This iteration of
Viewpoints features photographs from Paul Berger's Mathematics series, created in the 1970s. A photographer and University of Washington School of Art faculty emeritus (retired in Fall 2013), Berger (U.S., born 1948) taught for over thirty years and co-founded the University of Washington Photography program in 1978. Photographs in Berger's Mathematics series depict blackboards of the mathematics department of the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign, where Berger taught as a photography lecturer.
Below is the featured commentary by University of Washington faculty that accompanies the installation.
The Half-Life of Numbers
-Karen Cheng, Professor of Design, School of Art + Art History + Design
I had the great pleasure of discovering this series of photographs at the Henry when I first arrived at the University of Washington in 1997. I was immediately drawn to the abstract forms—the rich, velvety blacks; the sweeping, organic, gestural lines; and the contrasting rhythms of the photographic frames. On closer inspection, I realized that the images were of partially erased chalkboards—a wonderful transformation of the ordinary into ethereal elegance. I like to think of these compositions as a comment on the beauty of mathematics, or perhaps an observation on our noble, yet futile efforts to understand the underlying patterns of the universe. In any case, after many years, I still look upon these images with delight.
-Sándor Kovács, Professor, Department of Mathematics
Blackboards play an essential role in mathematics research. Through them we communicate early (sometimes half-baked) ideas and hunches as well as present complete results and age-old theories. At the same time, blackboards have limitations. They, like photographs, share the limitation of trying to represent a three-dimensional world in only two dimensions.
One of the many intriguing qualities of these photographs by Paul Berger is that his technique of exposing several images over one another gives the impression of three dimensions. Incidentally, many of the blackboards shown in these photographs also aim to show us three-dimensional objects. In this way, these photographs of blackboards become two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional objects, which are themselves representing three-dimensional objects in only two dimensions.
And then there are the beautiful photographs of smudges that look like clouds; and erased, dried, and overwritten parts that can hardly be deciphered anymore, letting our imagination freely interpret what they might represent. We are no longer in the world of mathematics, having passed into a wonderland created by the artist.
-Ronald Moore, Professor, Department of Philosophy
It was once alleged against photography that it fell short of being art because it failed to "elevate the imagination." No doubt some early works did little more than record how things looked; but photographic artworks today deliberately engage and inspire the imagination. They have the uncanny power of transforming their subject matter in various ways even as they reveal it. Here, Paul Berger shows us something perfectly familiar—blackboards covered with mathematical symbols and erasures—rendered strange and evocative through the overlapping of images and the juxtaposition of strips of film. We know what we are looking at, and yet we don't. The commonplace has been transfigured in a way that denies external reference. Those of us who dreaded mathematics lessons might approach such images with feelings that others don't share. It doesn't matter, however. Whatever mathematics lessons remained on the college blackboards when Berger went in after class to photograph are obliterated by erasures and jumbled by double exposed negatives. A mathematician would have no advantage over anyone else in deciphering the lines. Content has been recast into pure form. And what were once math lessons have been turned into a wild and wonderful dance of line and light.