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Mozart’s ‘butter violin’ and Frederick Bertin’s Hasselblad camera

2016-01-19 Mozart used to refer to a favourite fiddle as his ‘butter violin’ (due to its exquisite soft tone apparently)

Top French-born portrait photographer Frederick-Edwin Bertin reveals he has his very own ‘violon de beurre’ – it’s his Hasselblad.

A fanatically loyal disciple of medium format film capture for over three decades (although he confesses he is contemplating a landmark shooting project for a New York-based magazine with a CFV-50c digital back) Frederick has just announced that The Bank of Sweden is to use an iconic photograph he took of Ingmar Bergman, one of the world’s most famous film directors, in Stockholm in 1998, on its next issue of 200 kronor banknotes.

IngmarBergmanIngmar Bergman by Frederick-Edwin Bertin

‘It’s a great honour for me” he says, “and of course the Sweden connection between the man frequently described  as the greatest director who ever lived and the maker of the world’s greatest cameras, serves to highlight the remarkable flair and ingenuity that is resident in this innovative Scandinavian country.”

The Bergman photograph was the final triumphant result after Frederick’s soul-wrenching five year mission to take a portrait of the great man.

He had spent two years writing letters to Bergman and then followed that up by moving to Stockholm and investing the next three years of his life painstakingly generating 98 photographs of the Bergman coterie of actors, technicians and assistants.

“Bergman was a very brilliant man, always a challenge and with an occasional tendency to act in unconventional ways” notes Frederick.  “There were only ever two authorised portrait sittings in his entire life. One was with Irving Penn and the other was with me. I laboured non-stop for all those years before I was finally rewarded with a single 20 minute session with Bergman.  It was just Bergman, me and my Hasselblad 500CM in a room in Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre. And it was worth the wait and the extreme effort.”

But Frederick’s half a decade-long obsession to photograph the enigmatic Bergman very nearly never got off the ground. Indeed, his exemplary career as a photographer nearly never got off the ground either. As a teenager Frederick almost went blind.

“I picked up the same virus that creates cold sores on lips” he says, “But it went to my eye and started to attack my cornea. Then the other eye also became infected.”

Frederick’s father took him to London’s world-famous Moorfields Eye Hospital where a doctor announced that had he turned up 48 hours later it would have been too late to save his sight.

It was during a trip to Hyde Park as part of his three month-long recuperation that Fredrick experienced his photographic epiphany moment.

He remembers: “It had just rained very hard and the sun was causing the water droplets to sparkle on the stunning autumn leaves. To me that was an incredible moment of ‘seeing’ and I decided there and then to become a photographer.”

Frederick went to college and later became a photo-assistant in Paris. But in 1981 the virus struck again and he ended up back at Moorfields for more treatment.

He says: “My father was so impressed with my determination to fully recover that he went out and bought me my first Hasselblad – this wonderful all black and shiny 500CM. He said I deserved to have the best tool available.”

From that point Fredrick never looked back.  Armed with his ‘alluring and sexy’ 500CM and later  a 503CW and then his trusty 203FE – complete with three ‘magnificent’ F Series lenses he began to build  his career working with key international magazines including Vogue.

But the camera of choice for the 1998 Bergman shot was the 500CM.

“I loved this capture tool” he enthuses. “I took it everywhere with me during the three years I spent with the Bergman troupe. I was known as the ‘white wolf’ amongst the actors and technicians…I think that nickname sprung up because they all knew I was so highly focused on tracking down Ingmar Bergman.”

“I had reached the point, having taken almost one hundred portraits of the group, that I started to be haunted by the thought that despite all this effort I still might never get to Bergman himself – and then I would have wasted five years of my working life.

But then something incredible happened. I was in a café bar with the Bergman actors and they introduced me to a young man who announced that he was being taught by Bergman – but he labelled him quite negatively as just ‘a very old man’.

Well I am normally quite calm but I really lost my temper with him. And as we say in France ‘the mustard really got in my nose’ when I heard that. I couldn’t believe this young man was talking about Bergman – one of the true greats of the cinema world – so disparagingly.

The entire café audience went quiet. But the very next day I had a note from Bergman himself to say he would commit to the photograph now.”

The five year wait was over.

Recalls Frederick: “That morning I was like an Olympic athlete just before a final sprint. I paced the local park trying to calm my nerves. I checked my Hasselblad; light meter and batteries. Then I checked them again. And then again.

Then Bergman walked in and sat down. I always direct my sitters for the pose I want. But not him.

I shoot with my Hasselblad on a tripod. The camera was set. I constructed the frame and knelt next to the camera. There was no special lighting. I like daylight. I had the window behind me and made sure I was not blocking this key light source.

We were talking about one of his films and suddenly he just gave me this amazing smile. I didn’t direct for that. It just happened. It was like we had been friends for a long time.”

“I knew instinctively that was the shot and I didn’t hesitate. I just took the picture. He was pleased because he knew I had captured it.”

He adds: “And that moment still stays with me. My enchantment with Hasselblad  – my own violon de beurre – is that when I construct a portrait my concentration can be totally with the sitter – because my camera is always on the tripod – and that affords me at least 60% more awareness of what I am doing in the moment.”

After the stresses and strains of three years of portrait shooting in Stockholm Frederick needed change and he switched to photographing landscapes and plants.

In 2005 he became a Hasselblad Master for his ‘Atlantic Plants Portfolio’ – and now, with his eye on the new CFV-50c digital back, he is contemplating a landmark project in New York.

But there is still a touch of wonderful irony about his career path that makes Fredrick smile.

banknoteHe says: “My mother never ever wanted me to be a photographer. When I told her that I had made my decision she didn’t talk to me for three years. She really wanted me to be a banker.

How strange that now my photograph of Bergman will be on a banknote!”

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