Jerry Berndt, 69; photographer captured images of dispossessed
A prostitute gazes out a window in what is probably Jerry Berndt’s most famous photograph: “The Combat Zone, Washington St., Boston, 1968.” Her long false eyelashes and expansive headband seem designed less to attract clients than to keep them at a remove. Two cigarettes in an ashtray hint at the presence of an unseen companion.
“The slight reflection from the plate-glass window reminds us of the barrier between the woman sitting in the coffee shop and the rest of the world,” Globe critic Mark Feeney wrote in March 2010 when the photo was included in a Boston exhibit.
With memorable photos from the Combat Zone and of the homeless in Boston’s Long Island shelter, Mr. Berndt lent permanence to people and places many scarcely noticed, if they saw them at all. By pushing aside barriers that were invisible, yet very real, he preserved a part of Boston history now gone, and he did the same with the poor, dying, and dead in Haiti and Rwanda.
Mr. Berndt’s “objective is to render the lives of these people as openly and as candidly as he can,” Globe critic Kelly Wise wrote of a 1986 exhibit. “His concern for them as human beings is evident, but never patronizing. His presence makes them neither self-conscious nor theatrical.”
Mr. Berndt, whose careful, compassionate eye composed photos that could be as inspiring as they were unsettling, was found dead in his Paris studio on July 10, probably from a heart attack. At 69, he had struggled with substance abuse, said his wife, Marie-Pascale Lescot, and in recent years he underwent a series of heart surgeries.
While shooting for newspapers and magazines from Boston to Paris, Mr. Berndt published and contributed to books, led workshops, and was awarded fellowships. Such an international reputation was unusual for a self-taught photographer who grew up in a bar in Milwaukee and had wrested himself his rightful place among weary factory workers lingering to drink in solitude after a shift.
“When he started doing photography of people in bars alone, it was just like he was photographing himself,” Lescot said. “He had this incredible sensitivity. He was also a very wounded man, and that is very much in his work.”
She added that “there was a commonality between his wounds and fragility and what he was trying to grab and see.”
The results of Mr. Berndt efforts vaulted him up the ranks of documentary photographers in Boston, where he was based on and off for three decades, beginning in the late 1960s.
“In the pantheon of Boston photographers, he’s right up there at the top,” said Stan Grossfeld, an associate editor at the Globe who has twice been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for photography.
Never physically imposing, Mr. Berndt was short and wiry, hair often obscuring his eyes. “With no concern for his personal welfare, Jerry was not afraid to push the limits to get those images, whether it be in the Combat Zone in Boston or in Haiti or Rwanda,” Grossfeld said. “I don’t know how he did it.”
At times, Mr. Berndt himself seemed as amazed that he had ended up as an adult clutching a camera. To his working-class Milwaukee family, he told the Globe in 1992, “a photographer was a guy with a cigar who shot weddings.”
During an interview for “Streetwise: Masters of 60s Photography,” which is posted on YouTube, Mr. Berndt added that his “destiny in life was to be a factory worker.” He was doing just that when he ran into the activist and writer Paul Goodman in a bar one night. Goodman encouraged Mr. Berndt to leave the factory behind and go to college.
Academics didn’t go well at the University of Wisconsin, but a professor offered Mr. Berndt a job printing photographs. He lied and said he could, then taught himself to become adept in the darkroom. At a friend’s suggestion, he also started shooting photographs during the years of student unrest and antiwar activism on campuses.
“I was organizing a lot of the demonstrations,” he told the Globe in 1992, “so I knew where they’d happen.”
While photographing protests, Mr. Berndt arrived in Boston in the late 1960s. A versatile photographer, he shot at various times through the years for publications and institutions such as the Globe, the Boston Phoenix, Harvard University, the Boston Ballet, and museums.
He wanted the freedom to choose his subjects, however. In the “Streetwise” interview, Mr. Berndt said he realized “that photography was a real social tool. You could really change people’s minds. And one of the thrills today is still putting up an exhibition, being part of an exhibition, and watching total strangers go up to something you’ve made and there’s this communication, and you can see people sort of soaking in whatever it was you were trying to say.”
Mr. Berndt’s marriage to Dr. Judith Lewis Herman ended in divorce.
He moved to Paris in the late 1990s after meeting Lescot in Haiti. She e-mailed a brief autobiographical essay Mr. Berndt prepared two years ago for a German art magazine, in which he wrote: “I know it’s a cliché but it’s true: Love was what brought me to Paris. I fell in love with a French woman and eventually she issued an ultimatum: Either move to Paris or find another girlfriend.”
No matter where his life or assignments took him, though, Mr. Berndt kept close to his beginnings. If a publication put him up some place swanky, he would head out at night to find the seediest bar in town.
“I’d sit down, maybe take a picture, maybe not, but it at least it felt like home,” he said last year in an interview posted online by the United Nations of Photography. “Stale beer, dumped whiskey, lots of cigarette and cigar smoke. When I’d had my fill, I’d go back to the fancy hotel.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Berndt leaves a daughter from his first marriage, Emma of Chicago; Clément, his son with Lescot; a brother, Michael of Northampton; and a sister, Sandra of St. Paul.
Family and friends will gather to celebrate Mr. Berndt’s life and career at 6 p.m. Friday in the Miller/Yezerski Gallery in Boston.
“I don’t look for picturesque spots,” Mr. Berndt once wrote of shooting at night in Paris, but he could as easily have been describing his work in the Combat Zone or Haiti. “I set up my tripod on the most ordinary corner, frame the image, release the shutter, and wait for a very long time. The sounds of the city become weird, ghostly, or like the breathing of a lover beside you. Bats and rats rustle, footsteps sound somewhere, and there is plenty of time and silence to see and feel fear and wonder.”
Mr. Berndt “preserved a part of Boston,” Grossfeld said.
“In the dark days of the ’70s in Boston, he was the guy shining a light in the dark corners,” Grossfeld added. “He was there in the darkness of Boston, and then he was gone.”