Ferenc Berko’s life story molded his artistic appreciation for formal aesthetic elements rather than photographic commentary. Growing up in the 1930s in Europe encouraged Berko’s ceaseless exploration of the details of the everyday world, finding new information and perceptual rewards everywhere. As a pioneer of abstract color photography, Berko’s lifetime of “seeing” distinguished him as a visionary, and as a lasting contributor to art historical debates.
Born in 1916 in Hungary, Berko moved to Germany in 1921. Upon the death of both of his parents before the age of twelve, Berko was adopted by foster- parents in Berlin and then moved to Frankfurt. As a high school student he discovered the camera and also met his future wife, Mirte. His foster parents’ home was infused with the progressive, modernist ideals of the Bauhaus. Berko spent his adolescence surrounded by great artists such as Moholy- Nagy, Walter Gropius, and Marcel Breuer. They encouraged his compositional instinct for spare geometric combinations of form and tonal values.
In 1933, as the Nazi agenda became more threatening, Berko left Germany to pursue his studies in philosophy in London. Mirte soon joined him and they were married. Because of visa complications the couple moved between London, where Berko made short films and became ensconced in photography (mentored by Otto Emil Hoppé), and Paris, where he continued his visual experimentation with seeing urban contexts and their inhabitants from different, always questioning perspectives.
From 1938 to 1947, Berko lived in India. He first worked as a camera man for an Indian motion-picture company, and later opened a photography studio and made films for the British Army. During this time Berko further refined his eye for the human form, both in isolation and in different environments. He concentrated on universal themes and unusual juxtapositions of shape, shadow, and line. Having thoroughly explored black and white photography, Berko was now eager to experiment with color.
In 1947, Moholy-Nagy invited Berko to teach photography and film at the Chicago Institute of Design. Berko’s photographs from this period depict the harsh beauty and details of an industrial cityscape and demonstrate a distinct shift toward the abstract. In 1949, Berko was invited to Aspen, Colorado, as the photographer for the Goethe Bicentennial. Enamored with the small mountain town and its photographic potential the Berkos decided to make Aspen their home. This period is marked by Berko recommitting himself to content and focusing on abstract form. To Berko, value did not dwell in the object, but in how it intrigued the imagination of the eye.
Berko documented Aspen’s growth as both a cultural and ski community. In the summers, he was the official photographer for the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies and for the Aspen Music Festival which gave him the opportunity to photograph many prominent figures and artists. In the winters, he ran his on-mountain ski photography business. These jobs gave Berko the freedom to also do commercial and portraiture work around the country and to pursue his blossoming abstract color photography and documentary work. In 1951, Berko began the Aspen Photography Conference. He invited the foremost American photographers of the century (Ansel Adams, Harry Callahan, Charles Eames, Laura Gilpin, Dorothea Lange, Wayne Miller, John Morris, Nancy and Beaumont Newhall, Eliot Porter, Frederick Sommer, Edward Weston, and Minor White) to Aspen for a week of lectures and workshops.
Berko died in Aspen in 2000 and is recognized as one of the 100 most important photographers of the 20th century. His work is in major national and international collections. He has had articles in all of the major photographic magazines and published two books, “60 Years of Photography: The Discovering Eye” (Stemmle,1991) and “Berko: Photographs 1935-1951” (Graphis,1999). He has had shows in both the United States and in Europe, most recently in Aspen, Colorado and Hanover, New Hampshire in 2003; Budapest, Hungary in 1995; Lausanne, Switzerland in 1994; and Arles, France in 1991.
For a complete chronology visit the Ferenc Berko website.