I had known Cal Bernstein since I was three years old, and I knew when he began his battle with pancreatic cancer decades later. In spite of his diagnosis, I never linked him with illness and impending death. I linked him with visual images.
Cal was a stunningly talented photojournalist. He photographed Martin Luther King, Jr., Jimi Hendrix, the Civil Rights Movement and much more. Not every picture tells a story, but Cal’s pictures tell the stories of our hearts, guts, minds. Light and shadow, sharp and fuzzy, obvious and subtle — the lens of Cal’s camera instilled a pulse in the palette of visual images.
I met Cal’s daughter, Jonine, in preschool, and we grew up together. Her family’s house was a large rambling structure, built into the Hollywood Hills. Cal’s living room was always an event, full of ongoing changes and new surprises. He and his wife Roz were fascinated by modern pieces. Their home was crammed with art, and by art, I mean furniture. Shiny steel and sleek leather, curious shapes and unexpected angles. I remember one chair which looked so intimidating that I refused to sit, too shy to admit that I couldn’t figure out where to park my butt. Now I wish I had just asked, because Cal never, not once, mocked another person for ignorance. He would have quietly demonstrated, then offered me a chance to try. He would have hovered nearby until I felt comfortable. Cal was over six feet tall and in a world fraught with people trying to exert power, he was often the tallest person in the room. He was also the most gentle.
Decades later, Cal’s condition worsened until the cancer outdistanced his body’s capacity to fight. I went to his memorial. As I entered the room, I was greeted by a picture, drawn by Jonine’s young daughter, to honor her grandfather. This child had poured her love and loss onto the canvas, and captured the vivid brightness, the boundless warmth, of Cal’s essence. Jonine, her brother, and several others spoke, from all phases of Cal’s personal and professional world. Every day of his life, Cal felt a magnetic pull toward color, shadow, ideas, people, perspectives.
As the final speaker left the podium and we filed outdoors, I turned back. I stood still, looking at the empty room. The chairs were arranged in rows, ordinary and predictable. I wondered how many memorials those chairs had seen, how many people those chairs had held. I smiled to myself, certain that if Cal could attend his own memorial, he would be studying those chairs. He’d find an elusive surface, a shaft of sunshine, a ray of shade. He’d travel the room — standing, kneeling, searching — until he found his vantage point. He’d adjust the lens and the camera would click. In that instant, Cal would recreate those chairs, bringing their story into the light. Those inanimate, uninteresting pieces of furniture would blossom into something they never dreamed they could become. Then Cal would move forward, eyes sweeping his surroundings, always ready to discover the next image, confident that he had given those chairs a story, a meaning, a pulse.
August 30, 1925 – August 10, 2003
Rest In Peace