Living light: George Stranahan’s take on Ferenc Berko
November 17, 2005
To budding photographer George Stranahan, Ferenc Berko was a name out of the pantheon of photography greats. As a kid, Stranahan would see Berko’s photographs, alongside images by the other internationally renowned photographers, in the massive, hardbound “U.S. Camera Annual” editions his family would get each year.But for Stranahan, the Hungarian-born, German-bred Berko was also the gentleman down the street who procured supplies and made images of Aspen’s buildings, mountains and events like the Aspen Music Festival. Beginning in 1956, when Stranahan became a regular summer visitor to Aspen, much of his time was spent at the Toy Counter, the old Hopkins Avenue toyshop run by Berko’s wife, Mirte, and where Berko had his darkroom and studio.”You’d go to Berko’s shop and Mirte would go back and say, ‘George is here again,'” recalled Stranahan this week at Flying Dog Ranch, his Woody Creek spread. “So he’d order all my stuff for me. And he’d talk technical details with me, shop talk. This was 1956, ’57, ’58, so it wasn’t busy times for anybody.Ferenc was happy to come out and talk to a fellow photographer. It was about the weather, gossip, but he’d also show me whatever was going on in the darkroom.”Nearly half a century later, Stranahan is confronting Berko in a new way. Working with Berko’s granddaughter, Aspenite Mirte Mallory, Stranahan has taken a batch of Berko’s negatives – all Aspen images, from a six-year period in the middle of the 20th century – and given them a touch of 21st-century technology. “A Selection of Ferenc Berko’s Aspen Photographs, 1948-1953,” featuring 24 digital ink-jet prints, opens at the new Stranahan Photography Gallery in the Woody Creek Community Center with a reception Saturday, Nov. 19, from 5 to 7 p.m.
Stranahan has no qualms about giving his own, computer-aided “interpretation” to Berko’s work. Erring on the side of being overly respectful, leaving Berko’s artistic legacy just where it stood when the photographer died five years ago, isn’t in Stranahan’s makeup.”He was indeed a major figure in photography,” said Stranahan. “And what are you going to do when he’s gone? Take everything he did and sweep it away? No, you’re going to continue it. I take a responsibility to tidy up his affairs. Berko died leaving his work incomplete. Like any artist. He was still working.”If there were any pangs of conscience about the current project, they would be eased by the knowledge that, at the time of his death, Berko was embracing the sort of technology now being applied to his work. Berko had spent time with David Hiser, another noted local photographer, on digital color prints. From that small sample of work, Berko was encouraged by what digital technology could achieve, especially with regard to color prints.”He was enthused about the density of color he could get,” said Mallory. “He was always frustrated with the C-print process because he couldn’t get the richness of color that he saw. So he was excited about what could be done with brightness and richness and that spark of color.”Mallory adds that her grandfather had sometimes employed a technique called solarizing, a process that uses light and dark to play with traditional printing methods. “He was constantly experimenting. This would have intrigued him,” she said of Stranahan’s approach. “He was already doing photo montage, using techniques from Photoshop – but before Photoshop.”
“Ferenc Berko’s Aspen Photographs” is an interesting bit of time-traveling and twisting. Many of the images are from another time, especially to someone familiar with Aspen. There is a shot of the Red Onion building when it stood virtually alone on Hyman Avenue, now the Hyman Avenue pedestrian mall. Another image is of the old Hotel Jerome, when it was painted white, with ’50s-era cars driving past on an unpaved Main Street.The twist is that these old scenes have been given a modern existence, printed not only in a manner, but with color and contrast that would have been impossible at the time. It has been a balancing act, leaving Berko’s vision intact but also leaving room for modern interpretation. And that has required balancing two personalities.Stranahan has an impressive list of achievements to show for his 70-something years: physicist, educator, brewery owner, gallery owner. All of those, however, have come against the backdrop of his true passion: photography. And what he really wanted was to be a photographer, holed up in a small cabin in the woods. “That’s what was always under there, under those layers of thinking it’s undignified, not proper to be a photographer,” he said.In recent years, Stranahan has released his photographer’s soul. And what has come out are some fairly cutting-edge ideas; his latest work uses computer-enhanced flourishes, challenging the eye to find the deviations from traditional photography. “It’s gotten a little weird lately,” he confesses.
Introducing Berko’s negatives to modern printing techniques was one thing; getting “weird” with it would have crossed a line. Drawing and enforcing that line was the job of Mallory. There was probably nobody more well-suited to the task; the 25-year-old is not only Berko’s granddaughter, but also the keeper of his photographic estate. After graduating from Dartmouth, Mallory spent a year in Lausanne, Switzerland, on a Reynolds Fellowship, researching her grandfather’s photographic and personal history. For the last year she has been in Aspen, working on archiving, preserving and providing access to Berko’s images. She was curator of the Aspen Art Museum’s exhibit “ferenc berko: Seen and Seen Again” in 2003, which she originated at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art. In the current project, advancing Berko’s legacy has been mixed with paying respect to the past.”I have Mirte to contend with,” said Stranahan, “so I can’t get as weird with it as I would like to.” Stranahan did decide to keep the new prints on a physical scale consistent with Berko’s originals.
Not that Mallory is against reinterpretation of her grandfather’s work. In fact, having surveyed thousands of images over the last few years, she is constantly in a state of discovering Berko anew. “With such a vast body of work, you’re constantly exposed to new elements,” she said. “You’re constantly inspired to re-expose the work to a new generation.”
In just 24 images, “Ferenc Berko’s Aspen Photographs,” embodies most of those elements of a multifaceted talent. (Many of those photographs are also available in a 2006 calendar being sold in various area shops, including the Woody Creek Community Center.) Some images work as historical black-and-white documents of a bygone age. Others reflect Berko’s intense interest in color abstract photography, a field in which he was a pioneer.”We tried in this exhibit to bring out a lot of Berko’s facets, a lot of ways of how he saw the world,” said Mallory. “He could catch the subtleties of the eyes on an Aspen tree, but also an unusual angle of the Red Onion building.”
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The exhibition is likewise multilayered. Viewers will marvel at how Aspen has changed, and how well its past was documented by a photographer noted both locally and internationally.”It’s kind of, ‘Remember when? And, remember Berko?'” said Stranahan. “It’s both.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org