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BerkoReview - Berko
Photographs 1935-1951
by Ferenc Berko
Watson-Guptill, 1999
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
May 13th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 20)

This is a collection of black and white photographs of nude women taken by Ferenc Berko. Born in Romania in 1916, he moved around Europe, and then in 1938 he went to live in India. He later came to the US, living in Chicago and Apsen, Colorado after the second world war. He died in March, 2000. The foreword by Charles-Herni Favrod says Berko played a promient role in the advancement of photography in the US, and writes, "In the field of the female nude, his work was imaginative while remaining essentially classical. His sensuality produced photographs of an incontestable formal beauty."

It is true that Berko's pictures have a formality to them, but I would not describe most of them as sensual. Given that they are photographs of nude women, they have an erotic element to them, but Berko seems uninterested in representing that aspect. He is more focused on the body as a landscape, or the body as a pattern or light and dark, or possibly the relation of photography to painting and the tradition of the still life. I wonder whether his approach would not have been more successful if he had applied it to the traditional subjects of still life paintings such as bowls of fruit.

In not one image do we see the eyes of the woman pictured. This is not because he wants to make a statement about the unknowability of other people (c.f. the work of Robert Stivers) but more because he just has no interest in his models faces at all. Although Berko was an innovator in color photography, it seems that he was drawn to black and white images precisely because he was not interested in showing the warmth of human flesh and he did not want to arouse the viewers of his nudes.

Maybe I am being unfair. I have to admit that these pictures are beautiful and that they repay careful attention. The more I look at these images, the more I am impressed by the technique and the composition of the works. But the pleasure is aesthetic, and says almost nothing about life, eroticism, gender, or emotions. Furthermore, his approach seems to suggest that human beauty is entirely separate from the person: to best appreciate the human form, we should not look into the person's eyes. Ultimately I find that assumption repellent. While many of Berko's pictures are remarkable, precisely in their ability to make a woman's body look inhuman, there's a coldness in them. Since the tradition of depicting the female nude in art is highly problematic anyway, Berko's use of the female body for his aesthetic exercises seems either unthinkingly gratuitous or else reflective of his own psychopathology.


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