“Special”, Oakland, November 1980.

Richard Nagler was a painter until he decided to be a photographer. “Paintings are about the painter,” he told a rapt audience at UC Berkeley’s Center for Photography at the Graduate School of Journalism on the evening of November 30th. “Photography is about ‘the other’, about what you see. It’s not about yourself. That’s why, emotionally, photography spoke to me.”

Berkeley’s Heyday Books has just published Nagler’s third book of photography, “Word on the Street”, which features shots taken in cities including Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley. Every image shares the same conceit: one person and one word. The photographs show the fortuitous juxtapositions of a single word of type — whether on a billboard, sign or scratched into a wall — and a human being who happens to pass by and, in that split second, creates a meaningful image through Nagler’s lens.

“Here”, Berkeley, December 2006.

The idea of focusing on these serendipitous moments came to Nagler in 1977 when he took a picture of a woman peering out from behind the curtain of her window above large letters spelling out “TIME”. “This set me on the path,” Nagler said. The fact that the collected images only became a book 33 years later is partly due to the difficulty of the task Nagler has set himself. “The challenge is waiting for the perfect picture,” he said. “It’s extremely rare to find an isolated word – for that word to settle. It can take years before I find one.”

Nagler, who shot on film rather than digitally until five years ago and never crops his images, said he sometimes spent hours at a particular spot waiting for the shot to materialize. As UC Berkeley Professor of Art History Peter Selz wrote in the foreword to the book: “The success of the photographs depends on what Henri Cartier Bresson called the ‘decisive moment’.” Says Nagler: “The best photos are the ones where no-one ever sees me.”

Ken Light, Curator of the J-School’s Center for Photography, said he is impressed wth the “painstakingly” long time Nagler would sometimes wait for that moment.

Heyday publisher Malcolm Margolin said he was drawn to Nagler’s images because they convey a sense of mystery and the quirkiness of the world. “The word is an equal character in the photograph.”

“Hungry”, Berkeley, February 1994.

Nagler’s first book, “My Love Affair with Miami Beach” chronicled the golden age of the Jewish community in Miami Beach. In 1995, he published “Oakland Rhapsody: The Secret Soul of an American Downtown” with an introduction by Ishmael Reed.

The genesis for the new book is rooted in Berkeley. The late Seymour Fromer, founder of the Magnes Museum, introduced him to Selz, with whom Nagler served on the board of Berkeley’s Kala Institute. Selz agreed to write the book’s foreword and introduced Nagler to Margolin who agreed to publish the book.

Nagler, who runs a skylights business in Berkeley, also has his studio in the city, although he lives in Piedmont. Speaking to Berkeleyside, he said Berkeley is very conducive to the type of work he does, although he has now largely moved on in terms of the types of images he is tracking. “I’m not as obsessive now about finding words. I want to expand the body of work,” he said.

These days, Nagler is likely to be found hunting down the perfect shot in an art museum rather than on the street. His next colleciton, he says, will be about “looking at art”.

He’s still waiting for the perfect juxtaposition – but this time it will probably to be painting and a gallery visitor who feature in the end result, rather than that elusive single word.

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...