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Bonhams Magazine

Issue 53, Winter 2017

Page 46

Bruce Berman – movie mogul behind The Matrix and Ocean's Eleven – has a passion. Hugo Daniel hears about his enduring love of American photography

The first-time visitor stepping into the headquarters of Village Roadshow Pictures might find themselves pausing to double-check the address. Where are all the glossy film posters? The walls are hung instead with dozens of striking images of American life by some of the most-celebrated photographers of modern times.

The career of the company's CEO, Bruce Berman, has given him plenty to boast about – he has overseen more than 100 Hollywood movies, from the Ocean's series and Matrix trilogies to children's hits The Lego Movie and Happy Feet. But instead of trumpeting his success through movie posters, his office and home are much-needed extra gallery space for the fine-art photographs he has spent decades curating, a selection of which will be offered at Bonhams Los Angeles in December.

"I'm surrounded by images I love," he explains. "I probably take for granted the richness of the visual surroundings, but if I took them down I think I'd feel very empty.

"At our prior headquarters on the Warner Lot in Burbank, I think we had 170 of my pictures up ... Curating the offices is a lot of fun. It just gives it a nice atmosphere."

Berman's passion for photography began during his childhood in New York, when he was given a Kodak Brownie camera. "My parents took photos and 8mm movies like every other suburban parent. They did
give me a Brownie camera when I was eight and that was something that got a lot of use. They also gave me a gift when I was a teenager
of a Pentax SLR, and that's when I really started to take what I think were some interesting pictures."

Berman moved to California for high school, returning to New York each summer. He then went to college in Vermont, sparking a habit of making epic road trips across America with his twin brother and friends – inspired by Jack Keroauc's novel On The Road. "I really loved driving cross-country. I had a 1969 Saab 96 that had a stick shift on the steering wheel. I'd stop by the side of the road and take photographs."

During his college years, Berman did a stint as a cab driver in Chicago, keeping his camera in the back to take photos between fares.
With such a passion for photography, Berman considered it as a career. But showing the judgement that has proved so fruitful in Hollywood, he realised the movie business had better prospects: "I didn't see fine art photography as being able to pay the rent." Berman took his first film-industry job in 1978.

After a decade in the business, a producer friend gave him an Edward S. Curtis print of an Indian tepee as a Christmas present. Having long nurtured a passion for the artform, it was a revelation. "I realised then I could buy pictures I always thought were untouchable or unaffordable. As my career progressed, I found that I could buy certain photographers – those I would call blue-chip photographers – whose work I loved and I never thought I could afford. Like Diane Arbus or William Eggleston."

As well as buying at galleries and auctions, Berman would directly commission emerging photographers, often university teachers who used their summers to do their own work. He explains, "For not a lot of money you can send a photographer out on the road and negotiate a print price that is advantageous. I'd say, 'I'd like you to travel the Midwest' or 'I'd like you to travel in the South'.

I didn't say take pictures of this or that – it was just a general region of the country. Then you get to look at maybe 100 images and select 20, whatever you've negotiated." Some of these pictures are among those on display in his office today.

He drew great satisfaction from nurturing artists early in their career: "There's a young photographer named Christian Patterson – I have several of his. Birney Imes was a photographer I discovered early, and there's this guy David Husom, who is in the auction. He took a lot of pictures of county fairs focusing on the Midwest and Minnesota and Wisconsin... the photos are just gorgeous. These are all photographers that I commissioned."

A dazzling photo of plastic bottles by Chris Jordan sits behind Berman's desk. "It's one of my favourites. It's striking, it feels like it could be a painting but it isn't. I've had that in my home, I've had it at the office." Also in the office are shots by Camilo José Vergara and Lisa Kereszi.

We sit for the interview in a white conference room. The plain walls would be totally unremarkable, but for a fascinating pair of photos by Kereszi taken inside the abandoned Governors Island military base in New York. Enthused, Berman remarks: "I love these two photographs because they feel like paintings too. I love the photo that can do that. They're very minimalist. I love Kereszi's work."

"There are some pictures that can lift my mood. They have a power of drawing you into the picture every time you look at it." He thinks for a moment. "There aren't any pictures I own that depress me, let's put it that way."

One of Berman's friends once asked him why he had collected hundreds of photos, rather than buying one or two "very important paintings" for the same amount of money. His answer? "That just didn't appeal to me for some reason. The person was right, but to me it wasn't about investment. It had a lot to with my background as a still photographer.

"I'm very fond of painting, though. I go to Tate Modern every time I take a business trip to London, as if it were a church or synagogue. There's a certain space in your brain when you're looking at art – there's a pleasure centre that starts buzzing."

His advice to someone who wants to start a collection? "Do your homework about the field, try to learn as much as you can from going to a number of galleries and looking at images and monographs, but then go with what strikes you, with whatever hits that button in you."

Interestingly, Berman considers his love of photos and of films as separate: one doesn't much influence the other. "I stopped still photography to work in movies. I think it's like tennis and paddle tennis. Movies and photography are related, but in a lot of ways they're really different, because a still has to arrest you in that one shot."

He says his taste has "evolved" since he first started collecting in 1989. He no longer "shuns" portrait photography, as he once did, in favour of his main love, which was for images of "structures, buildings, places that you knew weren't going to be around forever". Asked why he thinks photos of America remain captivating, Berman says: "There's something about our culture that, mixed with the landscape, is very interesting. There's a lot of irony in the American social landscape."

Indeed, his work on two films – Gran Torino and A Time to Kill – have taken him right into the landscapes of the photographs he loves. "When we filmed Gran Torino in Detroit, the outskirts of the city looked like the Bronx. They were condemning houses and you could probably just acquire them for nothing." He goes on to say, "I think that imagery of these places can be beautiful. It memoralises something that's not alway going to be around."

Berman cites another of his favourite photographers to explain what he means. William Christenberry's work focused on the Deep South. "There are a couple of his Brownie images in the auction. He was a southern photographer who did the landscape, structures, gas stations, shacks – nothing out of the ordinary for him, but they seem pretty out of the ordinary to us now. When I went to the movie set of A Time to Kill, which was a John Grisham book, I would drive from wherever I was staying to the location, and I thought I was in a William Christenberry world, or an Eggleston world, because I would go past some of the same type of buildings that were in my collection. Only it's a real world, not a photograph."

The long-time collector says he no longer gets sad when he sells or donates his work, which he puts down to being at a different phase in his life. By 2007, the movie mogul had amassed 2,600 photos – he now describes himself ruefully as "totally addicted". Many of these were donated to the Getty Centre in Los Angeles, which mounted the exhibition Where We Live: Photographs of America from the Berman Collection that year.

Ten years later, Berman's collection numbers a more workable 700 images. He is happily married to art-collection manager Lea Russo, the mother of the younger two of his three children, and no longer collects photos. "I've made my peace with de-accessioning," he says. "When you're younger, material things have more importance than they do when you're older – at least for me.

"I am having this auction because, as I get older, I don't feel the compulsion to hold onto photographs that just sit in storage. I love gifting to museums and sharing the opportunity for people to see them."

Berman does admit, however, to missing one of the pictures he sold at auction. "There was a Robert Polidori picture from his series on New Orleans and [Hurricane] Katrina," he explains, laughing. "I bought that image and sold it, but I felt so bad about not having it that a year later I bought another version from the same edition at auction. So effectively I reacquired it."

Hugo Daniel is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.
Sale: The Producer's Cut:
Photographs from the Berman Collection
Los Angeles
Thursday 14 December at 4pm
Enquiries: Laura Paterson +1 917 206 1653

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