Black Powder

Senior Curator of Photographs, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth,Texas

Damion Berger’s Black Powder images are spectacles. Grand in both size and scale, they are as unnerving as they are inviting, subversive as they are decorative. The images ostensively record worldly celebrations memorialized with fireworks, from the inauguration of earth’s tallest building in downtown Dubai to art performances in the Tuileries. As if the excess and conspicuous wealth evidenced by each event were not enough, Berger uses in-camera techniques such as long and overlapping exposures and unorthodox combinations of focus and aperture to select, sculpt and multiply the explosions into finale-like crescendos. He then offers them back to us as negatives by printing facsimile enlargements of the exposed film–prismatic blends of cartoon-like calligraphy, Cliché Verre, and blinding afterimage sears of nuclear explosions. What more bizarre merge of war and peace can there be? Crowds clap and cheer at cannon-fire reports, flashes of light from exploding bombs, and streaks suggesting anti-aircraft tracer bullets. While some of these images proffer beguiling beauty, bringing to mind fecund botanical gardens and dense tree canopies, others, like UEFA Cup Gala, are far more troubling, mirroring a missile exploding on its submarine target.

These images reflect the unsettling dichotomies that define our time with its ideological eruption of independent terrorism and state-sponsored violence, where first world capitalism and mores are targets, and “national security” regimens are as intrusive to privacy as they are protections. We feel safe if we watch all the activity from afar. In picture- form the cactus-like spire of the immense Burj Khalifa becomes comfortably two-dimensional; its mix of detail and soft focus transforming it into a dream filled with unheard explosions and cheers; where all the preparation and expense goes up in a satisfying instant of smoke and fire, and everyone goes home satisfied.