JTF (just the facts): A total of 33 black and white photographs (31 single images and 1 diptych), generally framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. No process, size, or edition information was provided on the exhibition checklist. The images were made between 1933 and 1951. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: This sampler show of the work of Ferenc Berko makes a case for including the photographer in the between-the-wars Modernist and post-World War II Modernist conversations. As evidenced by avant-garde works in a variety of styles, if he was not leading the way in extending Modernism in broader directions, he was certainly actively participating in the aesthetic discussions taking place, and the consistent quality of his work across several decades reinforces the claim that he was engaging these ideas as they were evolving.
Berko’s work from mid-1930s Paris (and also from a few years later in London and Budapest) shows the signs of conscious experimenting with camera angles and compositional forms. A Paris park view looks down from the trees, placing a bench between the clusters of leaves and their shadows. A street image skews the sidewalk paving tiles off at an angle, allowing the puddles to break a dark reflection into shattered shards. A Budapest swimming pool view looks at two bathers from a low angle, elongating their legs and playing with the patterns of the checkerboard tiles and her striped bathing suit. And a London Tower Bridge image uses a wire meshed railing to create gridded lines that cover the lower half of the picture.
By later in the decade, when Berko moved to India to escape the rise of Nazism, his photographs start to more repeatedly show the influence of his onetime friend and mentor, László Moholy-Nagy. Straight down bird’s eye views flatten riverside steps into shining rectangular geometries and boats into contrasting arcs of light and dark. The purity of machined lines comes forth in many compositions, from the repetitions of silvery cans and round buttons, to the regimented forms of a lighthouse light and squares of ship rigging. And we even see Berko experimenting with photograms, turning a button template into a handheld curve of dotted emptiness.
After Berko arrived in Chicago to teach at the New Bauhaus in 1947 (which would later become the Institute of Design), once again, his work adapts to the prevailing questions of the day. His cityscapes turn fire escapes into a dense thicket of striations and the UN building in New York into a white obelisk against a darker sky. More innovative are his female nudes from the early 1950s, which isolate bodies against white backgrounds, creating dark forms that reduce feminine curves into bold silhouettes with just a hint of depth. His solarized nudes go further, taking out even more detail, the nudes becoming something akin to gestural line drawings, in both positive and negative tonalities. Bodies are transformed into seething topographical maps, where highlights and edges give life to the larger forms.
Given these photographs as evidence, Berko’s place in the canon seems secondary, but accomplished. In nearly every genre and style he approached over these two decades, he made well-crafted images that stand up well with the best of what the leading practitioners were making. His works can laudably fill gaps in the larger historical arc of these periods, providing proof that many conceptual threads were being actively taken up and redefined by more than just the most famous names.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price between $4000 and $7500, with the single diptych at $12000. Berko’s work has not found its way into the secondary markets much in the past decade – only a few lots have been sold, ranging in price between roughly $1000 and $2500. As such, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.