Benedict J. Fernandez
BENEDICT J. FERNANDEZ
Benedict J. Fernandez was born on April 5, 1936 in New York City, in the Hispanic neighborhood of East Harlem. His father came to America via Puerto Rico, and his mother an Italian American. His photographic education began at age six when he was given a Brownie box camera.
His early career was not in photography. He worked as an operating engineer/crane operator at Bethlehem Steel Shipyard in Hoboken. It was as a crane operator, that he photographed his fellow shipyard workers, which became his first major portfolio "Riggers". He went on to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, in the same capacity, until the facility closed in 1963. At that time he decided to turn his long time hobby into his life's work. He came to the attention of Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director and graphic designer. Brodovitch invited him to enroll in his Design Laboratory and became Fernandez's most influential mentor. Brodovitch arranged for Ben to become the darkroom tech and manager at Parsons School of Design. Nobody could have imagined in those very early days what a significant role Ben would eventually play at Parsons.
Ben Fernandez brought many "firsts" to his new departments of photography. Some of the more significant concepts were: Not having professional teachers teaching but rather having professional photographers as teachers. Some of the more notable photographers who participated were Lisette Model, Diane Arbus, Philippe Halsman, Arnold Newman , George Tice and many others.
He founded the FOCUS program which became an international series of workshops and student exchange programs. FOCUS programs still run in Germany. He also founded the LEICA MEDAL OF EXCELLENCE which has become a prestigious photographic award.
Ben Fernandez emerges from the period of intensified creative photography that began in New York and has radiated into international art over the past few decades. To a great extent, his path to photography was prepared by the legendary Alexey Brodovitch (1898-1971), who helped propel many others, including the major portraitists and fashion photographers Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, Brodovitch was Ben Fernandez's most important mentor and promoter, a man who not only gave him difficult photographic projects to carry out but awakened his talents as a teacher as well.
We now know Fernandez as a master of the camera. One could list a great number of subjects he has approached from the standpoint of a concerned observer. They would span the globe, from the U.S. to Europe and on to Japan and China; they would also include people, individuals and groups, in his own country, and simple, almost archaic still lifes. Any attempt to assign him to one of the standard pigeon-holes of photographic art is doomed to failure. He describes a situation or event in his very own unique, penetrating way, but with an unwavering commitment to the human being. His visual statement often rises to the status of a symbol, and thus a picture is created as a concentrate of several others.
Fernandez's visual stories offer insights into particular spheres of humanity or geography - the macho world of BIKERS, for example, who identify with power of their motorcycles, or the bullfighters, who pretend superiority over their victims. In Puerto Rico he sees the elegance of the boulevards and the macho men behind their window bars. In London he is interested in the speakers in Hyde Park, with their bowler hats, and in the Bobbies in their towering helmets and chin straps. In Bonn he is impressed with the characteristic gestures exchanged by Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt. Wherever he goes, he sees the old, the passing culture in its striving for modernity. In Moscow, his gaze focuses upon the Soldateska rising out of the past and the future-oriented scenery of the new do-nothings. The clash between historical tradition and progressive civilization in Japan concerns him as well, and all the more in China, where yesterday grapples with tomorrow. Back in America, his grand oeuvre, the stations in the life of Martin Luher King (1929-1968), bears witness to his personal concern with the work of the great Black leader, his death and its aftermath - an illustrated biography that moves the reader to sympathy and contemplation.
It is not mere curiosity but instead his desire to express himself and to communicate insights that drives the photographer Ben Fernandez and his selected points of view out into familiar and unfamiliar worlds. His command of his medium is so complete that his photographs require no further commentary. They are forceful documents of an extraordinary personality.
And when, with the suddenness, and energy of a hurricane, the man himself appears from time to time, we are fully captivated by his personality. This over powering figure is a fountain of knowledge, experience - and suada. Ben Fernandez is a monument to an entire photographic era that profits from the past and looks towards the future. Photography, whose death knell may seem to have been rung by electronic technology, is neither pass nor lost as long as artists like Ben Fernandez still use the traditional camera to say what they have to say." Fritz L. Gruber, Founder of PHOTOKINA , Cologne, Germany