Stephen Berkman, “Obscura Object,” Engraving
Stephen Berkman’s installation at Blue Sky, Predicting the Past, signaled an ambitious leap for the non-profit, who has only recently begun to exhibit properly framed work on a regular basis. An exhibition of prints, sculptures, and video is a change of pace that merits a round of applause for the traditional-leaning Blue Sky. Predicting the Past would have been the ideal show to inaugurate their new gallery space last summer, rather than the abbreviated version of Mark Klett’s Third View we got, as Berkman’s crowd-pleasing camera gags operate as great primers to some of the principles and histories of photography, and would have let Portland know that Blue Sky had some interesting plans up their sleeves for their handsome new home.
Berkman ardently loves the proto-photography optical devices of the 19th century—camera obscuras and lucidas, as well as issues that arose for the earliest wave of photographers, including the challenges of monocular vision, the alchemy of the new medium, the contradictions of techno-vision in the Transcendentalist age, and, more flatly, what exactly, the role of the photographer should be. Berkman touches on these issues with varying degrees of success in his humorous works, which reveal an almost fetishistic affection (or affectation) for antiquity.
Charmed by the marvelous diagrams and illustrations of camera obscuras throughout the ages (1), Berkman cleverly reimagines these technologies as anthropomorphic tools of vision—surrogate, almost cyborgian eyes to replace man’s own. It’s an astute interpretation of the effects that cameras have had on the act of looking, and Berkman’s engraving the the Dress Obscura is realistic and silly enough to work.
Presumably his obscura objects of this sort are all female because it’s too hard to climb inside a trouser leg. Searching for gender significance beyond that pragmatism—the image of the child disappearing under his mother’s dress, the lens casting a somehow “female” vision, the sexual titilation of disappearing underneath a dark cloth—all lead to unsatisfactory stretches, and one realizes that it’s probably best not to overthink these pieces, which is hardly a happy realization in an art gallery. I’ll not spend too much time wondering, then, why these objects have lifelike hands extending from the dress sleeves, or for that matter, what Berkman is trying to express with these, besides creating well-crafted, quasi-educational art history gags.
“Surveillance Obscura” succeeds as a more cohesive and witty sculpture. Wall-mounted eight feet high, Berkman imagines the marriage of contemporary surveillance cameras and primitive camera obscuras in this gorgeous wooden sculpture. The ludicrous ineffectiveness of a surveillance camera that simply casts an image (rather than recording one) is driven home by Berkman’s nuanced attention to design and the piece’s innocuous presentation.
“Hair Obscura” is at once the most effective piece in the show and the most unsatisfying. Resting on a window table that faces the park across from Blue Sky, “Hair Obscura” is ridiculous enough to elicit an audible chuckle: Image an upright shoebox, covered in the frilly, flowing locks of Louis XIV, with a periscopic lens protruding from the front and a pair of eyeholes on the back. (All of the works mentioned here can be seen on Berkman’s website.) More importantly, “Hair Obscura” is the show’s only opportunity provided to experience the still-chilling and awesome experience of seeing the world through an obscura. Viewers were able to see a vision children playing at the park, projected as clearly as a video monitor, on the flat viewing surface inside the hairy box. Looking at the world—particularly the world in motion—through a camera obscura is a jolting, wondrous experience that disrupts all of our cognitive notions about vision. Somehow, it’s easier to digest the concept of a closed-circuit video system (which is the closest contemporary equivalent of an obscura like this) than to assimilate the optical simplicity of this ancient principle. It’s almost impossible to imagine how audiences reacted to camera obscuras before the birth of photography—not only in the 19th, or even the 16th century—but in the Paleolithic period, as Matt Gatton suggests.
While “Hair Obscura” allows viewers to touch the sublime and experience the sense of optical wonder that undoubtedly attracted Berkman to this material, it does nothing to clarify why the obscura looks like a cyclopian Cousin It. Aside from general silliness, I can’t find any reason to connect the viewing device with its moss-like covering. There is a fake Scientific American from 1863 of Berkman’s own creation adjacent to the piece that announces the Hair Obscura with a remarkable degree of verisimilitude, but it offers no explanation for the piece’s shaggy ‘do. (The faux-journal does contain a rather hilarious and well-written article about a mock-scandal blazing through the art world at the time. “Photographic Piracy and Engraving” cleverly spoofs contemporary copyright hysteria and pre-Benjamin thought in its reporting on an engraver who reproduced famous paintings and was enraged that photographers were undercutting his prices in the market of “fac-similes.”)
Stephen Berkman, “Looking Glass Study,” calotype (l) and kosher salt print (r)
“Looking Glass” provided the show’s impressive conclusion, sequestered in a darkened gallery at the rear of the space. Made of two interlocking glass cubes (which can be adjusted for focusing) and outfitted with a fixed 19th century lens, “Looking Glass” purports to be the world’s only transparent camera obscura. Aimed at a spot-lit cro-magnon skull, the camera captures and inverts a thumbnail image of the skull onto its back wall (which has been brushed to provide a degree of opacity). It’s a genuinely impressive creation, but the claim of being a transparent camera is somewhat misleading. “Camera obscura,” as we all learned in Photography 101, means “dark room” or “dark chamber,” and modern cameras are simply shrunken versions of these light-tight enclosures. The notion of a transparent camera, then, defies all the laws of photography; and isn’t exactly what Berkman created. What is the only situation that one can view Berkman’s “Looking Glass”? A dark room. The blacked-out gallery is the “dark room” or camera obscura here; “Looking Glass is a sculptural illustration of photographic principles that actually demonstrates very little. As an exercise for pinhole enthusiasts, it’s a kick, but it relies more heavily on the theatricality of the skull (which is mounted on a 19th century photographer’s headrest—nice touch!), spot light, and general presentation than the substance of what it presents
This critical analysis is not to suggest that Berkman’s show wasn’t enjoyable; far from it. With the exception of his silly, antique-y portraits on silver chloride printing out paper, which included groan-inducing kitsch such as a nude woman with pubic hair down to her knees and “Woman Hand Knitting a Condom,” Predicting the Past was a charming exploration of a fascinating, under-explored topic. If any photography instructor in town failed to send their class to this show, they failed their students. Unfortunately, Berkman’s pieces rely too much on the “cool” factor resultant of his wit and craftsmanship, and don’t hold up to critical scrutiny.
There are a number of contemporary artists exploring similar veins of inquiry, and Berkman would make a welcome addition to an exhibition of artists using proto-photography or lens-less cameras. In addition to the obvious inclusion of Abe Morell (whose “Light Bulb,” 1991, demonstrates in one image nearly all of the wondrous principles that Berkman explores), Rodney Graham‘s extensive obscura explorations come to mind, as well as those of Vera Lutter, Steven Pippin, Richard Torchia, Paul Brewer, and even Belgian conspiracy theorist Marcel Dehaeseleer, who has been using a camera obscura to try to get to the bottom on the JFK assassination. On their own, however (and aside from the ambition that the exhibition signals on behalf of Blue Sky), Berkman’s sculptures do little to transcend their function as superbly-crafted editorial cartoons about a fascinating subject for which the artist clearly holds the utmost respect.