The scale is vast: panoramic landscapes stretching 35 feet long; 6,000 manipulated images flashing in random combinations on multiple monitors; oversized prints of nearly infinite digital detail; exposures lingering nearly an hour to capture the passage of time and the journey of light. Milwaukee artist Tom Bamberger’s lifework as a photographer is honored this spring in a retrospective at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend.
For the first time in the museum’s history, MOWA devotes all three of its changing exhibit spaces to one artist, showcasing Bamberger’s 40-year career in selections from the 400 photographs he recently donated to the museum. The retrospective, “Tom Bamberger: Hyperphotographic,” traces the evolution of his work from decaying urban landscapes to portraits of Milwaukee leaders to suburban scenes to scrubby fields that appear to be nowhere and somewhere simultaneously. MOWA Executive Director Laurie Winters says Bamberger is known as a journalist and curator, but despite his national reputation and importance in the field, has not promoted himself locally as an artist. “He’s a great photographer, no question about that. He has done ground-breaking work in different areas over the years, but interestingly, even when he was at the MAM he was never including his own work, always celebrating other people. This is a chance for him to really get the attention that he deserves.
As a young man, Bamberger studied philosophy, not art, and took an unconventional route to being an artist. His interest in photography was sparked when he received a camera as a wedding present in 1976. Meanwhile, he ran a gallery and was a writer. From the early 1980s until 2003, he worked with Milwaukee Magazine and for a time was contributing editor. He was photography curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum and architecture critic for Urban Milwaukee. “Art was the only thing I couldn’t cheat at, in a sense,” he says. “Every time I took a short cut, I paid.” And even when taking the long route, artistic outcomes are not guaranteed: “Art is so fraught with error. It’s experimental. To make a really great work of art, you have to get lucky.”
Bamberger, 68, wanted his hundreds of photographs to have a permanent home other than “a drawer in my studio,” but sifting through decades of images was an uncomfortable task, he admits. “There is something extremely painful about looking at your previous work,” he says. “My work begins int he late 70s. The person who made these photos – that’s not who I am any longer.”
In preparation for the exhibition, Winters and Bamberger spent months sorting through his photographs. Revisiting his work has made Bamberger reflective. “There is something about being The Artist that is very tiring,” he says. “When you’re younger, being an artist is cool, but it’s so hard. If there is anything else you could do, you would.” ◆
If You Go
Tom Bamberger: Hyperphotographic
(Through May 21)
May 6 at 1 p.m. → Bamberger and Friends panel
May 13 at 1 p.m. → Placemaking in Milwaukee, a discussion on public art
Museum of Wisconsin Art
205 Veterans Avenue, West Bend, (262) 334-9638
Tues-Wed, Fri-Sun, 10 a.m.-5 p.m
Thurs 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
$12 Admission/Annual MOWA Membership with free admission thereafter
Tune in to WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” May 4 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.