The complex portraits of photographer Robert Bergman

Untitled, 1987
Courtesy Robert Bergman

Minneapolis photographer Robert Bergman believes in taking his time. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts offered him a show in 1968. It was a great honor for an artist in his early 20's, but he said no.

He didn't think he was ready.

Though he's been working steadily ever since, an exhibit of his color portraits last year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., was actually his first show anywhere.

The exhibit gained national attention and critical raves and now the show is coming to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

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My job in taking the picture, choosing the picture, and being the artist is to vanish. My job is to disappear.

MIA Photography Curator David Little stands amidst the 30 portraits by Robert Bergman and states they answer a very hard question.

"How can you take a new picture of a person?" he says. "Because these kinds of photographs have been taken by individuals for so long."

The images on the walls are extraordinary. Each features one individual. Some of them look gaunt, even haunted. Many stare straight into the camera. Little says these are clearly not members of the leisure class.

"Bergman is able to really thread this very, very difficult area of not making them look as though they are happy-go-lucky people," he says, "while at the same time showing that they are strong individuals who have dignity and have a kind of humanity as well."

Such is the power of the images: It's a little unnerving to be in their midst. Little has hung them in groups around the gallery. When Robert Bergman arrives, he quickly takes it all in.

"Bob's going to say 'Let's get rid of it, let's change the whole thing,'" Little says nervously.

"It's very different from the way it was in Washington," Bergman says, walking around. "Very different."

But Bergman likes it.

"David knows me well enough to know that if I didn't like them, we would broadcast that," he laughs.

Untitled, 1990
Courtesy Robert Bergman

Bergman's preference for being direct, particularly when it comes to his work, quickly comes through as he speaks. He dropped out of the University of Minnesota in the late 1960s to devote himself to taking pictures. At first he focused on black-and-white street photography.

He did this for years, supporting himself with odd jobs. Then in the mid 1980s he switched to doing what he calls collaborative portraits in color, where he would ask people if he could take their picture.

"Two friends and I got in a car each season and drove around America, and encountered people at random," he says. "People of all socioeconomic classes, and the work, like America itself I might add, crosses gender, racial, socioeconomic barriers."

Most of the interactions took just a few moments. Bergman makes it sound very simple.

"And just as you and I just met, you've asked a question and you've got something, I just meet someone, I ask if I can take their picture and I get something," he says.

Which works as an explanation until you turn back to images which clearly go beyond "getting something." It's hard not to get a feeling there was an intense interaction between the photographer and subject. Yet Bergman sees it differently.

Untitled, 1989
Courtesy Robert Bergman

"Well the connection, I think, that you've just described that's going on is between you and the artwork," he says with a soft laugh.

Which is exactly what Bergman is after. He goes to great lengths to strip away what he sees as barriers between the viewer and the image. Other than a brief description by the door which vaguely outlines the dates and geographic scope of his travels, there is no information anywhere in the gallery about who or where these people are.

Bergman points to a picture of a woman on the wall. He wonders if he were to say she was a dental assistant in Detroit, or owned a bar in Chicago, or a dancer in New York, or an AIDS activist, would that help a viewer? He thinks not.

"Any imposition of narrative vacates I think the viewers response and I think takes away from their ability to respond on their own," he says.

Bergman takes this further. He won't allow his own portrait to be made, as he believes it, too, will interfere with how people see his pictures.

"My job in taking the picture, choosing the picture, and being the artist is to vanish," he says. "My job is to disappear."

Untitled, 2009
Courtesy Robert Bergman

That's going to be increasingly difficult. It took him 45 years until he was ready, but Bergman's first show at the National Gallery of Art has put him in the spotlight. Toni Morrison wrote his pictures capture the unextinguishable sacredness of the human race. This pleases Bergman, although he says he had a simpler aim for his pictures.

"I'm glad to see them in the world," he says. "For many many decades I thought my work would never enter the world. And it has."

'Robert Bergman: Portraits 1986 to 1995' opens at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts with a public reception tomorrow night.

Meanwhile, Bergman has moved on. He's now working on abstracts.