It’s been about two weeks since I and about twenty other people received an email that began, “Jerry left us for good earlier this week.” The Jerry being referred to was my longtime friend, the photographer Jerry Berndt; the author of the email was Marie-Pascale, his wife, who, I would come to learn later, was writing at a time when the stress and sense of sorrow was overwhelming. Still the terse and enigmatic email sent many of those who received it into a confused state of both knowing and not knowing, of hoping against hope that we’d misunderstood her words.
Jerry Berndt and I were yes, friends, but not what would usually be considered best friends; we didn’t see each other often enough to be that. What we were were soul mates: roughly the same age, with not dissimilar political views, a love of life, a palpable anger at what we viewed as injustice, coupled with immense, sometimes uncontrollable self-doubt. We met some time in the early 1970s—the exact details of how and when are lost on me—but it was some time after I’d returned from working in the Arkansas delta. I was living with my girlfriend Dorothea, barely paying the bills, and just beginning to photograph the street life of Dorchester, the Boston neighborhood I was born in. Jerry, having finished up a deeply personal series of photographs on Boston’s strip club district, the so-called Combat Zone, was continuing his nighttime wanderings in and out of hard- luck barrooms making filmic, grainy, painfully authentic photographs that he would later say came naturally to him, since he’d spent many of his growing up years in the bar his father ran in Milwaukee.
The Jerry Berndt I knew back then was at most five-foot-eight, thin as a stick, bearded, with lots of dark, straight hair hanging over his eyes. There was this intensity, almost a feral quality about him: hands, legs nervously moving, lit cigarette hanging down from his lips, even as he reached for his harmonica to hammer out the blues, as he loved to do for his friends, or for anyone else, in fact, who’d listen. Jerry had been a protester, later an organizer in the anti-Vietnam war movement, a journalist who grew as accustomed as one can to the threat of violence, a conflicted man who often as not felt a disconnect from what most people might consider the usual, or American way of life. He was cool, to use the vernacular of the time. Cool, meaning that though Jerry held opinions on most everything, he generally held himself in check, kept some things to himself. And as a result, the person that he was inside could not always be reached.
It was three long, troubling days after receiving that first email that I learned anything more about what had befallen Jerry. He died of “heart failure,” a gallerist in Europe wrote. He was found in his Paris studio by firemen, read another note. A clearly upset friend said Jerry had been looking forward to the publication of his next book. He had upcoming exhibitions and had seemed happy, someone else said. So now at least I knew something, but, of course, the simple fact that he was gone rattled me. As a way to try to cope, I found myself trying to recall when I’d last spoken to Jerry (something like a year ago); when I’d last seen him in New York (was it four years ago?); when I received a copy of his retrospective book,
(in 2010); when I last sat down to talk at length with him (in a Paris café in 2004). Then as happens when you try to put exact times or dates to memories, the memories begin to swirl up around you almost all at the same time. It’s 1976; I can see Jerry trudging along a Cambridge street towards me, snow falling, camera around his neck, deep in thought, not noticing me. Then it’s 1980. I can see him sitting in the front window of the photo gallery the two of us and a few photographer friends opened in Boston’s North End, waiting for guests who would sometimes come, sometimes not. I see him in 1983 among those comforting me after Dorothea’s death from cancer, with each of my friends, in his or her own way, trying to come to terms with the fact that death is just one of life’s many mysteries. I see him in 1988 with my infant son Sam in his arms, softly singing, “Goodnight, Irene, goodnight, Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams….” to get him to fall sleep. And I see the two of us, Jerry and me at the age we are now, sitting someplace undefinable, maybe in Paris, maybe Brooklyn, with our arms around each other’s shoulders, not talking, silent, as if we’d run out of things to say.
1943 - 2013