Benedict J. Fernandez was born on April 5, 1936 in New York City, in the Hispanic neighborhood of East Harlem. His father came to America via Puerto Rico, and his mother an Italian American. His photographic education began at age six when he was given a Brownie box camera.
His early career was not in photography. He worked as an operating engineer/crane operator at Bethlehem Steel Shipyard in Hoboken. It was as a crane operator, that he photographed his fellow shipyard workers, which became his first major portfolio "Riggers". He went on to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, in the same capacity, until the facility closed in 1963. At that time he decided to turn his long time hobby into his life's work. He came to the attention of Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director and graphic designer. Brodovitch invited him to enroll in his Design Laboratory and became Fernandez's most influential mentor. Brodovitch arranged for Ben to become the darkroom tech and manager at Parsons School of Design. Nobody could have imagined in those very early days what a significant role Ben would eventually play at Parsons.
BENEDICT J. FERNANDEZ, THE EDUCATOR
With Brodovitch's encouragement Ben went on to found the Photo Film Workshop, in the basement of Joseph Papp's Public Theatre. The Photo Film Workshop taught photography to ghetto youth, free of charge. Many of the Workshop participants went on to successful careers and lives. To mention just a few: Lenny Morris is a successful photographer, Fung Lam became DR. Fung Lam, Llewellen Lennon is an architect and Angel Franco is a Pulitzer Prize winning photo journalist with The New York Times. The Photo Film Workshop students became top winners in any student photo contest they entered.
It was the unusual success stories of the students of the Photo Film Workshop and the quality of their work that brought Ben to the attention of the Dean of The New School, Michael Engl. Mr. Engl requested that Ben help build a Photography Department at The New School.
David Levy remembers:
Ben Fernandez and I met in 1964. We took an instant dislike to one another. Ben was a young photographer- on-the-make, who on the recommendation of the legendary photographer/art director Alexey Brodovitch, had been hired to run the photo-lab at Parsons. I was a young, uptight administrator trying to be a photographer-on-the- make. This did not auger well for good chemistry between us and it got worse in a few years when Ben, an intuitive teacher with an instinctive understanding of young people, became mentor for a group of particularly rebellious, though exceptionally talented, students. And of course the late 1960s was the apogee of student rebellion nationwide.
Looking back, I am surprised at how much I allowed Ben and his little band to get under my skin because, in retrospect, they were exuberant, creative innocents. One summer, for example, Ben had successfully lobbied for a larger darkroom and we had closed the old photo lab to make the changes. Construction schedules and contractors being no less problematic in the 1960s than they are today, fall classes began and (surprise) the facility was not yet complete; a situation that lasted about a month into the semester. In their frustration, and to my fury, Ben's students created and mailed a poster to every member of the Board of Trustees. It featured a photograph of the darkroom door with its large, hand-written notice stating "Darkroom Closed for Construction." Down below, in a screaming headline, was the punchline, SOMEDAY OUR PRINTS WILL COME.
You really cannot stay mad at a guy with this kind of irreverence and, though it must have taken about a decade, a great respect and friendship ultimately grew between Ben and me. My change of heart probably began when I saw the photographs he had taken in Puerto Rico, centering on his FOUR GENERATIONS series. I was stunned both by the visual and emotional sensitivity of this work, which seemed so out of character with the rough-and-tumble persona Ben affected. And so I began to look further both at the work and the man.
This new respect for Ben, coupled with my knowledge of his extraordinary success as the architect of The New School's photography program (which he had started from scratch prior to Parsons' 1970 merger with the university ) persuaded me a few years later to ask him to build a brand new, four-year photography major at Parsons and to appoint him chairman of the nascent new department. Prior to this time photography had only been a service course for a couple of curricular areas. Not surprisingly, Ben's energy and the creativity of his approach to this new curriculum quickly created a strong and influential department that commanded international attention and acclaim.
Working with Ben in those years, building new and imaginative programs in New York, California, Paris and the Dominican Republic ( to name a few ),was an experience that strengthened our mutual professional respect and also became the basis for a deepening and ultimately profound friendship. I cannot count the times since then that I have drawn upon Ben's wide-ranging and detailed knowledge of photography, boats, politics, the vagaries of the internal combustion engine or the human condition. I know of no one who brings greater personal generosity to his work and life, and I know of no one with a greater capacity to undertake the responsibilities of friendship.
Fernandez is one of the best photographers of our time and his work demonstrates the range of his interests and the power of his insight, to say nothing of his technical skill. These attributes coalesce in works of art that tell us much about our moment in history. They will live among the icons of photography in the last quarter of the 20th century.
Parsons School of Design has been privileged to have had the boundless good will and creative energies of Ben Fernandez, particularly during those critical formative years, from 1970 through the early 1980s, when it grew from a non-degree granting school of 500 students in three rented floors of an old truck garage to become the most influential college of art and design in the world. Parsons became virtually an arts university, offering multiple undergraduate and graduate degrees at campuses on both coasts of the United States, in France, the Dominican Republic, and Japan, with an aggregate enrollment in excess of 10,000. Fernandez's contributions to this emerging institution changed the lives of generations of students, just as his imaginative approach to education in photography has influenced and enhanced his profession for years to come.
David C. Levy
Past President and Director
Corcoran Museum of Art and College of Art and Design, Washington, DC
(Dr.Levy was Executive Dean and Chief Administrative Officer of Parsons School of Design from 1970 until 1989. He was Chancellor of The New School from 1989 until 1991)
Ben Fernandez brought many "firsts" to his new departments of photography. Some of the more significant concepts were: Not having professional teachers teaching but rather having professional photographers as teachers. Some of the more notable photographers who participated were Lisette Model, Diane Arbus, Philippe Halsman, Arnold Newman , George Tice and many others.
He founded the FOCUS program which became an international series of workshops and student exchange programs. FOCUS programs still run in Germany. He also founded the LEICA MEDAL OF EXCELLENCE which has become a prestigious photographic award.
Mr. Fernandez was asked to work as a consultant with E.Leitz and Co. to help them understand, explore, and influence the college photographic community. He worked with Lee Hill, the Vice President of E. Leitz, Inc. Mr. Hill wrote the following in 1986:
This is to commend the significant contributions of Mr. Fernandez in launching our LEICA MEDAL of EXCELLENCE . Mr. Fernandez was instrumental in the development of the LEICA MEDAL of EXCELLENCE, having come up with the concept and idea. He based his idea on the reputation of Leica and felt that the Leica prestige could add to the popularity of a Medal award.
The first recipient of the award was Cornell Capa, Founder of ICP, who referred to Ben, lovingly, as his "bastard son".
Other recipients of the Medal were world famous photographers, such as Claudio Edinger, Charles Gatewood, Herlinde Koebl, William Albert Allard, Harry Benson, Jill Freedman. Mary Ellen Mark, and Susan Meiselas.
BENEDICT J.FERNANDEZ, PHOTOGRAPHER
Ben Fernandez emerges from the period of intensified creative photography that began in New York and has radiated into international art over the past few decades. To a great extent, his path to photography was prepared by the legendary Alexey Brodovitch (1898-1971), who helped propel many others, including the major portraitists and fashion photographers Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, Brodovitch was Ben Fernandez's most important mentor and promoter, a man who not only gave him difficult photographic projects to carry out but awakened his talents as a teacher as well.
We now know Fernandez as a master of the camera. One could list a great number of subjects he has approached from the standpoint of a concerned observer. They would span the globe, from the U.S. to Europe and on to Japan and China; they would also include people, individuals and groups, in his own country, and simple, almost archaic still lifes. Any attempt to assign him to one of the standard pigeon-holes of photographic art is doomed to failure. He describes a situation or event in his very own unique, penetrating way, but with an unwavering commitment to the human being. His visual statement often rises to the status of a symbol, and thus a picture is created as a concentrate of several others.
Fernandez's visual stories offer insights into particular spheres of humanity or geography - the macho world of BIKERS, for example, who identify with power of their motorcycles, or the bullfighters, who pretend superiority over their victims.
In Puerto Rico he sees the elegance of the boulevards and the macho men behind their window bars. In London he is interested in the speakers in Hyde Park, with their bowler hats, and in the Bobbies in their towering helmets and chin straps. In Bonn he is impressed with the characteristic gestures exchanged by Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt. Wherever he goes, he sees the old, the passing culture in its striving for modernity. In Moscow, his gaze focuses upon the Soldateska rising out of the past and the future-oriented scenery of the new do-nothings. The clash between historical tradition and progressive civilization in Japan concerns him as well, and all the more in China, where yesterday grapples with tomorrow.
Back in America, his grand oeuvre, the stations in the life of Martin Luther King (1929-1968), bears witness to his personal concern with the work of the great Black leader, his death and its aftermath - an illustrated biography that moves the reader to sympathy and contemplation.
It is not mere curiosity but instead his desire to express himself and to communicate insights that drives the photographer Ben Fernandez and his selected points of view out into familiar and unfamiliar worlds. His command of his medium is so complete that his photographs require no further commentary. They are forceful documents of an extraordinary personality.
And when, with the suddenness, and energy of a hurricane, the man himself appears from time to time, we are fully captivated by his personality. This over powering figure is a fountain of knowledge, experience - and suada. Ben Fernandez is a monument to an entire photographic era that profits from the past and looks towards the future. Photography, whose death knell may seem to have been rung by electronic technology, is neither passť nor lost as long as artists like Ben Fernandez still use the traditional camera to say what they have to say.Fritz L. Gruber Founder of PHOTOKINA , Cologne, Germany
During the mid-Sixties, Ben Fernandez photographed throughout the streets of New York becoming one of the most important street photographers of our time, photographing a variety of socially significant events. Fernandez' photographs of protest activities in the New York metropolitan area, as well as across the country, served as a photographic diary of the protest movement of the 1960s.
Fernandez's powerful photographs of the last year of Dr. King's life invite us to walk the streets with the photographer, sit in the family home of Dr. King. His photographs serve as an extraordinary account and visual testimony of a dedicated photojournalist who captured a period in this country's history. Thirty eight years later they still speak to us with the same message intended when they were first taken. The central message for the photographer was to document, with great visual strength, the impact of Dr.King on this country. Mr. Fernandez's photographs of Dr. King were first produced by Kodak as 50 Limited Edition, numbered Portfolios titled "COUNTDOWN TO ETERNITY". Most of these portfolios were donated to prestigious museums, including The National Portrait Gallery, and universities.
A traveling exhibition, "Countdown to Eternity", consisting of 80 black and white prints has traveled to all the major cities in America, to most of the countries in Western Europe and 27 countries in Africa. This exhibition has been in continuous circulation since 1990 and it continues to travel today.
Books of Benedict Fernandez's work
- IN OPPOSITION: Images of American Dissent in the Sixties, 1968
- COUNTDOWN TO ETERNITY, 1993
- PROTEST, American Edition, 1996
- I AM A MAN, German Edition, 1996
Ben Fernandez is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards:
- 1999 - Senior Fellow in Photography, The Corcoran Museum of Art
- 1992 - Senior Fulbright Research Fellow in Photography
- 1986 - Fellow of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences in China
- 1973 - National Endowment for the Arts Grant
- 1970 - Guggenheim Fellow
His work is in permanent collections in museums world wide
- The Smithsonian
- The National Portrait Gallery
- The Corcoran Museum of Art
- Museum of Modern Art
- Houston Museum of Fine Arts
- The Norton Simon Museum of Art
- Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
- The King Center
- University of Tokyo
- Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris
Today Ben Fernandez is busy with his exhibitions world wide and lecture engagements.
He is married to the same lady for 50 years, come October 2007. He has two grown children Benedict and Tiina and he is the proud grandfather of James, Elizabeth, Noah, Leonardo and Owen.
He spends his time, when not traveling, between his home in Upstate New York and his studio in New Jersey.
Please email for any inquiry.