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Interview with Benedict J. Fernandez


Benedict J. Fernandez’s life has followed a path where many fear to tread, combining his interest of social change with his natural ability to document the world around him. As a photojournalist he has covered many historical events of the last century, while as an educator he has helped to mold many young minds through his innovative photography programs and workshops. 

If you ever have the good fortune to sit down with photographer and educator Benedict J. Fernandez, his stories are just as rich and interesting as his photographs. Inside the Almanac Gallery in Hoboken, New Jersey – a photo exhibition gallery founded by Fernandez and his wife, Siiri – his master storytelling becomes apparent with each tale that illustrates his 50 plus years in the world of photography. “I grew up in Spanish Harlem. My mother was Italian and my father was Spanish. We lived in quote ‘the ghetto’ which turned out to be the best place for me. It was a mixture of all kinds of people – some very affluent, some very poor – but we were all mixed. Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Blacks, Whites, Chinese, so that was a positive thing. For example: Third Avenue was a dividing line. Now my name is Fernandez, and on the west side of Third Avenue they spoke Spanish.

On the east side of Third Ave they spoke Italian. So I was able to survive by being able to cross either side and speak the language. So that was a technique of survival, which was important because when you leave the ghetto and you get out into the real world, it’s all a matter of survival. So I had tools in which to survive, and photography became one of my tools.”

Fernandez’s life has followed a path where many fear to tread, combining his interest of social change with his natural ability to document the world around him. As a photojournalist he has covered many historical events of the last century, while as an educator he has helped to mold many young minds through his innovative photography programs and workshops. Whether it’s covering the protest movements of the 1960’s, documenting Dr. Martin Luther King in the last year of his life, capturing the ghosts of Ellis Island with his camera, or photographing the samurai of Japan, his camera is an active participant. His images, even in their quietest of moments, have an energy. You feel the immediacy of the moment, and the experience is a potent one for the viewer. It’s experience that matters to Fernandez, who prefers to call himself a photo- anthropologist rather than a photojournalist. “A journalist is someone that writes and talks about photography. I live it. Basically I live it. I have to have something happening to make the pictures. I don’t sit down and take the camera and say I’m going to take pictures.

Click. Click. Click. No, something has to happen in order for me to want to take the pictures, because I don’t read or write. I live.”

Born on April 5, 1936 in the Hispanic section of East Harlem, New York, Fernandez turned to photography not only as a form of expression but as a means of communication. “Basically I suffer from a malady called dyslexia. I had trouble reading, and they sent me to all kinds of remedial reading classes and so on in the school system in New York. They could never comprehend why I could speak so well and yet not be able to read well. They didn’t know what dyslexia was at the time. Then all of a sudden, the Bureau of Child Guidance started giving me special testing and they came up with this problem called dyslexia. So I had to develop techniques in which I was able to develop reading techniques. I don’t read in a normal way. I studied sounds and things of that sort, and I put together words like and or the, and these are words that I memorized. So I don’t sound them out. I have a vocabulary of words that I know what they are. I look at them as pictures. So that’s where you can say my reading capability was formulated in the technique of photography. Words are images for me, and that’s made a big difference.”

It’s through the affliction of dyslexia that Fernandez learned a valuable lesson that he has utilized throughout his life. “It’s something that dyslexia does for you. It’s a philosophical thing that I have developed. What’s important is not the problem, it’s the solution that’s important.”

Upon graduating from high school, Fernandez entered the workforce by way of the shipyards. Fernandez found work as an operating engineer and crane operator at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard. Its during his time here that Fernandez photographed his fellow coworkers in what was to become his first major photographic portfolio Riggers. His photographic attention wasn’t the only thing that the shipyards captured, however, as he holds up the thumb on his right hand. The top knuckle where the nail cuticle should be is missing, leaving a sewn-stump in its place. The result of an accident while working.

“Don’t bite your nails,” he says with a laugh and a grin.

Fernandez eventually moved on to a position at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but was blindsided when operations shut down in 1963, and he found himself unemployed. Deciding to make his love for photography his new profession, Fernandez started working bar-mitzvahs and weddings. While attending a Jose Greco performance with his father at Lewisohn Stadium in New York, Fernandez was photographing when an older gentleman approached asking if he had any film to spare for his camera. Fernandez obliged and gave the man a few rolls of film. “So I keep shooting, and at the end of thing he called me back and said, ‘You know I could have had you thrown out. I’m the official photographer. But you were so generous with me by giving me film, I would like to do you a favor.’”

This favor ended up being the chance to meet legendary graphic designer Alexey Brodovitch, art director for Harper’s Bazaar and creator of the influential Design Laboratory – an advanced workshop for photographers and designers wanting to push the boundaries of design practices. Through this meeting Fernandez was granted a scholarship to Design Laboratory, which instigated a contentious yet fruitful relationship with Brodovitch.

“I guess I related to Brodovitch because I could deal with the problems. I mean Brodovitch was a pain in the ass. I mean he was chasing you, he was crying, physically he would cry because something went wrong. The next minute he was ready to hit you. I grew up with that. My mother was like that.”

Fernandez spent the next several years working with Brodovitch. While he had already been taking photographs of the ensuing protest movements that were taking place in the 60s, it was through Brodovitch that his project found its most valuable support. “Brodovitch had an apartment on the second floor of 15th Street & Park Avenue. I went to see Brodovitch and I was showing him pictures, and from his window is Union Square. Union Square is where the Socialists and the Communists were coming out and protesting, and I started photographing there. So Brodovitch looks out and says, ‘This is your project.’ So Brodovitch got a kick out of it. He supported my idea. Brodovitch always talked about the idea. What’s important is not the image, it’s the idea. The idea will manufacture the image.”

Over the course of the next several years, Fernandez covered the protest movement in a detail rarely seen up to this point; examining such groups as the Anti-War Movement, Pro-War Movement, Nazis, Neo-Nazis, Black Power, Socialists, Capitalists, and everything in between. Fernandez utilized creative techniques to gain access to the groups and capture the pictures he needed. “When I started photographing the protest movement, I went to a demonstration in Washington. So I put a flower in my hair because it was the hippies. I forgot about it and continued on to see George Lincoln Rockwell in Arlington. That was the American Nazi and the Nazi headquarters was in Arlington, Virginia. Just over the bridge from Washington, D.C. I walked into Nazi Headquarters with a flower in my ear and I almost got killed!” he says with a laugh. “One of the things I used to do all the time was I carried a button on my right lapel that said Bomb Hanoi. My left lapel said Bring Our Troops Home. So as long as I remembered left or right, I would save my ass.”

His visual documentation of the protest movement would ultimately culminate in the wildly successful exhibition Conscience: The Ultimate Weapon at the George Eastman House in 1968. Curated by Nathan Lyons, the show became the most controversial exhibition in the museum’s history. “Beaumont Newhall was the director of Eastman House, and Nathan was his assistant. Beaumont was going to do an exhibit about the sky, but when he looked at my work he said he would give me a week. The newspapers, everyone at Eastman House, pushed the event because this was the moment, this was 1968. Everything was going crazy, with the Chicago Demonstration and all that stuff. Well, it just exploded. Nathan was excited. Beaumont said, ‘Okay, we’ll go from one week to three weeks.’ Well, the United States Information Agency came and other organizations came, and it went from three weeks to six months.”

Among the photographs that appeared in Conscience: The Ultimate Weapon was a series of pictures taken of Martin Luther King, who Fernandez photographed during the last year of his life. Fernandez would later create an influential exhibition of this time entitled Countdown to Eternity, which traveled to 18 cities across the United States under the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation and the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild of Pittsburgh (where a permanent display of the exhibition is still housed). “I learned more from King’s attitude than I learned from King. I had a situation where I was having dinner with King at his house, and these people were sitting there and asking him to make a demonstration. He was breaking these things on his food. So all of a sudden they see this, and they start to eat them too. Well, they’re hot chili peppers. Very hot. These people are drinking water, trying to put out the fire, and King’s watching and I’m enjoying it. He says to me, ‘You like hot food? You know it’s good for your digestive system, and it’s good for you in the summer because it gets you warm so you cool off, and in the winter it keeps you warm so you warm up.’ And that was King (laughs). I worked with him, and I stayed there three days photographing him. Came around everyday to his house and he let me work with him. King was a very interesting character. He was killed too early.”

Pointing at one of his iconic images of King on the wall in the gallery, Fernandez expresses how photography can not only document social change but influence it as well. “This portrait of King has gotten me more opportunities. What has happened is that people see these images and it triggers ideas, so that’s what does it. If a picture has no capability of instigating anything, than nothing happens.

So there are some pictures that are just that: pictures. But there are photographs that are statements, and that picture of King is a statement.”

While Fernandez captured the world around him with his camera, he also captured the imaginations of countless students through his progressive educational work. As the photographer at the esteemed Public Theater created by Joe Papp, Fernandez was given room in the basement to establish the PhotoFilm Workshop. Here, Fernandez taught photography to community youth, free of charge. Many of the attendees went on to successful careers in various industries. Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Angel Franco was a student, as was acclaimed architectural designer Llewellyn Lennon. “I don’t teach in the way of ‘You read this or you read that,’ because I don’t read. I teach by experience. What made it work is that it was not done traditionally.”

One day at the workshop, a young man came in and asked Fernandez if he could do something like this at a regular university. The young man turned out to be Michael Engel, the Assistant to the Dean of the New School of Social Research, and soon Fernandez was developing classes in photography. “Michael never gave me trouble, the department ran, and he put up the money. Anytime I would dream up an idea, he would put up the money. And it took off! In about four years it was the biggest photographic school. We bought out Parsons in 1970. We got a new building, and we went from ten enlargers to a floor of about 35 to 40 enlargers. This became the New School of Photography at the Parsons School of Design. Then things just took off, and it became very big. I said later, ‘Why don’t we got to Europe?’ So we went to Europe and I set up a class in Paris. Then I did the Focus Program, which was a one week concentrated photography program. I created the Leica Medal of Excellence. The first group of people to get the Leica Medal of Excellence were Jill Krementz, Jill Freedman, and Mary Ellen Mark. It was quite an experience.” Fernandez credits his imagination and the trust of others in the success of his photographic tutelage. “I mean, I would dream things up. I had the benefactor of the Engel Trust. I would dream up something, they would say okay, and that was it. If I had to go to committees and all that, it wouldn’t have happened. So the reason it happened was because you had a guy with a fertile imagination, and I had an organization that just backed it. That’s what made the difference.”

Back in Hoboken, Fernandez has come full circle. Sitting in the Almanac Gallery that houses his immense body of work, his 75 year old body in no way reflects his youthful mind and spirit. “Maturity sucks,” he says with a smile. When asked what advice he has for up and coming documentary photographers, his answer is honest and to the point. “Work. Don’t ask questions, work your problems out. In other words, if you ask somebody, they’ll tell you. But if you explore yourself, and answer your question with your exploration, that’s the way to do it. Getting experience. Basically, have an experience.”

Interview by Andy Prisbylla

The 60’s: Decade of Change
Benedict J. Fernandez
From May 2nd to July 20th, 2014
Bronx Documentary Center
614 Courtlandt Avenue
NY 10451 New York
United Sates

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