Tom Bam­berger’s pho­tographs are fea­tured in a ret­ro­spec­tive at the Mu­seum of Wis­con­sin Art.

Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - BY PAMELA HILL NETTLETON

An ex­pan­sive ret­ro­spec­tive de­voted to artist Tom Bam­berger.

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 in the 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.”

Tom Bam­berger at home in Walker’s Point



THE STORY. Above: Shel­don B Lubar, 1983 Left: Grilling the Sub­urbs, 1991

Right: Man with Straw, 1988

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