Photographer Benedict Fernandez made a career by documenting nearly every major protest and social movement of the 1960s, following the anti-war, women’s rights, and gay pride movements from their infancy.
Fernandez made his mark with a combination of modesty and charisma, becoming friends with famous figures in the New York art world, as well as political leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr.
Fernandez’s iconic work is on display in a retrospective at the Bronx Documentary Center until July 20. We recently spoke with Fernandez about his time on the frontlines of America’s most turbulent decade.
Fernandez, 78, has a wry sense of humour. When I asked how he found his way into photography, he answered with a joke: “When I got out of the cave, I was startled with all the light and I found a black box.”
Fernandez got into protest photography after befriending Alexey Brodovitch, a legendary figure in the New York art and design world. As art director at Harper’s Bazaar from 1938 to 1958, Brodovitch invented the modern fashion magazine and mentored photography icons. Brodovitch gave him work as his assistant, opening many doors for Fernandez.
“Everyone assumed that if I was involved with Brodovitch, I must be this fabulous photographer. No one ever thought that I could know nothing about photography,” Fernandez said.
In truth, Fernandez says Brodovitch originally kept him around because Fernandez’s wife Siiri, who is Estonian, made Brodovitch Estonian pancakes, a favourite dish of his. Brodovitch’s instruction was priceless, however, in developing Fernandez as an artist.
“He was tough as nails,” Siiri says of Brodovitch. “‘Good enough’ was never good enough for him … The people who survived him and could see the advice he was trying to deliver were successful.
Fernandez credits his success under Brodovitch to his ignorance of the New York art world and his fearlessness at approaching photography.
“I wasn’t successful because I was brilliant and insightful. I was a kid from Harlem. I just didn’t know who Brodovitch was,” Fernandez said.
During one of their first meetings, Brodovitch encouraged Fernandez to go out and shoot May Day protests in Union Square. Fernandez quickly realised the energy and commotion that surrounded protests perfectly fit his style.
As a half-Italian, half-Puerto Rican kid, Fernandez also loved photographing the protests because they helped bring attention to the causes his multi-ethnic friends championed.
“[My friends] inspired in me the fact that here were people that had no choice and were being taken advantage of and they did not accept that,” he told the New York Times.
Fernandez’s fascination with protests grew into an obsession with documenting any type of cause, whether he supported it or not. He soon began attending every single protest he could find, regardless of its size.
“He kept saying ‘I have a feeling. We are witnessing a huge chunk of American history being made. This is going to be as important as a second American Revolution,'” Siiri said. “I had no idea what the hell he was talking about.”
Fernandez dedicated himself to his photography, spending all his free time at protests. The day of the 1967 Newark riots, he had plans to take his wife and kids to the movies. He dropped them off, saying he was sick, according to his wife. Then he headed to photograph the riots.
“If I knew where he was going,” Siiri said, “I would have tied him to a chair.”
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