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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Calendar > Arts and Culture

Len Bernstein: Photography beyond the surface

By Frank Rizzo - editor

By: Len Bernstein Photo
“Living Room. Hoboken, NJ.”
Our talk was technical – megapixels, film speeds, camera models, etc. But in a recent conversation, Forestburgh's Len Bernstein cut through the jargon with the observation that the human eye remains the ultimate tool for the photographer.
In his first published book, “Photography, Life, and the Opposites,” with a Foreword by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dr. Robert Coles, Bernstein writes: “The art of photography begins long before we ever pick up a camera; it begins with how we see the whole world.”
Bernstein has published papers, given lectures and taught workshops abroad and in the US, including Sullivan County Community College. When we began this interview, he had just returned from Canada, where he was invited to give a lecture at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

His approach to photography is based on Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded by Eli Siegel (1902-78), the world-renowned American educator and poet.
On Bernstein's website (, which receives thousands of visitors every year, he tells of his early days as a photographer and what he was hoping for:
“I had found a way of expressing myself that met something so deep inside me that I wanted to do it for the rest of my life. Walking with my camera, the city streets seemed transformed – friendlier, more interesting – and I spent hours searching for dramatic situations, trying to capture the right moment. Looking through the viewfinder, what I saw had new value for me, boredom and loneliness seemed to vanish, and I wished I could feel that way all the time.”
He found the means to bridge that gulf between art and his personal life in this principle stated by Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
“Perhaps the most important opposites in our lives,” Bernstein said, “are Self and World, and they are richly present in photography.”
Bernstein writes colloquially – as if he and the reader are having a friendly conversation by the fireside – all the while illuminating “what makes a photograph successful and how our most everyday and urgent questions are answered in art.”
In the chapter “What Kind of Emotion Are We Looking For?” he describes feeling, on first seeing his future wife, that romance has mystery and logic:
“The first time I met Harriet, I was smitten by her looks and calm, graceful manner. As we got to know each other, I saw the thoughtful way she listened to people; she could also dance at a party with an abandon that thrilled me. She was a relation of body and intellect, calm and exuberance, that I found irresistible, and I also felt she had a gentleness I lacked. I felt more hopeful about love, and some months later on a snowy weekend in upstate New York, Harriet and I were married.”
They took their vows in 1975 in the famed Village of Woodstock, and eventually settled in Forestburgh on eight acres of forestland they fell in love with at first sight. It seemed to them the natural choice after years of day trips to Sullivan County and Harriet's fond childhood memories of Ben Gulkow's Bungalow Colony.
Len talked about the natural beauty of Sullivan County. “I remember one day,” he said, “sitting on the back porch looking at the trees swaying gently in the wind when suddenly a magnificent eagle soared by, its large shadow moving across the sunlit grass – it was awe-inspiring!”
Bernstein loves teaching and is proud of the effect he has on students. One attendee at a recent workshop wrote to him: “I see many things differently now and it is quite fulfilling. I have you to thank for that.”
When a photographer learns, Bernstein noted, how the best technical choices arise out of emotion that is fair to his or her subject, something fundamental changes in the way they see the relation of art and life.
The closeness of art and life in Bernstein's marriage is apparent in this early memory he related. When they were first getting to know each other, Harriet said to him, “I wish you would look at me the way you look at your subjects when you take their pictures.”
For once, the photographer who grapples deeply with the meaning of images, words and emotions did not have an answer.
“It was conceit that kept me from answering truthfully,” Len remarked. “It's one of the things men need to have more courage about – we should want to see the people closest to us with greater depth, and stop thinking that we already know them just because we are close to them.”
Aesthetic Realism, he explained, “states that ethics begins with the human obligation to see everything, living and not living, as well as one can… Where we get away from this obligation or don't see it, or diminish its meaning, it is rather clear that contempt is showing its strength – indeed is winning.”
Bernstein expressed the self-criticism and pride of an artist:
“When I first began to photograph, I was interested in capturing a beautiful moment but this was unfortunately mixed up with my desire to get a ‘great photograph that would make me look impressive to others. As a result I was often tripping over my ego – and I certainly didn't take any great photographs! These days, I am enjoying the pleasure and self-respect that comes from trying to be fair to the world. I wake up every morning knowing that whatever I may meet, I have the knowledge to be proud of how I see it. And, yes, I take photographs that I think can have a good effect on the people who see them.”

Len Bernstein has been photographing since 1974, and his work is in many private and public collections. In 1986, he began to write, lecture, and conduct workshops on the relation of photography to ethics as it affects family life, love and marriage, and economics.
Selected lectures/workshops: The University of Northampton, England, Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities, Oahu International Association of Empirical Aesthetics, Illinois Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association, The Arts in Society: University of Sydney, Australia, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada, Creative Arts Workshop, Connecticut .
Selected public collections: The Library of Congress, Washington, Bibliothe`que nationale de France, Paris, France, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, The Brooklyn Museum, New York, Museum of the City of New York, New York, The New York Public Library, New York.
Solo exhibitions: 1998: “Proud Moments,” Pleiades Gallery, New York; 1999: Museum of the Hebrew Home for the Aged, New York; 2000: “The Wonder of the Everyday,” Pleiades Gallery, New York; 2007: University of Northampton, Northampton, England; 2013: Terrain Gallery, New York.
Contact: Delia Press, P.O. Box 907, Monticello, NY 12701 • 917-589-5729 •

Praise for Bernstein's book and

“I love this book and its philosophy of photography based on the Siegel Theory of Opposites. Len Bernstein's career is an exceptional one, and within these pages you will find a master photographer and critic at work.”
– George Hobart, former Curator of Documentary Photographs, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

“Wonderfully inspiring images and words from the Aesthetic Realism point of view.”
– Graham Nash, co-founder of Nash Editions and Crosby, Stills & Nash

“I'm truly honored to have received this beautiful volume of photographs. I love it and wonder how the hell I was lucky enough to be sent it. Mr. Bernstein, you have introduced me to an approach to art, based on the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel, that is way beyond anything I would have entertained. Thank you, thank you!”
– Ed Asner, seven-time Emmy Award-winning actor

“It is clear that Len Bernstein is a connoisseur of human gesture and expression.”
– John Loengard, LIFE photographer and author of “Age of Silver –
Encounters with Great Photographers”

“Len Bernstein's photographs touch the one who looks at them directly in mind and sensitivity. They are the result of a great gentleness towards people and every form of life that he meets – gentleness that breeds poetry. He gets close to people, but at the perfect distance, which is a good and unusual quality in a photographer.”
– Anne Biroleau-Lemagny, Chief Curator, Bibliothe`que nationale de France, Paris

“Len Bernstein captivated his audience through lecture and hands-on activities in the outdoors, as they learned to capture the moment through the lens of a camera. Participants at Sullivan County Community College gave an outstanding rating to this workshop.”
– Ellen Galligan, Ed.D., Vice
President for Academic and Student Affairs, SCCC

“Mr. Bernstein immediately connected to his audience and presented not only technical information and historical perspectives about photography, but a thrilling explanation of how the beauty of a photograph can have us better understand the questions of our lives.”
– Donna Ciampa-Lauria, Director, Queens Library at Flushing, NY

“I found your lecture to be inspiring and applicable to my personal vision as a photographer and as an educator.”
– Jaclyn Roberts, Photography teacher, High School of Art and
Design, Manhattan

“This is a remarkable book; it will delight and deeply inform a general audience, but it also belongs in any comprehensive university curriculum… You will be mightily moved and impressed by his pictures and accompanying words. Such a gift, this book, to our eyes and to our inward, contemplating life.”
– Dr. Robert Coles of Harvard University, a recipient of the
Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a National Humanities Medal, in the Foreword to the book.

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