Friday, December 25, 2009

Ida Berman May 2, 1911 - December 22, 2009

On November 4, 2008 Ida Berman, immobilized by a stroke, was wheeled to the poll site at 210 Riverside Drive in New York City to cast her ballot for Barack Obama for the president of the United States. It was the last political act by a remarkable woman.

Ida Berman, ninety-eight years old, died peacefully in her niece’s arms on Tuesday, December 22nd. Ida was a celebrated photographer, a lover of the English language, a nasty scrabble competitor, an immigrant who took seriously the ideals of her adopted country. She never married, but was a second mother to her siblings' many children. She was my mother’s oldest sister and my aunt.

The oldest of Issac and Sarah Berman’s eight children, she migrated with her Yiddish speaking parents from Denmark when she was two years old. For the first seven years of her life until her parents enrolled her in school, she spoke only Yiddish. But she mastered her new country’s language quickly and graduated as Binghamton Central High School's valedictorian. Since the family was large and poor, Ida had no plans to continue her education. But a teacher encouraged her to apply for scholarships. She earned a full one to NYU, becoming the first in her family to graduate from high school and attend college.

Ida leaves behind a remarkable collection of photographs, mainly portraits of family members and the people and places she encountered in her many travels. Her most renowned is a portrait of Rosa Parks that hangs in the Smithsonian Institute. The Smithsonian’s Curator of Photographs, Mary Panzer who selected it as the Curator’s Choice wrote about the portrait: “This photograph combines all the elements I look for when adding new portraits to the collection. It is a beautiful image of an important person, made at a significant time in her life. It is the product of an important historic moment and the story of an encounter that also tells us much about the photographer and her work.”

Ida took the photograph in the summer of 1955, at the Highlander Folk School, a training ground for labor organizers and community activists. Parks and her husband were already leaders in the Montgomery branch of the NAACP when friends offered her a scholarship to Highlander. Berman, a professional photographer who worked for the Fur and Leather Workers union in New York, visited Highlander that summer at the invitation of the author Myra Page. She, Page and Annette Rubinstein, educator, writer and advisor to New York Congressman Vito Marcantonio, drove from NYC to Tennessee in a large Cadillac that Berman had inherited from her father. According to Berman, “Rosa Parks…wasn’t well known then, the [Montgomery Bus] boycott hadn’t happened. She came [to Highlander] because it was a place that instructed people in community action and I think she learned a lot.”

When Highlander’s director, Myles Horton, noticed that Berman had a camera, he asked her to take photographs for the school. She chose subjects at random, looking for faces that interested her. Later she recalled, “I was just lucky that one of them was Rosa Parks. We were talking and I liked her. Not because she was anybody. I’m sorry I didn’t go the next year because Martin Luther King was there!”

Panzer notes: “Like all good portraits, this photograph came from a rich encounter between a subject and an artist. Ida Berman and Rosa Parks met at the Highlander School because of their shared commitment to social change. Berman’s portrait also shows us a soon-to-be national heroine as she appeared to her friends and family. Such intimate views are unusual, but when they exist, they often take the form of a photograph, made by perceptive (and lucky) men and women, often without a thought to the generations that will later treasure their pictures as a rare and valuable record.”

Myles Horton, and Berman become good friends. At his invitation she visited the Literacy Citizenship School in the South Carolina Sea Islands where she took several noteworthy photos including a famous portrait of Septima Clark, the school's organizer, and Bernice Robinson, its first teacher, and their students. Ida fondly recalled that singing enlivened the evenings, blending with the joy of learning.

Ida Berman studied at the Photo League in New York City, where from the late 1930s through the early 1950s photographers of all levels found classes and exhibitions. The teachers emphasized the use of photography as a documentary medium, and many students went on to careers in journalism. Because classes and exhibitions of photography were relatively rare, the
Photo League attracted some of the most important photographers of the era, including Paul Strand, Aaron Siskind, Berenice Abbott, Lewis Hines, and Ansel Adams.

As the only noncommercial photography school in America and having trained over 1,500 photographers during the years it was open, the Photo League was poised, by 1947, to realize an ambitious plan to become the Center for American Photography. That plan was cut short after the League appeared on the attorney general's list of subversive organizations in December 1947.

In January 1948, the photographer Walter Rosenblum published the article "Where Do We Go From Here?" in response to the blacklisting of the Photo League by Attorney General Tom Clark. Disregarding the actual photographs produced by the League's members, the FBI emphasized the organization's commitment to social causes in order to allege subversive activities and social alliances. Despite the fact that the claims were never substantiated, the Photo League was forced to disband in 1951 after an informant testified that it was a front organization for the Communist Party.

Ida was a member of the League until it disbanded. She fondly recalled telling the FBI to go to hell when they visited her during the height of the Red Scare. Quite an image since Ida was all of 4’10” tall and tipped the scales at less than 100 lbs soaking wet.

For Ida it was always about the size of your heart, not your height. When union members made fun of this tiny woman lugging large, heavy camera equipment to their meetings, she would let them know in no uncertain terms she was a working professional who would be respected. After doing her shoot, Ida would pack her stuff up, go home and work through the night to deliver the prints the next day. She remained a night owl for the rest of her life.

Ida was a devoted aunt. Every one of her nieces and nephews was beautiful, exceptional and smart. She would regal us with Leo the Lion stories, taking us to world’s unknown. It was most certainly under Ida’s and Leo’s influence that as a kindergartner, I reported in show and tell that my family has visited Africa over the weekend. When questioned how that was possible by my not too sympathetic teacher I replied we had driven there. When Ida learned of my teacher’s incredulity at this rather tall tale, she shook her head, angered that a teacher would fail to appreciate such a creative and worldly child.

Ida was particularly devoted to siblings’ youngest offspring. But her affection and interest continued no matter your age. This woman who had befriended Rosa Parks and W.E. B Dubois, who had danced with Marlon Brando and been immersed in New York’s left wing intellectual and artistic circles always wanted to know what you were doing and thinking. She always made you feel important.

Ida was a lover of language. A committed and even nasty scrabble player, a lover of Shakespeare and dirty, sardonic limericks like this one:

There once was a man from Havana
Screwed a girl on a player piano
At the height of their fever
Her ass hit the lever
And Yes he has no banana

Ida hated injustice and inequality. The photographs she leaves behind reflect that commitment. While she was often exasperated by the neo-conservative politics of both political parties, she never wavered in her belief that a better, more just world was possible. She had seen it during the union drives in the 1930’s and at the Highlander School.

Ida’s apartment on the upper west side, adorned with interesting paintings and books, was an exciting and warm place to visit. Because it was rent controlled Ida lived there from 1948 til she died. For many of her nieces and nephews it was a home away from home. It was also known to thousands of my econ students since I used it to illustrate price ceilings..

Ida was many things, but to her nieces and nephews Ida Berman was mainly an adoring and feisty aunt. She lived a good, long and decent life.

Good night Leo. Good night Ida.


Alexis said...

Beautiful. Thanks Michael.

Michele said...


Thank you for the wonderful tribute to our
beloved Ida. You really have a way with
words, like your dad!

cousin Michele

Kathy, Jack, Joan, Bruce said...

Hi, Michael --

We were so moved to read your wonderful eulogy of Ida. Your words brought back many precious memories.

Kathy & Jack Mulhern and Joan & Bruce Pritchard

Helen said...

As moving as when I first read it after Ida died. You captured it all, Michael, and it still brings tears to my eyes. Wonderful memorial to celebrate her birthday.

Roger Owen Green said...

I loved Ida. When I'd visit NYC, she was always taking me to cultural places.

Marilyn Lowen said...

Wonderful to meet Ida Berman through the introduction of civil rights photographer Catherine Murphy my Movement daughter. Feels like discovering a long-lost relative. My grandfather was an immigrant furrier.