The gift of visual life |

The gift of visual life

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

French theorist and critic Roland Barthes, points out Mirte Mallory, wrote that a photograph is a memento of death, and photography an inherently sad form of art. At least as regards the work of her grandfather, the late Aspen photographer Ferenc Berko, Mallory disagrees.

“One reason I’m drawn to Berko’s work is it’s all about life,” said the 23-year-old Aspen native Mallory. “They have a vigor; they make the viewer engage in depth with them. There’s nostalgia: They represent a moment gone. But there is a rediscoverable element.”

Mallory is intent on assuring that her grandfather’s photographs have their own ongoing life. A recent graduate of Dartmouth College, Mallory persuaded both Derrick Cartwright, director of Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art, and Dean Sobel, director of the Aspen Art Museum, to allow her to curate a major show of Berko’s photographs.

“Ferenc Berko: Seen and Seen Again” opened at Dartmouth in May, becoming the first student-curated exhibit at the Hood Museum. The exhibit, featuring some 40 works spanning Berko’s career from the early 1930s in Germany to the late 1980s in Aspen, opens in the upstairs gallery of the Aspen Art Museum with a reception on Thursday, Oct. 9, from 6-8 p.m., and runs through Dec. 7. Mallory will give a gallery talk about the show during the reception. (The event will coincide with the opening reception for the Art Museum’s Roaring Fork Open, running simultaneously in the museum’s downstairs gallery.)

Mallory credits the life-affirming quality in her grandfather’s photographs to Berko’s way of engaging, rather than dominating, the viewer. “You think of Ansel Adams or Edward Weston and you see their work and you know who it is,” said Mallory. “But Berko, it’s difficult to do that. There’s not one kind of work that represents him.”

That view is well-supported by the exhibit. There are examples of Berko’s early black-and-white street scenes; his pioneering work in color; his examinations of line, shape and abstraction; images from the various places he lived – Germany, London, India and Chicago; and a memorable self-portrait he made in the ’50s in Aspen, where he lived with his wife, also named Mirte, from the time of the town’s rebirth in the late ’40s until his death in 2000. There are thematic strands in Berko’s work, but the photographs never announce themselves as the work of a particular artist.

“They’re colorful, they’re thoughtful, sensual, reflective, filled with movement and line and shadow,” said Mallory. “And they don’t dominate you. They welcome you. You become the interpreter, rather than them telling you how to interpret them.”

Images of life

It might be that Mallory finds so much life in Berko’s photographs because her grandfather, while alive, was such a part of her life. Since his death, the photographs have inspired much of Mallory’s activity.

“The images permeate life for me in every way, shape and form,” she said. “This for me comes alive because I knew the person, his stories.”

At Dartmouth, Mallory was a religion major. But her grandfather and his work took an increasing hold on her, and in the winter of 2000 she had an inkling to take a semester off from classes and spend the time in Aspen with Berko. Each day Mallory would walk over to her grandfather’s home studio in Aspen’s West End and go through his photographs and listen to his stories. The sessions ended with Berko’s death on March 18, 2000.

“His face would light up when he would revisit something he hadn’t thought of in years. That was the transformation of me becoming more interested in his work,” said Mallory. “During that winter he said, `I don’t know what you’re going to do with all this. It’s probably going to sit in a box.'”


First Mallory and her first cousin Tanya Fleisher put together a retrospective slide show of her grandfather’s work for his memorial. Back at school, Mallory got a grant from Dartmouth to transcribe the Berko interviews and to spend time in his archives. For her thesis, Mallory managed to weave her religion major with her growing interest in her grandfather’s work. The thesis, “Modernism, Jewish Identity and Photography,” explored the phenomenon of numerous noted photographers, including her grandfather, who were Hungarian-born Jews and renounced their Jewish heritage. Mallory has been awarded a postgraduate scholarship to work at a photography museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she will assist the museum director and write her grandfather’s biography.

Sharing a grandfather’s gift

That biography covers three continents and a wealth of photographic experience.

Berko was born in Nagyvarad, Hungary, in 1916, but was brought by his father, after his mother’s death in 1921, to Dresden. Seven years later Berko’s father died, and he was adopted by a family in Berlin. His family life was heavy with the ideals of Germany’s Bauhaus movement, and Berko was encouraged in his photography. By 12, Berko was using his small Kolibri camera to take shots of friends and street life.

In 1932, Berko left the social upheaval in Germany and moved to London, where he worked in film and developed his eye for abstract still photography. From 1938 to 1947 he lived in India, working first as a cameraman for a film company in the visually beautiful Kashmir and Sikkim regions, then directing films for the British Army. Berko eventually opened his own studio in Bombay.

In 1947, Berko accepted an invitation to teach photography in Chicago, where he would become a part of the “new Bauhaus.” The movement supported his desire to experiment with all aspects of his art, and Berko moved between black-and-white and color, abstraction and figurative work.

In 1949, he was invited by Walter Paepcke to photograph the Goethe Bicentennial, an event that sparked the birth of modern Aspen. Berko resettled in Aspen and became photographer for the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, the Aspen Music Festival and the International Design Conference. In 1951, he established the Aspen Photography Conference, which attracted the likes of Ansel Adams and Charles Eames. In winters, Berko ran his on-mountain photography business, which allowed him to pursue commercial, portraiture, artistic and documentary work around the world.

Berko’s work was exhibited in the States and Europe, and was included in all the major photographic magazines. But he caught no one’s eye like his granddaughter’s.

In 1991, after a childhood that included a tight bond to her grandfather, Mallory, living then in Annecy, France, went with her family to an exhibit of Berko’s work in Arles. The exhibit, which also introduced “60 Years of Photography: The Discovering Eye,” a book of Berko’s art, opened Mallory’s eyes to her grandfather’s importance.

“I remember vividly going to the exhibit in this great old castle and seeing the gorgeous visual world. That’s when I realized he was important, that he had a role in the history of photography,” said Mallory, who recalled her grandfather as “a very humble man, quiet, self-deprecating.”

In 1995, Mallory went with her grandfather to Hungary, for the opening of an exhibit in Budapest. Three years later, she accompanied Berko to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, where Mallory observed her grandfather “sitting on benches, moving around the museum, watching the lights change.”

Now that Berko is gone, she wants to share with the world what her grandfather gave her.

“It’s about giving back to him the gift he gave to me,” said Mallory of her efforts to expand Berko’s legacy, “of appreciating the world around us – a leaf in the sky, a storefront, the wood panels on the floor. He gave me an eagerness to constantly see and be exploring.

“[His photographs] let me know there’s no end to the visual horizons. There’s always something to see.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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