On September 17, 2003, the opening of an exhibition with works of the interwar photographer Iosif Berman (whom writer and journalist Geo Bogza called “the man with a thousand eyes”) took place in Bucharest. The choice of the location was a most fortunate one: the Photo Cabinet launched last year by Eugen Ciocan, a professional photographer who wanted to recover the atmosphere of a photo workshop at the beginning of the 20th century and to reinstate the classical photographic portrait.
Iosif Berman was born in 1892, in Burdujeni (north of Suceava), as the son of a Romanian Jewish peasant who had fought as a volunteer in the War of Independence. Wounded at Plevna and decorated with the Military Virtue, Berman’s father was one of the very few Jews who were granted, on exceptional grounds, the Romanian citizenship (which was then denied to the Mosaic minority group). He also received a plot of land in Burdujeni.
Young Iosif developed an early passion for photography, as he attended the photographic workshops in Suceava. At the age of 18, he set out for the Capital, where he was employed through contest at the “Adevarul” (“The Truth”) and “Dimineata” (“The Morning”) newspapers (the “Jewish” periodicals of the time). He thus began a career that would prove to be exceptional. He left for Russia to “cover” the civil war that burst out in 1917 and recorded on his plates the horrors committed by both the Bolsheviks and the “White”, pro-tsarist troops. But he was caught and all his work was confiscated and was never to be found again.
He returned to Romania and became the most outstanding press photographer of the interwar period, working both with Romanian periodicals and with foreign ones (including the already-prestigious “National Geographic”). He cooperated with the famous reporter F. Brunea-Fox (who claimed that he could not imagine his materials in the absence of the illustrations signed by Berman), with writers Sadoveanu and Geo Bogza. He was the field photographer of the ethnologist Dimitrie Gusti, and he can be considered (through the visual testimonies he immortalized) the co-author of the Romanian peasant’s image (as Gusti expressed himself). His value was officially acknowledged by his appointment as the photographer of the Royal Court.
The coming to power of the Goga-Cuza government (of a fascist orientation) led to the closure of the Jewish newspapers. The Jew Berman had to suffer the typical persecutions: he was forbidden to practice his skill and his photographic equipment was confiscated. His daughter, Luiza, recalled him crying over the impossibility of doing the thing that meant everything to him. He died in 1941, “of grief”, making Brunea-Fox say about him that “he only lived as long as he could take pictures”.
The communist propaganda tried to use Berman’s work in order to reconstruct the portrait of a pre-war peasantry harshly exploited by the regime of the bourgeoisie and the landowners, as it was depicted by the ideology of the time. But his photos were too authentic to be thus “recycled”, so they were negligently stored in secret archives.
The exhibition at the Photo Cabinet on George Enescu St. (opposite to the White Church) is an attempt to disclose a part of Berman’s work. In an old-fashioned setting (reminiscent of the beginning of the 20th century) were gathered a number of photos of the artist, belonging to the private collection of a Romanian-born German citizen. All of them were publicly displayed for the first time. The exhibition was opened by historian Andrei Oisteanu, who, after sketching Berman’s biography, stated that the revolution he caused in the Romanian photographic art is similar to the one caused by Arghezi in poetry (as Bogza put it). Iosif Berman is the one who “took photography out of the cabinets and threw it into the street”, said Oisteanu.
The photos hanging on the upholstered walls stand proof for that: peasants reposing, urban scenes with the familiar Balkan contrasts, voyage scenes. An image of a shop sign lit by a light bulb placed on top of it; a close-up of a peasant’s baby wrapped in diapers and carried in an osier basket; a moustache man wearing a military mantle, holding several geese in both hands; a paved street with the barrel on wheels of a “water dealer” in the fore-ground.
Present at the opening, literary critic Geo Serban (expert in the Romanian avant-garde) announced that a cultural notebook dedicated to Berman is in preparation. It will attempt an exact cultural positioning of the artist. Serban pointed out that Berman’s work is still scattered in various archives and is far from being fully identified. He indicated some locations where this work could be retrieved: the History Museum of the City of Bucharest, The Academy Library (the Prints cabinet), the archives of the Royal House. Also, the materials he signed in “Realitatea ilustrata” (“The Illustrated Reality”), and especially the covers of this periodical, should be taken into consideration.
Geo Serban underlined Berman’s preoccupation for the “lower” world, for unveiling the humanity underlying the sordid faÃ§ade of this environment. It may then seem paradoxical that he became the photographer of the Royal Court; according to Geo Serban, this can be however explained by his spiritual aristocracy, coming from a vast life experience. In fact, even his “royal” snapshots lack the festive rigidity that one would expect to find in such photos, keeping the vivacity that Berman sought to immortalize in his photos “with peasants”. The critic pointed out the innovative aspects of Berman’s technique (who, not accidentally, was familiar with the environment of the Romanian interwar avant-garde), and he even dared a comparison (“mutatis mutandis”) between Berman and Man Ray.