By Marcia Meier
Sky Bergman wants to save the world. Well, actually, she wants to preserve what’s left of some of the world’s disappearing cultures. A fine art photographer and professor of art at Cal Poly, Bergman has traveled extensively, and her images explore the clashes inherent in a Third World coming to terms with 21st-century societies and technology.
“I’m interested in the idea of cultures that are in transition,” Bergman explains.
She has traveled to Cuba, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and China, and plans to visit Bhutan or India in December.
“Europe is beautiful, but it’s not as interesting to me as the places that are changing. I think Cuba is changing before our eyes.”
She wants to capture that moment in time before everything is transformed, Bergman says, before old cultures steeped in centuries of tradition are forever altered by increasing contact and involvement with the outside world.
What she’s found so far inspires her personally and professionally.
“The people are not their government. I think we sometimes forget that. And the people who have the least are the most giving,” she says.
Bergman discovered her passion for photography while in college. She was a finance major at the University of South Florida and took a photography course one semester. “I fell in love. I realized I needed to find a way to do photography and I also knew I wanted to teach.”
Her professor and mentor there, Louis Marcus, encouraged her to work in the university photo lab and build a portfolio. When she applied to graduate schools, she was accepted to almost all of them. But the University of California at Santa Barbara offered a generous scholarship, and when she saw the pictures of the campus on the ocean, that was all it took for her to decide UCSB was the place she wanted to be.
“I grew up in Philadelphia,” she says, laughing, “I made a very conscious decision that I would never live where it was cold ever again.”
At UCSB she met Richard Ross, an internationally known photographer and professor who became her mentor. He hired her as an assistant out of grad school and she also worked with the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica. When she applied for a job that opened in the Art Department at Cal Poly in 1994, she was the only applicant who included an interactive CD with her resume showing her work. Today it would be considered passé, but it was cutting edge then, and it got her the job. Today she is a full professor and chair of the Art Department.
“I love it here. I have wonderful colleagues, and I love teaching. I get as much from my students as I give to them. I think it’s very much a circle - I learn so much from them. There’s this interchange and sharing of ideas. It’s also forced me to stay abreast of technology.”
Bergman started out shooting mostly black and white images. In grad school, she was interested in photographing nudes, experimenting in scale and perspective. She started to travel extensively, and began to explore color photography in Europe. She sent a series of photos she’d taken of the gardens in Paris to Smithsonian magazine, and two weeks later the editor asked her to do a series on the royal gardens in Brussels, Belgium. She’s been shooting for Smithsonian ever since. She also has published a book featuring her nudes, titled “The Naked and the Nude.”
Her work was recently included in “The Human Landscape,” an exhibit of nudes by a number of photographers at Santa Barbara’s East West Gallery and will be at Patty Look Lewis Gallery, also in Santa Barbara, in October and November. You can hear her talk about her work in a podcast on the Santa Barbara Museum of Art Web site. She discusses her Japanese “Subway Series,” fine art images taken in the depths of Tokyo’s subways.
Though much of her early photography involved working in the darkroom, she has switched, as most photographers have today, to an entirely digital format.
“One of the great things about digital is the immediacy of it,” she says. “When I was in Burma several years ago there was this group of nuns, and I started photographing them and I showed them. They had never seen a photograph before and it was so wonderful. They were laughing…. And then I gave them the camera so they could shoot. It was amazing.”
When she was in Cuba, she discovered that developing rapport with the people she met helped her understand them better, and ultimately resulted in better images. She was able to get closer to the people, and the photographs reflect a level of comfort and warmth that might not otherwise be there.
“I don’t just like to photograph people. I like to talk with them, get to know them. To me that’s more important than just taking the photo,” Bergman says.
It also helps those of us who view her work connect with her subjects and develop a deeper understanding of them as a people and a culture. Before that culture disappears.