A man of vision
February 11, 2004
Very shortly after Joel Soroka opened his fine-art photography gallery in Aspen, in 1993, he was paid a brief, mysterious visit by an enthusiastic photography lover. “This thin, old, Old World European gentleman came in and looked at my first exhibit, and said, ‘Finally, real photographs in Aspen!’ ” recalled Soroka. “And then he left. He didn’t even introduce himself.” A few days later the gentleman returned, carrying a set of books of his own photographs. He introduced himself as Ferenc “Franz” Berko. It was a name Soroka was certainly familiar with, but one he had no idea he would come across in Aspen. “When I came here, I was aware of Franz Berko as a photographer, who specialized in nudes,” said Soroka, whose gallery currently features an exhibit, Ferenc Berko: Photographs from the estate of the artist, which focuses on Berko’s early fine-art work. “That was his reputation in the real world. I wasn’t aware he was from Aspen.”
Berko was, indeed, from Aspen. A native of Nagyr+rad, Hungary, Berko grew up in Germany and lived in England, France and India before before moving to the United States and settling in Chicago, where he taught photography and motion pictures at the Institute of Design. It was in Chicago that Berko met industrialist Walter Paepcke, who was in the process of reviving the old mining town of Aspen. Paepcke invited Berko to move to Aspen, luring him with the opportunity to photograph the intellectuals and artists who would be coming to Aspen for the newly formed Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies and the Aspen Music Festival. In 1949, Berko and his wife, Mirte, moved to Aspen, where Berko would live and work until his death last year.
In retrospect, Berko’s quick first stop in Soroka’s gallery wasn’t that unusual. By all accounts, the photographer was a quiet man who didn’t readily expose himself with words, but reserved his enthusiasm for his art. “He earned his respect from doing rather than talking,” said Mirte Mallory, Berko’s granddaughter. “He was a quiet man; he didn’t like to be at the center of attention. He wasn’t a businessman.” Instead, Berko expressed himself with his camera and his photographs. With his camera, Berko, who died in March 2000 at the age of 84, was remarkably eloquent, able to speak a variety of visual languages. He expressed beauty through his acclaimed nudes. He demonstrated a keen intelligence with his abstract photographs, grounded in the classic artistic elements of form, design, geometry and pattern. Berko could be deeply humorous in his work; he could also reveal a caring, humanist spirit in his photographs. Though known primarily for his black-and-white photographs, Berko was also a pioneer in the field of color photography, one of the first fine-art photographers to attempt serious work in color. “He didn’t talk about what he saw, how he sensed the world,” said the 21-year-old Mallory, a student at Dartmouth College who is writing her senior honors thesis on her grandfather and his work. “He used his camera to show what he thought of the world.” Berko used all of his background, and the full range of styles of his era, to make his artistic statement. He had been well-traveled even before he came to the States. After teaching himself photography and filmmaking while living in England and France, he went to India in 1938, taking work as a cameraman on Indian motion pictures. Later, he did commercial work and portraiture. Berko was able to use his experience to offer a unique perspective on America. “He came to America with a fresh eye, coming from Europe and India,” said Soroka. “He saw things that were wholly American, with a fresh eye.” Perhaps just as important as his travels was Berko’s ability to merge photographic approaches. In the earliest days of the technology, photography was used primarily as a documentary device. Later on, photographers, including the young Berko, became concerned with photography as a classic art, influenced by such schools as Cubism and Russian constructivism, and concerned with design and form and beauty. There was also emerging a style, associated with such photographers as the Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson, that was concerned more with human subjects engaged in everyday life.
Berko was able to intertwine these various approaches. “He came out of a time where geometry and form were really essential to photographers. There was a classical sensibility, and Franz comes out of that,” said Soroka, who spent much time with Berko, talking about the photographer’s life and work. “And with Franz, you add to that the sensibility of Cartier-Bresson, and Andrei Kertesz, people who shot in the street and added the human element to it. They were big influences on Franz’s work. He had what I would call a humanistic quality Ñ he sees a certain charm in the everyday. It’s sweet; it’s charming. Some of it is fun; some is funny.” “He moved beyond that level of photograph as documentary, and brought into it a more abstract level of art,” said Mirte Mallory, who has said she “grew up in the darkroom” with her grandfather. “For him, a street scene was not just a street scene. He saw more than that. He had a way of seeing the world, of taking what we would ordinarily see, and make us see it in a way that we’d never look at it the same way again. He turned things upside down. He wanted it to have shape, color, form, design, pattern. He wanted it to be what it looked like, not what was its meaning.”
With his move to Aspen came a marked change in Berko’s professional life. He still did fine-art photography, but in the tiny outpost that was midcentury Aspen, Berko had to expand his reach. “He came to Aspen and he had to survive, so he did anything,” said Soroka. “He did skiing photographs, going on the mountain to shoot tourists. He did commercial work for Walter Paepcke’s company [Container Corporation of America]. He documented the Aspen Music Festival and the Aspen Institute. So in that sense he was a treasure to Aspen. He was the first photographer to start documenting Aspen’s renaissance.”
Berko had a satisfying and successful life in Aspen. He worked out of a shop, Berko Photography, on East Hopkins Street in downtown Aspen, selling mainly Aspen photographs. (His wife Mirte sold European toys at the same shop.) Aspen’s rising profile allowed Berko to have occasional contact with the highest echelon of the art world. In the early ’50s, Berko organized a photography symposium at the Aspen Institute; not only did the event attract the likes of Ansel Adams and Berenice Abbott, but it also led to the founding of the respected Aperture magazine. Still, Berko did pay a price professionally for not being in an art center like New York or Chicago. “I think to some degree, his work suffered because he came here in 1949 and was out of the loop of fine photography,” said Soroka. “His career would have been better off had he been in New York or London. He had a good life, but his work deserved to be better known.” Berko’s work is getting increasing exposure in the wider world. A 1999 book, “Berko: Photographs 1935-1951,” published by Graphis, joined the first book to focus solely on Berko, “Ferenc Berko: 60 Years of Photography,” edited by Karl Steinorth and published in 1991. Several retrospective shows, in Frankfurt, Budapest, New York, and Lausanne, Switzerland, were devoted to his work in the ’90s. Next year, an Art Institute of Chicago retrospective on photography in Chicago will include a piece of Berko’s. And in Aspen Berko’s images have become a part of the visual landscape. His photograph of pianist Artur Rubenstein riding a chairlift in the early days of Aspen’s rebirth is as much a classic as any image of the Maroon Bells. “He’s absolutely the most noted Aspen photographer,” said Soroka. “Unquestionably.”