For our regular feature Collection Rotation, we invite a guest to organize a mini “exhibition” from our collection works online. Today, please welcome local artist Elizabeth Bernstein.
I remember being in a Borders bookshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the 1990s and finding Sally Mann’s monograph Immediate Family. I was a teenager and hadn’t studied art or photography, nor did I have plans to, but the images completely overwhelmed my circuits. The magical light! The revelations held by the gestures of the body! Each image felt like a little universe. It was like these photographs explained everything about everything. I was a goner; I had fallen in love.
How was this being done? What was happening? What did I know? And truly, for a long time, there were no words. Just the experience of each image asking and answering the big questions about living and dying and all the juicy and scary stuff in between.
My next twenty years included art school, making my own photographs, and teaching photography. All ventures that pushed me to understand and unpack the original “everything about everything.” So here’s what I’ve learned and continue to learn over and over: a photograph offers us a felt experience as deeply personal and revelatory as falling in love. It shows what is there, what is found in the world, what is built from light and time, while simultaneously pushing beyond its literal investigation into the realm of perception, experience, and deep knowing.
The photograph above was taken by the father of modern photography, William Henry Fox Talbot, a man of science who used his efforts to explore the world of fact, cataloguing nature, architecture, and artifact. But when I spend time with this tilted winter tree I begin to learn something about loss and loneliness and a solitary brand of peace that soothes and silences my busy modern head.
Every photographer whose work I see and love builds a new path for me to meander and trip down as I figure out where they are traveling. Below is a sampling of photographs that pull me towards a deeper type of knowing, one that exists before words have had the chance to muddy and limit the ability of the image to do the heavy lifting. Each photograph in the list holds the complex truths of the medium — touching on everything about everything. The images are simultaneously constructed and chanced upon, true and manipulated, random and tightly ordered. After each image I’ll give you a few of my personal keywords that point at, but don’t describe, the complex depth of subject matter held by each frame.
Seasons. Change. Loneliness. Contentment. One moment. That moment.
Time. Light. Time passes. Symmetry.Intimacy. Family. Cultural history. Women.
Relationships. Memory of relationships. Anger and loss. The female body. My body.
Hardship. History. Personal identity. Hurt.
Sprawl. America. Moving. Stuck. Isolation. Community.
Elizabeth Bernstein is an artist, educator, and gallery director who lives in Oakland, California. In addition to being visiting faculty at the San Francisco Art Institute, she is the co-director of Royal NoneSuch Gallery, an alternative project space, established in 2009. Her work as a photographer examines the visual language of our daily lives and how it communicates our complex emotional and psychological landscape.