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Passings: Summer, 2013

2013 October 8

Saul Landau: “The alternative is to go shopping…”

Landau-1Filmmaker Saul Landau died recently at the age of 77. Landau never hesitated to take chances in his work – politically or personally. One of his most widely-seen films, 1979’s “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang” (with Hollywood cinematographer, Haskell Wexler) exposed government efforts to cover up evidence of widespread illnesses caused by above-ground nuclear testing in the western U.S. in the 1950s. Jacobs, a journalist and co-founder of Mother Jones magazine, and the centerpiece of this multiple-award-winning documentary, believed that the cancer that was killing him was caused by his exposure to the tests.
Landau-2           Landau made over 50 documentaries and published 14 books. His films included six on Fidel Castro and two on Chilean President Salvador Allende. One of his films on Allende led to his friendship with then Chilean Ambassador to the U.S., Orlando Letelier, who was later imprisoned in Chile following the right-wing coup against Allende. Landau and other supporters helped to organize Letelier’s release and a job at the Institute for Policy Studies. In 1976, however, agents of Chile’s dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, murdered Letelier and his IPS colleague, Ronnie Moffit with a car bomb, in Washington, D.C. Landau’s book, Assassination on Embassy Row (with John Dinges) documented the Pinochet government’s responsibility for the attack.            
            Landau’s New York Times obituary quotes him saying “You want to do what you can while you’re on this earth…The alternative is to go shopping.” 

(Note for readers in the Washington, DC, area:  the Institute for Policy Studies, where Landau was on the Board, is hosting a series of screenings of his films. Some have already been shown as of this writing, but the series continues.)

Jerry Berndt: In combat zones, metaphorical and real…  

Berndt-4If you google Jerry Berndt’s photographs, what you will find – mostly – are his well-known images of prostitutes and strippers in Boston’s “combat zone” of the late 1960s. That’s also the emphasis of the Boston Globe’s obituary, which noted that Jerry’s photos “lent permanence to people many scarcely noticed, if they saw them at all.” The newspaper’s tone was nostalgic: for a long-gone Boston the Globe was happy to say goodbye to at the time, as urban renewal “disappeared” the combat zone.

“There are photographs I really love from the Combat Zone. I couldn’t use a flash so I had to make a developer that would really push the film, get that ASA up there leaving the grain on the photograph looking the size of buckshot. I watch kids now at exhibitions walk up to them and say ‘wow, look at the size of those pixels.’ It cracks me up.” [from a 2012 interview by Sean Samuels on the "United Nations of Photography" website]

Berndt-1I guess I was feeling nostalgic too, trying – unsuccessfully – to find Jerry’s photos of student demonstrations during the same period, or of the Venceremos Brigades to harvest sugar cane in Cuba, that he and many of my other friends participated in during the same period. Those were the pictures I saw on the walls of my friends then, and still see sometimes today – but not on Google. 
            I’m not meaning to say anything negative about the Combat Zone photos. They are gorgeous, disturbing, compassionate, resonantBerndt-3 images – but they’re just one aspect of a long and varied career. Though at various periods he had to survive by taking on commercial work, Jerry went on to produce powerful photographic essays in Haiti, Armenia, Zambia (see the photo on the right) and other conflict zones around the world, and his works are now in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the Bibliothèque National in Paris, among others. When Sean Samuels interviewed him for the 2012 article cited above, he was selecting images for a new book.
            “Jerry Berndt’s life and career have taken many unexpected turns,” Samuels wrote. “He has come a long way, and with so much to give.” In July, he was found in his Paris studio, dead from an apparent heart attack.

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