Bernard Freemesser (1926-1977) A brief, personal memoir

Bernie joined the University of Oregon publications bureau as a photographer some time in the 1950’s, becoming head of that its photographic unit by 1960. He joined the faculty, teaching photography in the School of Journalism and became a good friend of W. Eugene Smith, for whom he organized several workshops. He also got to know Brett Weston , and through that friendship, became interested in taking large-format pictures of landscapes and found objects. By the time I met Bernie, he had completely abandoned photojournalism and 35mm film.

By 1972, Bernie was an associate professor, tenured and pretty much could run his program anyway he wanted. Except for his photo history course, he did little classroom teaching, nor did he give formal assignments. Instead, he worked with his students one-on-one and ran group review sessions in his own home in the evenings. The lively conversations and continuous sharing of new work drove up everyone’s standards. Each summer he ran two workshops. The first, “The Oregon Experience” was offered for credit through the university. The second, the “Western Experience” was a private venture with no credit. Scrapping by on GI Bill, I could not afford to invest in a workshop that netted no credits. I took the Oregon Experience, but passed on the later one.

A man of strong prejudices, Bernie condemned many well-known photographers while promoting others. He denigated Kodak products, only using Ilford and Agfa films and papers—insisting that only the Brovira papers yielded black-blacks. He used Amidol for all his printing—because that was what Brett Weston used—and Edward Weston had used before that. I tried amidol, did not like the mess it made, could not see any real improvement and went back to using Dektol.

Having already been a working photographer for over five years. I refused to move away from either publication photography or working with 35mm film. In the end, Bernie and I achieved a kind of truce. He realized that I was committed to reaching a high standard, that my techniques worked for me, and that I was not going to change without good reason. He helped me complete my master’s project and I graduated in 1974.

In 1973, Bernie began experimenting with color, using cibachrome papers. This opened up a new way of seeing for him and resulted in some of his most original images.

Admitted to a local hospital in the summer of 1977 due to increasing headaches, Bernie never left, dying from a brain tumor that fall. The following year, Images West of Eugene published the collection of his work he had long been working on. An Oregon Experience is still available from used book dealers.

Bernie was a major promoter of photography as a worthy academic subject. He trained and influenced an entire generation of photographers in Oregon, many who continue to work in the field to this day.
Fressmesser & class at Snake River Canyon
Bernie and part of his “Oregon Experience” class overlooking the Snake River Canyon in summer 1973. Bernie is right center in the snake-proof boots and white and navy striped tee-shirt. The only other person I can still identify in this picture is Mary Mason, the young lady with the bottle.

Michael Besh photographing in Oregon rain
Large-format Photography: the Oregon Way. That’s Michael Besh with the view camera at Cape Arago. I’m the guy holding the umbrella.

Sap on douglas fir bark.
Sap on a Douglas Fir. This is the kind of abstracted but still natural image that Bernie seemed to prefer.

All images Copyright 2004 Michael Wescott Loder. Any use without permission of the copyright owner is strictly prohibited.

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