By Cliff Lee
“Fuck you, you fuckin’ fuck.”
Phil Bergerson has been getting that a lot lately. Not because of something he did, but something he took – a photograph.
The polite phrase adorns the cash register of a New York City dive he found in June 2001. Now, it can be found in his new book Shards of America.
“At least 10 people have come up to tell me how they loved this photograph the most,” Bergerson says. “But they’d say those words and then talk about the picture.”
The image, replete with bottles of Jim Bean and Jack Daniels, is one of 119 that document Bergerson’s stateside road trips. It took 10 years-between teaching at Ryerson’s School of Image Arts-to see and photograph every continental state of our southern neighbour.
“When I got lost was actually the great thing. You’d stumble upon things that you wouldn’t find otherwise.” Otherwise, how would he have ended up near Kingman, Ariz., where desert is all there is to see. Except, of course, for the sign that reads “Jesus loves you today.”
Images of the star spangled banner, Jesus and urban graffiti permeate the landscape of Bergerson’s America. They’re found in store windows and New York City walls, often times together. Not a single person is photographed in the book.
Bergerson was worried there wouldn’t be any interest when he launched the book at Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto (fittingly, on Sept. 11).
“I sort of walked into a room with no one in it,” he remembers. But within three hours, the gallery was packed with 350 people. Shards of America has been such a success that Bergerson was asked to open this year’s Kodak Lecture Series-a program that he started himself in 1974.
The LIB 72 theatre was filled to capacity with friends and colleagues. They weren’t there to support him as friends, but as admirers interested to hear a world-class photographer explain his craft. The photographs are sequenced in pairs.
One page: A shot of a children’s storefront painted with clouds in Philadelphia in 2002.Opposite page: A child’s crayon rendition of a plane crashing into the world trade center. Little stick men jump out of it.
“There’s something about these pictures. There’s a struggle for power. People who feel unempowered are trying to speak to the rest of us through all kinds of text,” he said.
Despite being in the midst of a whirlwind promotion tour for the book, which will have him in Boston by December, Bergerson hasn’t forgotten about the people who have helped and inspired him along the way. His office has two bulletin boards littered with the memories of 32 years at Ryerson.
At the top, a young Bergerson listens eagerly during the first ever Kodak Lecture. To the right, a giant plastic comb is pinned to the wall: “The biggest comb in Florida,” the souvenir proclaims.
Every-where else, pictures of past students mingle with colleagues and mentors. In the center of it all is a photo of Jack Kerouac, author of the definitive American road trip novel On the Road.
“There’s some fun, humour, and wit [in my collage]. There’s a history and a connectiveness to things. Whether you know it or not, you recognize there’s something important in there, lurking in the surface “It’s kind of reminiscent of the things I photograph.”