Brooks Barrow Gallery
Marshall Building (lower level)
207 E. Buffalo
Jan. 11 – Jan. 16
When the invitation arrived to attend Peep Show, an exhibit of photographs by ten students of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee adjunct professor of photography Tom Bamberger, whose career includes impressive exhibits of his own work, plus a former position as adjunct curator of photography at the Milwaukee Art Museum, I was intrigued by the fact that he’s now a college professor. “Lucky kids,” was my first thought.
Bamberger is a fully mature artist, and in many ways his teaching position is a hard won homecoming. After attending Boston University, he extended his credentials at UWM’s graduate school, where he pondered philosophy and taught mathematical logic. He writes thoughtfully about public art and architecture for Milwaukee Magazine and continues his career as a photographer (when Renatured opened the splendid Inova/Kenilworth building, Bamberger’s work enlivened the walls). Over the past 30 years, he’s proven beyond a doubt that he gets what art is.
I asked them to make an interesting picture. They took pictures of the moonrise over the Calatrava. All we learned is what is NOT an interesting picture. Hundreds of pictures later they finally asked, “So what is a good picture?” There is no answer to that question. I told them that an “interesting” picture would have to be interesting to you before it would be interesting to anyone else, including me. Finally a breakthrough happened after they told their bossy inner voice to shut up. Everything they were telling themselves might be a good picture was wrong. All of their teachers were wrong. The books are wrong. They were looking with everyone else’s eye but their own. It takes some guts to see the world uniquely and be a student at the same time. I tried to rattle their brains. The students did the rest. It was fun. They taught each other. Saw each other see for the first time.
Another great teacher, John Updike, wrote recently in The New Yorker about “visual trophies” – snapshots, and his connection to them throughout the years. An obvious fan of Susan Sontag, he quotes from an essay included in her 1977 book “On Photography.”
“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability … a photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence.”
I visited the exhibit the day before the January 11 opening. The space was buzzing with excitement and a distinct air of cooperation. In the middle of it all was Bamberger, offering a suggestion here, an encouraging word there. Known for his strong opinions, which raise hackles now and then, on this day his demeanor was placid and assured. The moment was right to step back and let his students’ work speak. The gallery’s proprietor, Brooks Barrow, stood aside quietly, too. Barrow and Bamberger are a match made in heaven.
Catherine “Catie” Eller, a junior, interpreted one of her images for me; it was a car door handle stuffed with leaves. Another, a hole in a wall, gave me hope that this student got what her professor was trying to drum into these youthful heads. Jessica Helmlinger was one of the students who arrived in Bamberger’s class with a photograph of the moon rising over the Calatrava. “I rode around town on my bike taking shots of Milwaukee landmarks,” she says.” Nothing satisfied my teacher, who said I was basically just taking ‘stock photographs’ with no interest factor. The breakthrough came when I was standing on my front porch and decided to depict what was across the street.” The result is a digitally altered panorama photograph, serene in its suggestion of otherness.
I asked Bamberger about what he assigned for the first class. “I told them to go shoot 100 photos. I think of myself as a coach,” he added. It wasn’t easy for Dan Olsen, who shot 400 photos before his teacher would consider even one.
Bamberger was worried that Olsen wasn’t getting the message, but the 23-year-old seems to have “turned off his busy mind,” and (Eureka!) discovered the interest in a bun strewn with poppy seeds, a close-up of a friend’s eyeball and, last in the trio of images, a spoon resting in a dish of lumpy cottage cheese. He’s already signed up for next semester’s class with Bamberger.
“His way of teaching was so unconventional,” says Chelsea Dowe, adding that “we were all afraid of receiving a bad grade; however, I’ve learned to think for myself.” Apparently the students weren’t used to setting themselves free in order to see (i.e. think), and from what I could gather, not one of them bombed big time grade-wise. They were all thrilled to the marrow to be exhibiting their efforts in a bona-fide gallery, and frankly, I was thrilled for them.
Before I exited, Bamberger and I had an illuminating chat about Plato’s take on art, which is basically that art devoid of thought is mere replication. Is this a great exhibit? No, but it raises the bar considerably. Some fine works (notably, those by Miranda Levy) show the result of an energetic linking between a student and a wise instructor who understands what art is: a blank sheet transformed by thought.
The exhibit opens with a gala reception on Friday, January 11 at 6:30 and runs through Wednesday, January 16, with special hours in effect. Brooks Barrow can fill you in on specific times. He’s one of the vocal objectors to the bronze Fonz; once you visit the gallery you’ll understand that he also gets what art is.