Stephen Berkman

“Through his glass plate ambrotypes and installations, it appears that photographer Stephen Berkman has traveled back in time to the 19th century. A clever illusionist, Berkman uses the wet collodian process, popular from the 1850s to the 1880s to stage images, which while rooted in the past, also refer to the conceits of the 21st century. Using four lenses, light, a moth, and screens Berkman illustrates how an image is refracted or captured through a camera. The result is a magical, lyrical display that would have delighted viewers in the 19th century as it delights audiences today. Lyle Rexer states in his book Photography’s Antiquarian Avant-Garde:
“Stephen Berkman finds in the ambrotype an opportunity for theatrical fabrication, with history itself as a collaborator. Berkman uses collodion to anchor implausibility and give unreality a historical patina. He stages elaborate tableaux with nineteenth-century
characters performing for some obscure purpose”.
Berkman’s installation work explores the era of pre-chemical photography both literally and philosophically. While his constructions encompass optical projections and sculptural reinterpretations of the camera obscura, his body of work as a whole examines the intrinsic nature of photography during this nascent period when it was possible to create fleeting images, but impossible to fix them into permanent photographs. This search to rediscover the ephemeral nature of pre-photographic history, the scientific interplay of light and optics, and the quest for optical amusements, also known as philosophical instruments are uniquely considered throughout Berkman’s work. A few of the installation projects that employ the camera obscura principle include “Surveillance Obscura”, “The Obscura Object”, “Quadrascope”, and “Looking Glass”, which is perhaps the worlds first transparent camera obscura. Considering the implications of this camera obscura in her 2006 review in the L.A. Times, Leah Ollman stated: “In a dark, curtained-off space in the center of the gallery stands one of the show’s most captivating works and one that reveals, with literal transparency, how the medium of photography itself blurs the boundaries between science, art and magic.” – CSU Long Beach Art Museum

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