Lou Bernstein (1911 - 2005)

Mr. Lou Bernstein has attained stature and prominence. He was educated in New York as an architectural draftsman, but never entered his educational vocation because of the depressed times. He photographed exclusively in the New York City area documenting the people he knew, the neighborhoods and the activities of the city during his 65 year career.

Photography was Lou Bernstein’s hobby as it started out.

The progression that followed, was a natural evolution of love. Lou’s passion for photography only intensified. His desire to learn, absorb and digest all the knowledge he could find, experience through trail and error, he left no rock un-turned. He sought out the shakers and movers of photography in New York, then considered the capital of the photographic world.

He made a commitment and dedicated his intense efforts and energy to become deeply involved.

In his pursuit to expand his personal discourse of artistic expression, Lou discovered yet another world, one of animals specifically mammals, which fascinated him. Lou devoted several of his later years photographing them. Experts have described them as short lived phenomenia, one would have to wait for hundreds of hours for them to occur, and experience.

Lou Bernstein has made his impression in the annals of photography. He captured and has produced an impressive body of work photographically during the last six and a half decades of his existence.
He has achieved this through constant soul—searching sensitivity, in his approach to photography as an art.
He has documented more than thirty-five diverse subjects that preserve life as art, usually taken for granted and over-looked within the vast social fabric of our Universe.

He was one of the charter members of the controversial Photo League, a photographic organization active in New York from 1936 to through the early 1950’s. Their members and guests included almost every prominent photographer in America from the late 1930’s through the late 1940’s.

Lou was known in the world of photography as the “Photographer’s Photographer,” by his contemporaries such as: Eugene W. Smith, Wynn Bullock, Sid Grossman, Ralph Harterslay, Lizette Model, and Edward Stiechen.

The Prestigious Encyclopedia of Photography had included 23 of Lou Bernstein’s photos through the series of 23 volumes, when published in 1964.

Mr. Bernstein created and was the author of an original bi-monthly article for Camera 35 magazine, which was called “Critique”. This feature discussed the merits of subject matter, critical analysis, composition, emotion, involvement, time, space and print quality, combined with distinct, important elements of Bernstein’s photographic philosophy. The submissions from the subscribers response was enormous. Lou continued to write this photographic forum for a period of four years, till illness forced an unexpected interruption.

He was on the faculty of: The New York Phoenix School of Design, and Cooper Union in New York City, where he replaced Eugene W. Smith at his request, when Smith went to Japan for Life Magazine.. In addition to this, he conducted numerous private and group photographic workshops, lectured extensively, was perpetually pursued and invited to express his perceptive concepts on the aesthetics of photography.

In April 1972 he was a participating critic along with many other recognized dignitaries and educators of photography. They represented The Society for Photographic Education, New York Region, to contribute to “Critique 72”, at the New School for Social Research, New York.

He was recommended as a candidate for a Guggenheim Fellowship award on numerous occasions by Eugene W. Smith, Wynn Bullock and Eli Siegel.

His work has received awards, been exhibited globally, reviewed in newspapers, published in photographic books, and his work has been featured in numerous magazine articles. Lou Bernstein is listed in The Photograph Collectors Guide. Bernstein’s images are in the Permanent Collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The International Center of Photography, New York, and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas to name a significant few.

His photographic artistry has been consistantly acclaimed worldwide, and is a renowned and recognized teacher, author, critic in his own right.

His achievement at the age of 70 was “Lou Bernstein, A Retrospective Look”, at the International Center of Photography, 1130 Fifth Avenue, New York, January 23rd through February 22nd, 1981, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for Arts, Washington, D.C.

For more than a half century, Lou Bernstein’s photographic legacy has been in great demand. Auction houses, galleries, museums, private and corporate collectors, not to exclude a legion of newly created exhibitions across the national landscape, offering one man and group exhibits, accompanied by proposal by many galleries to exclusively represent Mr. Bernsetin.

In 1992, in celebration of his 81st birthday, The International Center of Photography (ICP), New York, honored Lou Bernstein, who at that point in time had dedicated more than fifty years photographing in and around the streets of New York, for his contribution to the art of photography, by including his work in its Permanent Collection and Archive. His second exhibit February 21, 1992, thru April 26, 1992. Titled, Lou Bernstein: Five Decades of Photography. Bernstein was also invited to lecture on his aesthetic approach to photography as an Art.

The New Millennium had arrived and passed without intermission. Lou’s work continues to engage the attention and interest of photographic aficionados worldwide.

In 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 Lou had one man and group exhibitions in Brooklyn, New York, Delray Beach, and Boca Raton, Florida

Lou Bernstein, legendary photographic artist, lecturer, teacher, critic, author and charter member of “The Photo League” passed on August 3rd, 2005 at the age of 94.

Lou’s passion and love of life and art flourished without interruption during his six and a half decades, he will be missed, except for his legacy, which will live on for all of us to appreciate and enjoy.

We are constantly searching museums and foundations to identify where Lou Bernstein’s photographs have been acquired or donated to permanent archived collections.

Daniel Dixon

Published Modern Photography, 1955

Even among photographers, a group noted for its quaint lack of conformity, Lou Bernstein rates as something of a rare specimen.

This eccentricity, it should be hastily added, has nothing to do with his conduct. It has, however, a good deal to do with his reputation as a photographer. Outside of the city in which he lives, for instance, only a sprinkling of people know anything at all about this jaunty, bright-eyed native of New York. But on his own stamping grounds, in what is conceded to be the capital of the photographic world, Bernstein is a very prominent citizen, indeed. His next to numberless friends begin with some of the most celebrated names in the business, and with the hundreds of amateurs to whom he is constantly passing out advice and instruction. He's a tireless booster of teenage photographers; neighboring camera clubs pester him to lecture; his own photographs are frequently published and exhibited. He even acts as a sort of one-man employment agency for the job-hunters who, aware that he is often among the first to learn in which darkrooms an extra hand is needed, come to him for a steer. Locally, at least, he's a very active and even an influential figure. Yet Bernstein has never been a professional photographer! He doesn't want to be!

Though he might very well be able to make a snug living with his camera, Bernstein has chosen to solve this always perplexing problem in another way - as a crack salesman in one of the country's biggest camera stores. "Oh, I've thought about going pro, all right," he admits in his rich New York accent, "but uh-uh - it's not for me. There's my family, for one thing. Working on assignments, I'd have to spend a lot of time away from the wife and kids. Besides that, I wouldn't get much chance to do the sort of work I really like. No, I'd rather stay where I am - behind the counter. It pays me a good living, keeps me in touch with whafs going on - gives me an opportunity to photograph, too. For what I want, there could hardly be a better spot."

Bernstein's unusual approach had its beginnings a long way back - back on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where, in 1911, he was born. It was a tough place to grow up. But, for a kid who was later to become a photographer, the crowded streets and the clamor and the excitement were not without their advantages. The world in which he was brought up did more than anything else to develop the sense of neighborhood that is so important in his work today.

But music, not photography, was his first passion. Having been given a harmonica at the age of seven, he toodled it so purposefully that, by the time he was seventeen, he was good enough to be playing in night clubs and on radio stations. A little later on, he was invited to join the Harmonica Rascals, a group with which he subsequently toured the United States. "A couple of years of that, though," Bernstein reflects, "were enough for me. I had a lot of fun, but the hamburgers and the hotels got me down. So I quit, and went back to New York. I got married, too, along about then and went to work in the shipyards. I never really grabbed hold of what I wanted to do until 1936 when my first child was born."

With the baby came Bernstein's first camera. From the moment he picked it up he knew his restless dissatisfactions were at an end. All the same, there were difficulties. "I didn't know what I wanted to photograph," he recalls ruefully, "let alone how. On top of that, there wasn't anyone around who could give me a hand. At the start, anyway, I had to get along by myself."

After a time he joined the Brooklyn Camera Club and later was asked to join Sid Grossman's famous class for photographers - "one of the biggest breaks I ever got in my life." Bernstein's sessions with Grossman were helpful to him by clearing his mind of the murky confusions among which he had been groping and by throwing him into contact with people whose feeling about photography were not unlike his own. "It was wonderful!" Bernstein exclaims. 'The discussions! The experiments! The excitement! Sid helped me find out exactly what sort of work I wanted to do. And then to discover that there were a lot of other photographers who had the same sort of ideas - well, it was wonderful! Most of us, it turned out, were interested in people more than anything else. And most of us were part-time photographers, too, working in our own neighborhoods, close to home, with the things we knew and understood the best. Not that we had much choice, you understand. That was right at the bottom of the depression, a time when nobody was taking any trips. But even if we'd been better fixed, I doubt that many of us would have left the neighborhood to photograph. I wouldn't have, anyway - and when it comes to that, I haven't yet."

Finally, when he was thirty-four, he began to cast around for another way to make a living - for work that would bring him into more intimate contact with photography and photographic affairs. "I'm not cut out to take orders from an editor. I've got to be my own boss. That's why I never tried to become a professional. So, when the time came, I went out and hunted around and landed myself a job at Peerless instead."

From the first, Bernstein set out to make his place in the store count for more than just a weekly paycheck. He used the advantages it put at his disposal to develop his control of techniques and to expand his circle of photographic contacts. Little by little, he came to know such photographers as Edward Steichen, W. Eugene Smith and Ernst Haas. Even more important, he found his job a convenient and practical method of passing along to others the lessons he had learned. "A lot of help has been given to me over the counter," he says, "and thaf s the way I try to keep it in circulation." The result: Bernstein became one of the store's most popular fixtures. Professionals depend on him for a kind of service, amateurs for a kind of encouragement they would not otherwise be likely to get.

As a rule, his duties at the store leave Bernstein free to photograph only on weekends, holidays and during the long summer evenings. This, however, is an arrangement about which he offers no complaints. 'The way I work," he says, "two, three days a week is enough. When I photograph, I give it everything I've got. I get excited and wrought-up. And I get pooped. Like I say, a couple of days a week - good solid days, I mean - is usually all that I'm good for."

Bernstein no more permits his work to be thwarted by space than by time. True, he photographs almost wholly within his own neighborhood - a discipline that other people might find irksome indeed. Bernstein feels differently. "Usually," he says, "if s the photographer, not the material, that wears out first. Me, I'm still a long way from being worn out. Frankly, I think there's as much variety in my own back yard as there is in a thousand miles of travel. Love, hate, joy, grief, comedy, tragedy - if s all right here," he says. "All you have to do is look for it. Why go any further?"

Bernstein can be considered neither an amateur nor a professional, yet he has fashioned himself the sort of photographic life that suits him best. Furthermore, he thinks that it would suit a lot of other people, too - particularly those to whom photography is more a matter of the heart than of the bank account. "Look at the advantages," he points out. "You meet people. You get a chance to learn. You do your own kind of work. You earn a living. As far as I'm concerned, anyway, if s a pretty good answer. I keep busy. I take what I think are honest pictures. I'm happy. What more can a man ask?"

Daniel Dixon

Published Modern Photography, 1955