Paul Berger

In the ’60s and ’70s a generation of photographers appeared, concerned with both the intrinsic nature of the camera and the social nature of the photograph, and began to investigate all aspects of what might be communicated in the act of shuttering a moment. Paul Berger, who lives and works in Seattle, has, since the mid-’70s, been particularly attentive to how images inevitably combine and recombine and to the processes we evolve and employ to “read” what we see. This retrospective began with the black-and-white “Mathematics” series, 1976–77, in which the photographer shot and reshot sections of university chalkboards covered with mathematical notations. The abstract language of the notations was unintelligible to Berger, but he noted that their left-to-right articulation and sequential organization in horizontal “statements” paralleled the way text works into pattern. By partially overlapping his film while it was still in the camera (rolling it back and forth, shooting it over itself) and printing the resultant disembodied bits of signage, Berger made his chalked data even more disjointed and isolated, so that they made up a kind of endless stutter at the edge of communication. That images can accumulate and yet never result in narrative and that this accumulation can become another form of communication grew into one of Berger’s central concerns.

The advent of personal computers in the early ’80s soon provided new ground for investigation along these lines. Berger’s artistic output could constitute a mini-history of computer-graphics technology, from the clumsy and warping pointillism of ink-jet and daisy-wheel printers on perforated paper to today’s digital Iris prints. Sidebars, pictures in pictures, highlighted borders, charts interacting with photographic images—the humdrum strategies of graphic design or production—are regularly autopsied in his work. Throughout the ’80s, Berger combined disparate and seemingly disconnected images, attempting to show how inexorably they become visually composed, “read” through a consensual frame that domesticates and homogenizes them. The fact that we don’t run screaming into the street when we see the weatherman, “gigantic” beyond belief, superimposed over an image of the planet (or, put differently, how two different and seeming irreconcilable visual languages can collapse into a new relationship) is what Berger repeatedly investigates.

Berger’s Kunstkammer of imagery can also reflect more diaristic and personal concerns. The “Warp and Weft” series, 2002–2003, chronicles events of his life in shuffled patterns; it’s a kind of free-floating stream of consciousness that assesses everything from the places the artist visits in a single day to the organization of his backyard. The subject matter, which can include vernacular architecture, clouds, ducks, or a trip to the zoo, is presented in a grid of imagery, sometimes internally consistent and relatively sequential, sometimes more random and evocative. With both “public” and “private” subject matter, Berger indicates that time and space, logic, reality, scale, and narrative are conventions we collectively either absorb or ignore, but can never avoid.

James Yood