…I am interested in photography’s first 40 years because it was at its zenith right from the start. Photography has not improved much; it’s just gotten more convenient. I like the visual code of the nineteenth century, the formality of it, the way things looked, and the mix between art and science.
In an age when digital imagery often disrupts our expectations about photography’s traditional role as a witness to outer reality, Stephen Berkman does so using the collodion wet-plate process. Berkman’s enigmatic, time-traveling images demonstrate how an understanding of our world can be acquired through fabricated methods, thus revealing the multidimensional nature of photography and multiplicity of mean- ings and possibilities photographs can generate. The following are highlights from our recent converstions.
Robert Hirsch: Describe how you conceptually utilize history.
Stephen Berkman: I see history as being still malleable rather than being a closed circuit. Following this premise, what is being created is a nineteenth-century, visual panorama featuring a cavalcade of character types and their stations of life into which I insert or recover what has been lost to time.
RH: Do you admire any nineteenth-century photographers?
SB:My model is Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon). The scope of his work, the range of people he photographed enthralls me. His staggering body of work led me to investigate the wet-collodion process. This discovery spurred me to begin my quixotic quest into nineteenth-century photography.
RH: What writers have influenced you?
SB: Recently, I have been spending time with Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe, but prior to them, it was Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka. I find per- plexing things to be engaging, and that is what I strive for in my images too. Most photographs show you what is there, but I’m more interested in photographs that show you what is not there: things that are alluded to, ideas that can be reached only by following clues left behind. Sometimes, I feel like I’m creating a novel that is missing a few key chapters. I think there is merit in an elliptical narrative style. The seminal Beat writer William Burroughs thought the role of an artist is to dream for the public, although in his case it might be considered a nightmare for some.