Ken Tanaka's comment to my column of two weeks ago reminded me that I've never written about my experiences printing Bernard Lee Schwartz's portrait photographs. The Bernard Lee Schwartz Foundation, guided by his widow Ronny Schwartz, has been my largest and oldest printing client; we have a relationship that now goes back 30 years. Sadly, I never met Bern; the relationship started four years after his death.
Bern's work is notable in a couple of respects. Not because he's the greatest portrait photographer who ever lived, although he's head and shoulders above most of us.
What's notable is that he exhibited that level of proficiency in a mere four years of dedicated work: portrait photography was his second career. The Schwartz family owns Sherman-Clay (the piano company). Bern died an untimely death, cutting his photographic career short. It's unusual to establish a major body of work in such a short time.
(Bern is not the only photographer to make his mark after "retirement." Bob Cameron, the author of Above San Francisco and a whole series of follow-up books, did all of that work after retiring from the marketing and import business. It's nice to know you can establish your place in the photographic world starting at the point that many people would consider hanging up their working shoes.)
The second thing that makes Bern's work notable was his access; through a combination of friendships, networking, and word-of-mouth, he had the opportunity to photograph an extraordinary array of famous people, from important artists and authors to heads of state. A massive portfolio of decent-to-brilliant portraits of A-list people is nothing to be sneezed at.
Ronny crossed my path in 1982. She'd been unhappy with the quality of the chromogenic prints of Bern's work and was looking for something better. She'd had a dye transfer done of this famous portrait of Lord Mountbatten (if it looks familiar, perhaps it's because it was used on a British stamp) but wasn't satisfied with the results. She contacted Frank McLaughlin, the dye transfer guru at Eastman Kodak, who told her, "There's this guy in California you should try out; if he can't make a print that'll make you happy, there probably isn't anybody who can."
She did. I printed that Mountbatten photograph for her, as a test of my abilities. She was happy. She said she had another two or three dozen negatives she'd like to have printed. Well, that was just the first year or so. She kept selecting more portraits that she wanted done up properly as dye transfers. I ended up printing dyes for her for a good decade or longer. When all was said and done, I'm sure I did more than 150, maybe even 200.
Ronny proved great to work with. She was just as professional as I am, and she appreciated artistic effort as much as I do. Furthermore, she had at least as good an eye for a good print. Sometimes better. She pushed me, and she never accepted a print that she didn't think couldn't be improved upon. I've never worked with another client as fussy as she. I love it.
Printing for Ronny altered my life in other ways. It not only got me out of debt, but when my landlord decided to sell my residence and I had to find new living quarters, Ronny advanced me enough money on future work to allow me to buy a house.
After nearly a decade the flow of new negatives petered out. It wasn't that Ronny had become dissatisfied with my efforts or that there weren't many more portraits deserving of fine printing. I think she simply got burned out. She was the force that turned rolls of exposures into a solid body of work. She'd sort through hundreds of individual frames of film to find the one that she thought best embodied a subject (she knew the subjects as well as Bern did and was usually there for the photography). She figured out the crop that was the most effective composition and sometimes even made recommendations on how it should be printed. She became the primary artistic force after Bern's death (I have a personal suspicion she was a major one before that; I consider this work to be jointly hers and Bern's, no matter who pushed the shutter button). She may very well have put in more time over that decade editing and selecting the photographs as I spent printing them.
My relationship with the BLS Foundation continued at a low key level for another dozen years. I'd hear from them a couple of times a year, maybe. Then they developed a series of new initiatives to distribute his work. As president of the Foundation, their son Michael had the primary duties. (Ronny is alive and well and active; she's just got other things to do with her life. She is still the final arbiter of whether a print looks right or not when Michael and I are uncertain.) At first it was several dozen more dye transfer prints. Then, starting five or six years back, we began to move into digital.
It began with the portrait of Ann Jenner shown below, the negative for which was in such poor shape that I couldn't pull a decent print in the darkroom. I suggested we try a digital print, combining my skills both as a restoration expert and a fine digital printer.
The results were wonderful. We started doing more and more work as digital prints, and that finally took over from dye transfer entirely. All of us involved are firmly of the opinion that Bern would have just loved this new technology; we feel like we're getting results that are so much closer to what he must've been after when he pressed the shutter.
Since then, major projects I've been involved with for the Foundation have been scanning and archiving hundreds of the best negatives, preparing all the images for their website, making prints and preparing digital files for the large body of work that Foundation has donated the British National Portrait Gallery and the Hoover Institute and, most recently, printing for two exhibits in Israel sponsored by The Jerusalem Foundation.
So, the relationship continues. One client shaped my career as a custom dye and digital printer, through the remarkable support of Ronny and Michael. Lemme tell ya, every artisan should be so lucky as to have clients like that.
NOTE: The BLS Foundation does not sell prints. Prints of works that are now owned by the National Portrait Gallery of Great Britain can be ordered through their website.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Ken Tanaka: "What a personal coincidence you should mention Sherman-Clay! While visiting San Francisco in April I snapped this huge neon sign, certainly somewhat of a relic, while strolling to dinner one evening.
"What a terrific story, Ctein. Of course Bern Schwartz's story is remarkable. Not only did he have talent as a photo portraitist (I understand he had some rather exceptional instruction) but he was able to gain access to so many celebrities. How'd he do that?
"But the story of your 30-year relationship with Schwartz's work and family is equally remarkable. Time and again I encounter stories in the arts world where one person—a teacher, a collector, a gallery owner, a museum curator—made a profound difference in the trajectory of an artist's life. I know there is a guiding moral to this story for young artists and craftspeople...but I'm not sure what it is.
"Thanks very much for sharing this personal story with us, Ctein."
Featured Comment by Paddy C.: "For me, Ctein, one of you most interesting recent articles. Thanks for sharing. And that restoration job on the Jenner portrait looks amazing."