An Interview with Michael Berns

January 28, 2013

mikeincap2Michael Berns is a local photographer, architect, and the latest artist to be featured in our ongoing exhibition series Local Art @ EPL.  His show – titled From Within – From Without – is currently on display on the 2nd floor of EPL’s Main Branch where you can catch it through Wednesday, January 30th.  Inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment,” the collection presents twenty-four striking black and white images captured everywhere from the Washington D.C. subway to the Texas rodeo circuit.  We recently spoke with Mr. Berns via email about his creative inspirations, photography as poetry, and art as a growth process.

Evanston Public Library:  Can you tell us a little about your background as an artist?  How did you get started in art?  Was there something specific in your life that sparked a need to create?  What drove you in the beginning?  What drives you now?

Michael Berns:  My first exposure to photography as an art form was in graduate school while I was studying architecture and urban design.  My teacher introduced me to the work of Duane Michals and Ralph Eugene Meatyard.  Their images showed me that personal philosophy could become part of my photographs.

I later studied with Steve Szabo at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. He was an invaluable inspiration to me, as well as a friend.  He showed me the photographs of Frederick Sommer and Emmet Gowin, both of whom were poet-photographers whose work transcended the visual image.  I learned how to see.  It seems so simple, but seeing, actually looking beyond the surface of the world around you, is perhaps the main requirement needed by an artist to create meaningful photographs.  I looked again at work by photographers that I had studied in the past, such as Weston’s Pepper #30, Adam’s Face of Half Dome, Steichen’s Heavy Roses and I could now understand how carefully looking at a subject allowed a photographer to transform it into more than a straightforward record of an object.

EPL:  How do you describe your art?  Do you see yourself as fitting in with any particular artistic movements or styles?  Do you work in any other mediums in addition to photography?

MB:  I approach photography in several ways, from portraits, to landscapes, to documentary, to manipulated images.  I find that each offers ideas and influences to the other.  I also believe that while art is about vision and creativity, without a technical background, its range and applications are limited.

berns subwayI think of two comments by the architect Louis Kahn.  “The nature of space reflects what it wants to be” and “Architecture appears for the first time when the sunlight hits a wall.  The sunlight did not know what it was before it hit a wall.”  These statements about architecture resonate with me.  I believe that my photographs are personal impressions of the subjects that I see, and that light and shadow are the elements that define those impressions.

EPL:  Can you give us a window into your creative process?  When and where do you work?  How do you choose your subjects?

MB:  I choose subjects based upon how they stimulate my curiosity.  Photographs are like poetry or short stories.  They are vignettes out of a continuous play of action and emotion, bathed in light.  What I am doing is grabbing a piece of that continuum, Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.”  I look carefully at all that I see in the viewfinder.  I believe that taking pictures requires more than a casual glance.  It requires a disciplined view of the subject, all of the subject and not just the center of the frame.

EPL:  What are your future goals and plans as an artist?

MB:  An interesting thing about art is that it is a growth process.  One’s vision changes over the years as experience and knowledge change.  It fascinates me that I can take the same negative that I printed ten years ago and find new meaning and purpose in it now or that I can go to the same location that I photographed in the past and find new images that I never saw.  Art cannot be static.  It requires taking chances, learning from the past, and pushing the limits.  It reflects new experiences and new ideas.  It has to be dynamic if it is not to be repetitive and irrelevant.

EPL:  How do you find Evanston and the Chicagoland area as a place to work and exhibit as an artist?  What inspires you as an artist about the community where you live?

MB:  Every locale has its own particular identity and yet in certain ways is similar to others.  It does not make a difference where I am, the inspiration to create art comes from within, from an attempt to mesh my understanding and feelings about a subject with control of the technical processes inherent in the medium that I am using.

Interview by Russell J.


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