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Blanca Bernheimer in her Munich gallery, 2011. Photograph by DIRK BRUNIECKI

A Sign of the Times

The momentum of the photographic image in the international art arena has persuaded one the Europe’s most established Old Master dealers to break with tradition.

Text: Jennifer Sharp | Images: Christopher Thomas

At Paris Photo last November, the theme was Africa and within the magnificent space of the Grand Palais was a relatively new company, Bernheimer Fine Art Photography, based in Munich. Twenty-nine year old Blanca Bernheimer was exhibiting work by Irving Penn, Mirella Ricciardi, Nick Brandt, Silke Lauffs and wunderkind Jan C. Schlegel, whose hand-toned silver prints were the talk of the fair. The world’s collectors, curators and experts are drawn to Paris for these five days of Paris Photo, one of the most important art fairs for photography. Among the influential galleries exhibiting were New York’s Pace McGill, and Gagosian, which had acquired the Richard Avedon archive earlier in the year. 

Blanca is the fifth generation of Bernheimers active in the art trade. Whereas her father Konrad is a world expert in Old Master paintings and his predecessors supplied antiques to the great houses of Europe and the New World, Blanca is a passionate champion of photography as a major art form. She is the only one of Konrad’s four daughters to enter the business and in true family fashion she has created her own niche and a significant name for herself with Bernheimer Fine Art Photography.‘This was our third year at Paris Photo,’ she says, ‘a huge honour, as there is a rigorous selection process. Our stand was very successful and we attracted lots of new clients, especially American collectors.’

Founded as recently as 2004, Bernheimer Fine Art Photography has mounted an extensive programme of top-quality exhibitions, both solo shows of contemporary artists and group exhibitions of 20th century work. One of the most innovative ideas is to show modern photographers alongside Old Master paintings in the same genre. Blanca juxtaposed limited-edition photography by Guido Mocafico alongside still-life paintings of the Dutch Old Masters. It was unnerving and exhilarating to see them hang side by side.

Blanca has put on shows in London and Munich with work by Robert Mapplethorpe, Lucien Clergue, Toni Schneiders and Julian Schnabel. She’s also a great supporter of up-and-coming artists such as German-Swiss Mat Henner and British-born Veronica Bailey.

Bernheimer Fine Art Photography championed the extraordinary series Passion by Christopher Thomas. This Munich-born photographer, who until then was better known for his work in advertising, captured on camera the whole cast of the 2010 Oberammergau Passion Play which is performed in Bavaria every ten years. These powerful images are printed with a sepia cast to give a vintage, historic feel and the whole set has been compiled into a collector’s edition volume although individual shots are for sale. For three months, from mid-October last year to 15 January 2012, the work was exhibited in the Bavarian National Museum in Munich. Also showing in Munich this winter is a spectacular exhibition of Irving Penn’s images of native people from remote places such as Peru, Dahomey, Cameroon and New Guinea. It has been achieved only after protracted negotiations over eight months with the Irving Penn Foundation. The show is called Ethnos and comprises 33 images, all original prints by Penn himself, with prices starting at US$ 20,000. The most treasured image, Cuzco Children, dating from 1948, is on sale for US$ 1 million. The show runs at Bernheimer Munich to 21 January 2012 and is accompanied by a very fine book.

Initially Blanca had quite different career plans. She studied philosophy and literature at Kings College London, and then flirted with media, journalism, publishing and PR in London and Germany. Living in Berlin in 2004, she was involved with the edgy modern art movement and was asked to curate two photography shows featuring young artists Nick Brandt and Silke Lauffs. Despite an enticing offer to open a gallery in Berlin, she decided to join Bernheimer Munich and develop the photography business with the encouragement of her father – who is thrilled that his daughter has joined the firm. ‘There was never any pressure on any of us girls to go into the art world’, she says. ‘My father was very clear about that, especially as an only son, he personally never had any choice. He has been very generous to me with his contacts, advice and experience and Munich is a wonderful centre for high-quality art photography. The city attracts a wide market of German and foreign visitors and of course our prices are much lower than paintings so customers can make a spontaneous purchase without blowing the budget.’

Constant change over 150 years has been an essential part of the Bernheimer success story. Just as her father changed the direction of the great enterprise he inherited, so Blanca is forging her own interpretation of the Bernheimer name. ‘I hope one day we’ll be better known for photography than Old Masters,’ she says cheekily, ‘but I think that’s some way off.’ It’s an ambition her father would be proud of.


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