Over the years, we’ve watched our friend Fern Berman morph from elite public relations mastermind into fine art photographer. Fern always photographed, but when her Multiple Sclerosis began to exhibit serious symptoms, she became singularly committed to making art. The disease has facilitated a palpable distillation of vision, as evinced by a show of her work at the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut.

Fern Berman 'Water Colors'
Fern Berman ‘Water Colors’

Finding her capacity to walk diminishing, Fern’s practice became to “turn loss into something else”. With each photograph she wants to make, she must ask:  How can I make that happen? and then work out the once-simple logistics: getting to the site of her subject, having someone help her navigate the terrain, having something sturdy to lean on so she can hold the camera steady. The gift MS has given her, she says, is slowing down and really taking the time to see. She has sometimes spent months contemplating a single subject before making a photograph.

Fern Berman 'Decomposition 1'
Fern Berman ‘Decomposition 1’

Fern shoots film; 36 images in a roll of an endangered, archaic material makes each one count,  makes her take time to decide what she wants to shoot, and compose it. She prints her images onto thick, luxurious paper so they don’t seem like photographs at all, but meditative paintings, saturated with color.

Fern Berman 'Tendrils of the New Small'
Fern Berman ‘Tendrils of the New Small’

When she represented Julia Child, Jacques Pepin and other food world luminaries, Fern ate in some of the greatest kitchens in the world. She does not miss it. “I’ll look at something and say ‘That is not a life priority’”.  Stripped of things most of us take for granted, Fern has committed herself making “a life that is about generating creativity”.

Fern Berman 'Freedom'
Fern Berman ‘Freedom’

Fern Berman 'Composition in Red, no. 13'
Fern Berman ‘Composition in Red, no. 13’

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8 replies on “fern berman: “turn loss into something else”

  1. Thanks for your wonderfully inspiring work! Do you know if it is possible to purchase any of Fern Berman’s amazing photographs?

  2. I was lucky enough to not only see the exhibition of Fern’s work at the New Britain museum, but to hear her discuss her work (and her life) with Cara De Silva last Sunday. I came away awed and inspired. Fern is one of those exceedingly rare individuals who can look at any thing — at the most ordinary, everyday object –and find beauty and meaning in it. And then she has the ability and the patience to transform what she has discovered into an image in which others can find beauty and meaning. I know I’ll be going back to see this show again — and again! Anyone who loves the way pure color and form can ignite the emotions and the imagination, should not miss it!

  3. We are planning a trip up to see the show ‘in person’. I am knocked out by what Fern has achieved.

  4. They are quite beautiful photographs but I have to say something about the Rothko pales comment. If there was no Rothko there would be no reference point for similar imagery. Rothko was the permission-giver in this case and in many others. Because there was Rothko we can easily see Rothko-like pictorial elements. Actually, I’m even sorry that this is captioned about loss because if that were not mentioned then the photographs would stand on their own with or without the physical disability we need not know about.

  5. Hi Phyllis, My feeling in writing this is that Fern’s work DOES stand on its own as you can see just by looking at it (even online). The backstory, and the philosophy of transforming and creating Fern evolved, resonates deeply with Improvised Life, and the idea that in every moment, there are possibilities we can find ways to be open to. Fern is an example of doing just that. Her experience, as all our experiences, are part of what we do/make/put into the world. I find it illuminating to know motivations and why people do what they do.

  6. Phyllis,
    Thank you for your comments about my work. I’ve worked very hard all my life to get to the place I am now artistically. The reason I insist on including my MS is two fold. One is I hope to inspire people with all kinds of life challenges to go after their dreams and want them to realize that dreams are possible to achieve in all kinds of circumstances. I think about my inspirations Matisse who painted from a wheelchair at the end of his life. John Dugdale a photographer who is 90% blind, etc.

    It is also important to talk for me to talk about what inspired my photography at this moment in my life,
    The MS became a gift in a way. I slowed me down.I have to use a tripod and a chair when I shoot because I use a slow film and my hands would shake and the photos would be blurry. And I refuse to use a digital camera….I tried and the work was without soul. My soul. Again, thank you for your thoughts and I hope this helps you understand my vision for my life work-art.
    Best to you,

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