Phil Bergerson: Emblems and Remnants of the American Dream

By Becky Rynor on March 04, 2014

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Phil Bergerson, San Marcos, Texas (2006), inkjet colour print from colour negative. © Phil Bergerson. Reproduction courtesy the Stephen Bulger Gallery, the artist and the Ryerson Image Centre

Canadian photographer Phil Bergerson’s creative process is a mix of archaeology, anthropology, a bit of sleuthing, and a liberal dose of empathy for the foibles of his fellow humans.  

“I’m looking for remnants, fragments, things that are messages about what the people are like, or what they want to say,” Bergerson told NGC Magazine, in an interview from his home in Toronto. “Sometimes they know they are doing it, but often they don’t know. I take those things that I’ve found and organize them, like putting pottery pieces together in sequences which then express these larger ideas about what it is to be human.”

He says his current exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto allows the viewer to walk in his footsteps “as much as possible,” as he hones in on his subject. “The beauty of this exhibition is that you can just walk through it and feel how I’m getting closer and closer to a detail of what is in that larger social landscape,” he says.

Bergerson has been taking pictures and exhibiting internationally for over 35 years. Much of that time has been spent on extended road trips criss-crossing the United States in an attempt to define the “American Dream.”

“Everyone is trying to find happiness,” he says. “That goes off into two directions. One is the consumer-driven direction of what it is to be happy—the need for more things to be happy. The other direction is those people who are struggling to come to grips with what life is all about, trying to learn more about life and themselves. That is what makes them happy. So there is that funny paradox between the pairings of the pictures, which speak about one kind of pursuit of happiness and another.”

The National Gallery of Canada houses approximately 80 of Bergerson’s photographs in its permanent collection. His images reflect the modern city through streetscapes, displays in store windows, and abandoned buildings, as well as graffiti and hand-lettered signs bearing religious epithets, patriotic fervour or violence.

Bergerson would typically curate the show himself. This time he asked friend and colleague David Harris to assume that role.

“I think it gave clarity to the work in the context of the exhibition,” says Harris. “The structure of the exhibition is as if you are taking a kind of tour of a typical American city. You begin on the outskirts, then you move into the city, explore the street and what detritus is found along the street. Then you focus on shop windows and how commercial objects—often discarded ones—are displayed. Finally, you move in to study the detail of the shop window.

Harris describes the exhibition as “an open-ended topographical survey” and adds, “It suggests there is a way to explore a culture through this sort of wandering. It’s like a flâneur, an exploration of the contemporary American city by wandering through it, noticing things, observing and then making connections.”

Bergerson says his work is an exploration motivated by compassion. “I’m never laughing at anybody,” he says. “I’m trying to empathize with what those who have made these things may be thinking—even deep inside themselves—that they couldn’t articulate.”

Phil Bergerson: Emblems and Remnants of the American Dream is on view at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto until 13 April 2014.


By Becky Rynor| March 04, 2014
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Becky Rynor

Becky Rynor

Becky Rynor is a journalist and editor based in Ottawa.

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