* 1943 Milwaukee,WI, USA
† 2013 Paris, France
Jerry Berndt was born in 1943 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, hometown of the largest German community in the United States. His dirtpoor grandmother had immigrated from Posen, which was then in East Prussia, before the outbreak of World War I. His father, Walter, worked in a factory before going into business running a bar in their working-class neighborhood. This is where Jerry, the eldest of four children, spent his childhood and, as his self-made legend has it, where he learned to read while sorting the different brands of beer. Disease was rife in the family and the father ran several jobs to pay medical bills. As a teenager, Jerry was sent to a Lutherian minister school to improve his prospects in life but soon girls, cars and beer saw off his fleeting vocation as a minister. Back in Milwaukee, he nevertheless became the first member of the family to graduate from high school.
By the early 1960's, Jerry Berndt does odd jobs, plays music and moves closer to student circles. He has no formal training and no clear idea about his future. At a party, he meets Paul Goodman, a poet and respected contributor to the social sciences (Growing Up Absurd, 1956) who sees himself as a pacifist and anarchist. Goodman advises the young man to enroll as a student and helps him gain admission. Jerry Berndt will never graduate from college but he is in the thick of things and learns quickly. Within a short time, he is one of the organizers of protest actions against America's involvement in Vietnam. He works full-time for “the Movement”, counsels conscientious objectors, organizes demonstrations, delivers militant speeches, even steals and burns conscription orders. A sit-in at Milwaukee City Hall will send him to prison for three months. Organizing resistance for SDS (Students for a Democratic Society, the principal student organization), he travels back and forth between Milwaukee, Madison, Boston, Chicago, New York, before finally settling down in Boston.
His career as a photographer begins with a kamikaze move. When the University of Wisconsin-Madison looks for a photo lab technician in the mid 1960's, being in dire financial straits, he applies for the job. He told non one that he had no knowledge whatsoever in this area. With the help of books by the American photographer Ansel Adams the autodidact acquires within a year the necessary skills and gains access to the higher art of enlarging. This period of learning will pay off all his life. A year later, it is him who is behind the camera, taking pictures in the city of passers-by, the homeless, and the lesser aspects of urban architecture.
He also becomes a first-hand chronicler of student protest and the anti-Vietnam War movement. Because of his political involvement, he is on FBI records. After he returns from a trip to Cuba in early 1970, harrassment intensifies. The Harvard Community Psychiatry Laboratory had commissioned Berndt between 1967 and 1970 to document the red-light district which Bostonians referred to as the Combat Zone. It became impossible for him to keep a job without FBI surfacing and putting pressure on his employer to either fire him or lose federal grant money. It is not until he's hired by the Detroit Free Press that he's able to reestablish himself professionally.
Back in Boston in 1973, Jerry Berndt is nearly thirty years old. He has gone through ten eventful years of political activism. Student protest movement has gradually desintegrated into resignation and violence. Seeking solitude and concentration, he makes a new start, not only in his personal life but in photography as well. He opts for the nighttime hours to give shape to his existential poetics as exemplified in Nite Works, desolate night photographs of cities and streets, which will become a permanent work in progress.
In 1976, upon returning from a stint in Portugal during the Revolution, Jerry Berndt marries psychiatrist Judy Herman and fathers a daughter, Emma, in 1978. Early in the 1980's, he increases his social and political involvement as a war photographer and social documentarian. Besides the domestic Missing Persons: The Homeless (1984) he produces extensive series on San Salvador (1984), Guatemala (1985), Haiti (1986–91), while maintaining his poetic and meditative streak of Nite Works and Barrooms. He also undertakes The Babies (1980–92), his unique body of work in color, that captures the power of imagination and fantasy of his daughter Emma.
The 80's also mark the beginning of public recognition with a National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artists Fellowship in 1987 and three Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Grants to complete photographic projects. He teaches photography at the Art Institute of Boston, Boston University’s College of Fine Art, the University of Massachusetts and the Maine Photographic Workshop.
In the 1990's, he starts documenting for the CRCC (Center for Religion and Civic Culture, Los Angeles) all of the religious forms practiced in the Californian metropolis. Their collaboration will include international projects like documenting the aftermath of the earthquake and the ongoing war in Armenia (1993). To those who contend he's a miserabilist, he takes on the challenge by becoming the photographer of the Boston Ballet, where he proves extremely inspired. Meanwhile, abroad, France welcomes his first show of Barrooms at the FNAC in 1993 and the Bibliothèque Nationale acquires prints for its collection.
In 1998, at the age of 55, Jerry Berndt moves to Paris, France, to live with Marie-Pascale Lescot. A writer and director, he had met her in Haiti in 1991. Soon a boy is born, Clément. Berndt continues his collaboration with the CRCC and the Pew Foundation on documenting the role played by religious organizations welcoming new immigrants in USA five gated cities ; the lives of orphans in Rwanda ten years after the genocide (2004). He pursues his Nite Works wherever he goes, in famous cities as well as in unknown villages, and takes a liking to photographing Dancing Trees, his only in-nature body of work. But the Paris years are above all years of extensive scrutinizing and revisiting of his enormous archives. Nils Grossien from White Trash Contemporary, Hamburg, organizes Bernd's first show in Hambourg (2007) which will pave the way for the recognition of his work in Germany. This is quickly followed by a retrospective in Braunschweig, then in Berlin, and shows in other cities till 2012. His monography, Insight (2009), is published by Steidl. As a treat, he even works for German radio, creating short programs that are quintessentially Berndt. He is also part of Streetwise, San Diego MOPA's show in 2011 dedicated to street photography, alongside Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, among others. After three years of work on his book Beautiful America, diminished by a cardiac and vascular condition, Jerry Berndt dies in July 2013. His last pictures are taken with a 1920's box camera.
Call out :
“This is photography as emotion. Jerry goes somewhere and makes you feel what it felt like, not just what it looked like.” Eugene Richards
“Jerry doesn't have a schtick, a monochrome way of working, a covers-it-all style, even though not adopting such an approach can be econonomically deadly in the photo market. I like the way he seems not to care ! On the contrary, his images can be very angry, sometimes beautiful, sometimes formal, often melancholic. Jerry is a photographer who responds to what he sees.“ Eugene Richards
PHOTOGRAPHS IN COLLECTIONS
Sammlung Falckenberg/Deichtorhallen, Hamburg, GER
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France
Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,
Boston Public Library, Boston,
FNAC Galeries Photo, Paris, France
Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA
Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, CA
International Center of Photography, New York, NY
Danforth Museum of Art, Framingham, MA
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
Fine Arts Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
GRANTS / AWARDS
1989 Massproductions Grant. The Arts and Humanities Foundation, Boston MA (to complete and exhibit the Haiti project)
1989 Photography Fellowship, The Artists' Foundation, Boston MA (for work done in Haiti)
1987 Finalist W. Smith Memorial Fund, New York NY (for work done in Haiti)
1987 National Endowment for the Arts, Visual Artists Fellowship (for work on the homeless)
1986 Photography Fellowship, The Artists' Foundation, Boston MA (for work done in El Salvador and Guatemala)
1985 Massproductions Grant Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Foundation, Boston MA (to exhibit the homeless project)
1983 Project Completion Grant, The Artists' Foundation, Boston MA (to complete and exhibit "The Babies" project)
1981 National Endowment for the Arts Survey Project Grant (to document route 128 around Boston)
1979 Photography Fellowship, The Artists' Foundation, Boston MA (for the nighttime’s series)
1976 Photography Fellowship, The Kosciuzko Foundation, New York NY (for work on the Polish community in Milwaukee W1) PHOTOGRAPHY POSITIONS
1976-78 Photography editor/staff photographer, The Boston Phoenix Boston MA 1970-73 Staff photographer Detroit Area Weekly Newspapers Detroit MI
1967-69 Staff photographer Harvard University Medical School Laboratory of Community Psychiatry Boston MA
1967-69 Staff photographer/film maker Boston Children's Museum Boston MA
1991-94 Instructor Maine Photographic Workshops Rockport MI
1991 Instructor Santa Fe Photographic Workshop Santa Fe NM
1987-88 Instructor University of Massachusetts Boston MA
1977-83 Instructor The Art Institute of Boston Boston MA 1980-83 Instructor Project Arts Center Cambridge MA