkspur 1960

The mystery of Wallace Berman's photographs revolves around the degree to which they were — or were not — set up. Was Berman attempting to create a narrative, or was he simply recording the people and events he saw around him? There's a great deal of play-acting in his photographs, and one wonders how much of it was staged, and whether or not Berman was the director of the action. Was performing for each other simply part of how he and his friends related to one another, part of the social routine, a communal project experimenting with identity, or was it all Berman's invention?


In 1961, Wallace Berman, a California-based artist, publisher of the proto-zine, Semina, gallerist, and photographer, took a picture of his landlady while he was living in Larkspur, California. We see her (the landlady!) sprawled across a bed dressed in a bra and skirt, casually holding a pistol. Clearly, this picture is not likely to be documentary (unless the rent was really late); it's better described as a photographic fiction, and one wonders what the nature of that collaboration between Berman and his landlady was. Whose idea was the gun? The question about collaboration is particularly pertinent to the numerous photographs that Berman took of his wife, Shirley, who was the subject of some of his most imaginative pictures. One wonders just how much she brought to them in addition to her extremely beautiful physical presence. One of Berman's most potent mythological works is his image of Shirley, unclothed and shot in profile, stretched across the bow of a boat with an "ankh" painted on its side. The picture evokes a reverie of oneness with the earth, as the profile of Shirley's body is echoed by three mountains in the distance that are shrouded in mist. The ankh (an old Egyptian symbol for life) appears here in its new age context, very much of a piece with the rest of the picture, underlining the artifice. This picture is one of many collaborations between Wallace and Shirley that document constantly varying notions of what constituted erotic allure.

The mountain that echoes Shirley's body in the picture looks a lot like Mount Tam, a landmark in Marin County. Many of Berman's pictures are set in evocative urban spaces or landscapes in California that are weathered and run down to such a degree that they've assumed an air of decayed grandeur. Today, places like Venice Beach or Marin try to maintain the mystique of the rusticity they once embodied, which Berman both documented and used, but of course that patina has vanished: this only serves to intensify the sense of a lost world, of a weather-beaten, poor California that can be seen in Berman's pictures.

While these lost landscapes provide a stage set for Berman's artifice, there was nothing false about the people he photographed. In their play-acting we witness them work at, or rehearse, a vision of an alternative society. In looking at Berman's pictures it's obvious that these people had lots of ideas about how to create their own lives independent of the mainstream culture that by the 1950s had become an oppressively pervasive presence in American media. They truly were operating outside, but it wasn't an outside based on criminality — it was an outside based on valuing aesthetics, freedom and independence from expectation. This isn't to suggest that none of these people had problems. Many of them did, often with drugs, and there was a lot of acting-out opposition to mainstream society in ways that were self-destructive. You can see that in the traces of sadness and depression that run through some of the pictures. This is not part of the artifice, but a sign of a life authentically, if not easily, lived.

The New York Times Sunday Magazine recently devoted an issue to what they referred to as "the new bohemia." In paging through it I was struck by the fact that every person it featured had something to sell, and that whatever genuine meaning the word "bohemia" once had has been completely drained away by contemporary forces. Things may come clothed in the image of rebellion (and Berman's pictures certainly provide a study guide for that) but that idea of truly separating yourself, or crafting a life detached from the dominant culture has been lost. The bohemianism of Berman's community was rooted in an independence based on valuing a life of the mind and a life of beauty, and they were willing to pay the full price of admission to live that way. They didn't choose to live the way they did in order to be admired, and didn't care if they were on anybody's radar. The notion of anonymity — which is something the Berman circle cherished — is completely anathematic to artists today. Maybe it's just too frightening right now.

The question of whether there are artists today making pictures that delve into ideas similar to those in Berman's work pivots on that question of how much he staged his pictures. If they were completely staged, and Berman was the author of the staging, then artists like Gregory Crewdson and Philip-Lorca diCorcia are obviously his heirs. If the pictures are primarily documentary, then the work of Nan Goldin comes to mind. It's hard to say exactly who his grandchildren are in terms of his photography. However, the one thing you can say unequivocally is that the kind of community he collaborated with, and documented so lovingly — the way it operated and the values it represented — is long, long gone.


This essay was originally published as the afterward in Wallace Berman: Photographs by Kristine McKenna and Lorraine Wild (RoseGallery Los Angeles, 2007).

Posted in: Photography

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Comments [15]
A beautiful piece. Beautiful work. Maybe (and just maybe), critique can no longer happen behind bohemian lines. It would seem that now we have to get out in front of them. Bohemia was as much an asylum as a stance of critique.

That said, the real loss is truly iconoclastic beauty.
Susan Yelavich
09.12.07
10:10

Nice photos, i like it >)
Welder
09.12.07
10:59

The sense of beauty in general is relative. We as a society have lost sight of what is important. We all believe that we are a part of a renaisance of the Renaisance, but how often do we come up with something truly new and truly beautiful? Something that we can deem as forever classic? Life back then could be mystical and enticing, but now life is too complicated. I say the photos were not staged-not back then. If done today, then yes they would be, because like is too darn complicated to live that way now.
James George
09.12.07
11:55

I love this photography and the post - super interesting. I wonder though, how gone this kind of documentary image-making really is...

The comment about today's expo on boho having to do with commerce is fascinating - but - instantly I assume these photos were of bohos in NYC? A very different breed than those in a canyon community out West.

In terms of Crewdson (who I also love) his images are so elaborate and psychological, one scans his images for clues, they read long and slow and resonant. But they too have an outsider feel and appear, high-brow and rich, a comment on others from a priveledged (wealthy) perspective. The viewer doesn't feel like a part of the scene but rather, like an examiner on CSI, peering in with objective neutrality.

As for boho, I think today's response could be in film. There's the play-acting and the self-conscious awareness of being watched (as a subject), but there are many directors/journalists seeking out alternative communities, seduced by the group belief and compelled to live with and document their adopted world. One example is David LaChapelle's Rize. It's a different kind of boho, urban, violent, erotic, and purely about community.

Just some thoughts...
Jessica Gladstone
09.12.07
12:03

Life has always been complicated. Take a clue from the photo that is timeless, shut your eyes and welcome yourself to nothing everyonce in a while.
nancy
09.12.07
12:11

the mountain in the main picture IS mount tam (tamalpais) shot from the north or north east.
E
09.12.07
12:28

my posts, too

are long, long gone
nancy
09.12.07
02:00

Nice Post. I think what I like about his work is that while it is (com)posed it is not forced or mannered. In the current climate era of acute narcissism, this is a rare thing to see.

I also love the rustic view of the locales. I live in NorCal and can tell you that most -- if not all -- of the locations pictured have morphed from simple towns to exclusive enclaves. A lost era, indeed.
Beerzie Boy
09.12.07
04:26

No one knew about Wallace Berman while he was in his artistic prime, and now that everyone knows about him they mourn the loss. Do you not see the irony of taking the NYT's interpretation of contemporary bohemia at face value? Or of lamenting the fact that everyone in the art world strives to be in the NYT? The underground still exists, but it is also still underground; it doesn't show up in the NYT or at Frieze.
hands of aten
09.17.07
11:42

Ms. Hands of Aten. Lots of people and especially artists knew who Wallace Berman was in his artistic prime. He published a magazine, started his own gallery that was quite well known and exhibited at Ferus, a small but quite visible gallery in LA. I do not think there was as much intensity in the art market at that time and there was certainly no such thing a professional cool hunters who could feed the Old Gray lady bohemia stories in quite the same way. The underground still exists but it is quite quickly co-opted and put up for sale much more quickly now than it was in 1957.
bernard pez
09.26.07
02:47

I love this post - both the work of Berman and Lorraine's discussion. The spirit of Berman's work feels to me like it has a contemporary incarnation in Ryan McGinley's work, and his are self-admittedly constructs for the camera.

Anonymity seems like the crux for me - whether we are doing something for ourselves, for the internal experience of it, or for the external image or perception of us that we hope it creates in others. Documenting something, taking pictures or films, almost by definition presupposes the mindset of being observed, that the external, temporally displaced perception is what matters rather than the internal, in-the-moment one. In today's highly produced, mediated world, so many people seem to be seeking a genuine experience, and are drawn to those who seem to be having them... but the second that we care how we appear to others and whether we are being recognized, we have lost that genuine internal experience.

Berman's photos capture the aura of a genuine experience, and I hope for the sake of those who made them that that's what it was.
Kate
09.28.07
10:55

Great photography in the boat tells the creativity of the photographer compares the nature of the mountains with the women..
stylist
10.04.07
02:33

late last summer I drove the backroads of northern california. It was really one of the high points of my trip. I came in from the caostal sections, which everyone recommended and just let my self meander along the backroads. At one point I had to turn around because i hadn't seen a car for almost an hour, just fire fighters heading out to fight fires. The smell was so real there. Then I took even backer backroads into occasional "unpaved sections" of serpentines in the dark. God, was that heaven and hell. I finally got to check into my hotel at midnight where i had to recuperate after the intensity of nature. I watched the apple keynote address. Funny. I have it all marked out on my map, all the reroutes and wrong turns I made. God i'd do it over in a second knowing it was still that raw and intense.
woman
10.04.07
03:07

Lots of people and especially artists knew who Wallace Berman was in his artistic prime.

Fair enough. I wasn't around at the time. I was just responding to the article's notion that Berman & Co. valued anonymity:

They didn't choose to live the way they did in order to be admired, and didn't care if they were on anybody's radar. The notion of anonymity — which is something the Berman circle cherished — is completely anathematic to artists today.

... and that for some reason Wild chooses to demonstrate that artists today don't value anonymity by referencing the NYT co-option of "bohemia." Maybe, just maybe, those artists that do value anonymity chose not to be in the NYT article.
hands of aten
10.16.07
09:57

coming very late to this essay —

I distrust my own intuition, falsified by the same nostalgia that gives rise to it, but something in these photographs reminds me of the Sunset Magazine aesthetic that powerfully guided many in the 1950s and early 1960s — redwood, zen like backyard landscape designs, camping, tiles from Mexico…

the John Birch Society family I grew up in was certainly not boho, but at this great distance I sense some connection between these different worlds.
John McVey
06.23.12
09:36



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