INTRODUCING LOU BERNSTEIN
By Irwin Bernsetin
Lou Bernstein (1911 - 2005)
INTRODUCING LOU BERNSTEIN
My father, who came into this world as Judah Leon Bernstein, was born on Feb. 28, 1911 to Jennie and Charles Bernstein, then living at 84 Eldridge St. in NYC’s Lower East Side. My grandfather had emigrated from Romania and was by trade an ornamental ironworker and blacksmith. My grandmother, Jenny Mossberg, originally from Austria, was to have five more children after my father, giving me two aunts and three uncles.
Like so many of his generation, my father’s education took a back seat to his family’s need to survive. After his father injured his back while working, he became the main breadwinner. He left Seward Park H.S. and began selling candy and belts on the street. He soon ran away, joining a group called the Harmonica Rascals, traveling around the country, playing one-night stands, living in cheap hotels, eating junk food. After a few years of this, tired of this lifestyle, he returned to New York to find himself.
The first thing he found, however, was my mother, Mildred Marder. They were introduced, courted, and were married in 1931, when both of them were just twenty years of age. Wiser, more mature, but still in need of a way to make a living, he enrolled at the Mechanics Institute and got a diploma in Iron Drafting (following in his father's footsteps!), dated April 14, 1933 from the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen of NYC. (If anyone is interested, we still have his diploma!) Even with that certificate, he was unable to find work in his chosen field and wound up working in the Brooklyn shipyards for over a decade.
Two important events occurred in 1936. My sister, Arlene, was born, and with that, my mother gave Dad a camera just to take pictures of the new baby. I'm sure she had no idea what she was getting herself into! Not only were there lots of pictures of my sister, but this first camera opened a Pandora's box of love and passion for photography. Finally, my father had found what he had been searching for, a purpose and direction. It even got him to change his name! From then on, he was Lou Bernstein to everyone he knew. Every photographic print he made had that signature on it.
By the time I was born in 1938, Dad was involved with the Brooklyn Camera Club, where he got to meet people who shared his interest in photography. What they did not share, he soon realized, was his compulsive desire to improve, to make better photographs. He needed to find others who were not just interested in photography, but whose life centered around photography! Even though he retained his affiliation with the camera club at some point being made a life member for his willingness to lecture and be a critic for judging and selecting members' work more and more, the focus of his attention was given over to the Photo League. He had been invited to join by Sid Grossman, who had somehow heard about my father.
Sid was one of the founders and a prime mover and shaker of the Photo League. Plus, he was known as a master teacher, forcing his students to do better and better work. Dad was accepted into his class in 1940 and remained there officially for a year or two. The two of them ultimately became good friends, and they continued their association in one way or another, until Grossman's death in 1955.
To this day, I remember the time when Dad and Sid and a number of other members set up the Photo League Gallery in Greenwich Village in 1948, which I think was at 35 Bank St. I was fortunate enough to be with them, although I'm not sure how much help I was at the time. They had no idea at the time what was in store for the Photo League: McCarthy and the red scare, and the subsequent disbanding of the organization. Despite the pressure to sever his connections, Dad was loyal to his friend and teacher. I know they kept in touch, speaking and meeting regularly during these difficult times, even after Grossman's past political affiliations had come back to haunt him. Dad was also loyal to the Photo League, remaining a member until the bitter end.
By 1945, my father had established a reputation as a photographer. Although he had been making some money on the side, photographing weddings and other affairs, he had no interest in turning pro. I know he had a healthy regard for a regular paycheck, and I'm guessing that two years on the road playing the harmonica had satisfied his need to travel. He decided that he'd rather be home with his wife and us two kids. Still, he felt he needed to be more a part of the photographic community. There were a number of good decisions Dad made throughout his life, and this was one of them. He got a job working behind the counter at Peerless Camera in Manhattan selling film and darkroom supplies, where he remained (later moving over to Willoughby's on 32 St. when they bought out Peerless) until he retired almost twenty years later. Before long, everybody who was anybody became his customer, from neophytes buying their first rolls of film to an honor roll of the photographic greats of the day: W. Eugene Smith, Edward Steichen, Wynn Bullock, Lisette Model, Ernst Haas, Ralph Hattersley, Jack Manning, Jacob Deschin, Lou Stetner, Arnold Rothschild, WeeGee, and, of course, Sid Grossman and who knows how many other Photo Leaguers. They all needed film and darkroom supplies, and, in addition, they all needed Dad's forthright advice about what they should and shouldn't buy. He
got to know a lot of people in the industry, and if someone was looking for work, say as a darkroom assistant, Dad could be counted on for a good tip. I think that's where Dad started to teach photography, standing behind the counter. One of his first students was yours truly. I was eleven at the time, and every week without fail, he would work with me in his makeshift darkroom in our Williamsburg apartment.
The friendships Dad made from behind the counter served him well as the years went by. One of Dad's biggest boosters was Edward Steichen, Director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, who wound up purchasing a number of the Fire Hydrant series for the museum's permanent collection. Even more important, he encouraged Dad to submit some images for inclusion in the Family of Man exhibition that opened in Jan. 1955. I was seventeen at the time, finishing up my last year of high school. To be honest, I was too absorbed in what I was doing at the time to fully appreciate how important this exhibit was to be for the museum, for the photographers like Dad who were in the show, and for the millions of people who would get to see it over the years. Dad's work had been shown in a few places before, but nothing like this. I don't so much remember the Opening, but I do remember visiting the exhibit several times and being impressed with how big it was; it took up a whole floor in the museum.
Right about this time, Sid Grossman died, and Dad had lost his mentor. Some time thereafter, one of his colleagues suggested that he study with the American poet and critic Eli Siegel, who had developed a philosophy called Aesthetic Realism. My father did finally agree, and studied with Siegel for about ten years, starting in 1962. Siegel was, of course, not a photographer, but, as far as Dad was concerned, he had a lot to teach; much of what my father learned can be found in the many articles that he subsequently wrote. He soon began writing a Critique column for the magazine Camera 35, which ran from 1968 for about four years until Dad became ill. It enabled him to evaluate photographs sent in by readers, using Siegel's concept of _the making one of opposites to discuss the merits of subject matter, composition, emotion, involvement, time, space, and print quality. The response from the magazine readership was enormous to this revolutionary approach.
By this time, Dad felt confident enough to start teaching privately, using the workshop format that he had learned from Grossman. My father once estimated that he had taught over 600 students in his workshops. I'm not sure if that figure includes the students he had at the Phoenix School of Art and Design, where he taught from 1971 to 1973, or at Cooper Union in 1971. There he replaced W. Eugene Smith, who was to spend a year in Japan on a photo essay. Not
only did his old friend recommend him for the teaching position, he also formally recommended Dad for a Guggenheim fellowship as did another old customer and friend, Wynn Bullock.
Dad was finally able to retire in 1973, meaning that from then on he had a lot more time to spend photographing and working with his students. And that meant more time to spend at the scene of his most impressive project, the New York Aquarium, by the boardwalk at Coney Island, where he begun photographing in 1961. My father saw things in his own special way. Regarding the sea creatures he photographed, he wrote, ...I've seen the empathy expressed in their faces. They are reacting to a unique kind of fantasy within reality. The Aquarium is a place of balanced beauty, a window of the still mysterious life that exists underwater. With that in mind, he was able to produce a body of work that is unique in the annals of photography.
By 1981, Dad's photographs had been exhibited in museums, colleges, and galleries all over the world. To acknowledge and honor his 70th birthday, the prestigious International Center of Photography in NYC mounted a retrospective exhibit of his work, funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. They must have like what they saw, because eleven years later, the same institution gave him a second large exhibit, celebrating the acquisition of his work for their permanent collection and archives.
My father continued his work at the New York Aquarium. In conjunction with that institution and its Director, Louis E. Garibaldi, we put together a volume of his photographs entitled Reflections on an Aquarium. It might have been considered a summation of thirty years of work on one master project except that my father was not finished. For a number of years when my mother was in poor health, Dad would leave home at 6:30 or 7AM and take a bus from Nostrand Ave. to the Aquarium, arriving before anybody else. He had his own key and employee badge even though he never accepted a nickel for all the work he did for them. A few hours later he would leave, return home, and spend the rest of the day with his wife.
My mother finally passed away on May 11, 2001. Mom and Dad had been married for about seventy years. From the time when he became a passionate photographer, his work was always front and center. My mom was always supportive and unselfish in her love for him, allowing him the time and space to do what he needed to. He never neglected the needs of his family, but his art always came first.
Dad first came to Florida in 2003 to escape the winter months. Even though he was still completely self-sufficient, he soon agreed to stay with us year round. His active career as a photographer pretty much came to an end then and there although he was still involved in the exhibiting of his work both in Florida and elsewhere. He passed away on August 3, 2005, at the age of ninety-four.
This website is a memorial to a legendary photographic artist, lecturer, teacher, critic, and author. It contains a list of the many venues in which his work has been exhibited, the numerous institutions that have his work in their permanent collections, the many books and articles that are by or about him or contain his work, the places he taught, the tributes bestowed upon him, and various and sundry memorabilia. It is our way of keeping his legacy alive for future generations: to appreciate his photographs and learn from his philosophy of life.