Saul Bromberger has spent decades using photography to understand the American way of life
The medium allowed him to get closer to the culture of his adopted country, bringing him into contact with its many complexities and nuances.
- Daniel Milroy Maher
- 29 September 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Growing up in America in an immigrant family, Saul Bromberger often felt like an outsider. Having arrived in the country at the tender age of nine, much of his youth was spent adjusting to his new home. Alongside having to learn another language, he was forced to embrace a new culture and a new way of life that felt completely alien to a young boy who had been raised in Israel. “I was an introverted teenager and suffered from social anxiety,” he recalls. “At high school, I barely said a word for four years.” However, it was also during this period that Saul discovered what would soon become a lifelong passion of his: photography. Between 1974-75, he enrolled in a photography class as an elective at his high school, which he needed to graduate. It was a moment of uncertainty for Saul that would prove to be a decisive one. “I didn’t understand a lick about the technical issues of photography, from the depth of field to F-stops to shutter speeds,” he says. “But by an act of magic, I happened to take a number of photos that I really liked, and this changed everything for me.”
These photographs gave Saul the confidence that he had been sorely lacking for so long. They gave him a new sense of purpose and a path to follow after graduating. For the next few years, he continued to study photography, this time under John Gray, his teacher at Moorpark College in California. This class was to be another formative experience for Saul and it informed his approach as a photographer. “It was from John Gray that I learned to photograph scenes with empathy and from a social commentary perspective,” he explains. His studies at Moorpark led him to pursue photography full-time, working as a professional photographer for a number of local newspapers. Here, he learned the tricks of the trade, figuring out how to “capture American scenes for their beauty, wholesomeness, and rawness.”
But, eventually, he outgrew the world of newspaper photography. Alongside his work for the papers, he had also been steadily building a personal collection of photographs that he believed were unsuitable for the news. He had spent the past few years shooting events and social gatherings that he felt brought him closer to the American way of life, and he had found inspiration in the work of various photographers that he had met along his journey, including his soon-to-be-wife Sandra Hoover. He was fascinated by their style. “They had an ability to compose complicated, layered, and nuanced scenes with empathy and a discerning eye,” he says. “They captured these scenes with wide-angle lenses, getting up close to people, and it took my breath away.” He realised this way of approaching the photographic subject resonated with his desire to explore the “complexities of our humanity, our attitudes and body language, and what all that means with regards to our cultures.” Ultimately, it inspired him to continue with his personal project, which would eventually be titled American Portraits 1978-2006.
This body of work brings together nearly 30 years worth of Saul’s photography. It is a culmination of his lifelong attempt to engage with and understand his adopted country. “I wanted to capture scenes of people with their raw and unfiltered ambitions and challenges, their innocence and their powerful presence in the midst of chaos, while at the same time commenting on the America I was experiencing as an outsider,” says Saul of the series. In the photographs, we can observe many familiar facets of American culture, from national pastimes like baseball and football, to parades for army veterans, to the famous Halloween celebrations. The figures found throughout the series also represent a wide cross-section of American society, from the wealthy and privileged to those just struggling to survive. Shots of weddings, festivals, marches, days out at the beach, children playing in the streets, and Independence Day gatherings sit alongside one another, offering the audience a broad overview of American life.
Looking back over those three decades, Saul says his photography was more than just a way of interpreting his new surroundings, it was also an antidote for an absence of familial connection. “In some of the photographs, there appears to be a longing for home and family – something I was not aware of at the time,” he reflects. “It makes perfect sense really: When my family emigrated from Israel, we left behind all of our extended family. People that I’m related to, but with whom I have not celebrated personal milestones, have not shared my experiences and feelings, and people who, sadly, I hardly know and who hardly know me.” He continues: “Now that I'm 64-years-old, I can see how these close family experiences that I missed out on helped to shape me, as I expressed my wishes to be part of a community and to not be an outsider in my American Portraits series.”
Saul Bromberger: Father and Son, Family of Nine Living in a School Bus (Copyright © Saul Bromberger, 1992)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.