Fred Bruemmer 1929-2013
January 07, 2014
On December 17 one of Canada’s finest and most accomplished photojournalists, Fred Bruemmer, passed away at the age of 84. I first met Fred on the pages of Weekend magazine, a supplement that came with our Ottawa Citizen newspaper in the 1960s. His beautifully photographed stories about life in the Canadian arctic captured my youthful imagination and so began my life long fascination with Canada’s north. I was thrilled, and somewhat intimidated, therefore to finally meet Fred in person, in Churchill, Manitoba in 1981, while working as an assistant to British photographer, Bryan Alexander. We spent time together photographing polar bears in a tundra buggy along with another arctic veteran, the late Dan Guravich. I was immediately impressed by Fred’s depth of knowledge about wild animals and his complete lack of fear when it came to getting “the shot.” His stories of hanging upside down out of airplanes or fighting off polar bears with a broom stick made me realize that there might be more to this business of wildlife photography than good light and a telephoto lens! A few years later, after I moved to Prince Edward Island, Fred was a annual supper guest in our home when he came to photograph harp seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence every March (He was an expert on seals, having photographed every species in the world). Over a meal of mussels and good wine he would tell us stories of his adventures in the remotest corners of the globe: photographing seals in the Falkland Islands, elephants in Africa, Komodo dragons in Indonesia, monarch butterflies in Mexico, walrus in Alaska and on and on. However, I believe his greatest legacy will be the remarkable record of Inuit life he documented during thirty years of arctic travel. Throughout the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s he spent six months of each year in the arctic, living with Inuit families and documenting their traditional way of life and the wildlife on which they relied for a living. He published a steady stream of books (twenty-seven in total), beginning and ending, appropriately, with books about Inuit life: The Long Hunt (1969) and Arctic Visions: Pictures from a Vanished World (2008). Over the years of our friendship, Fred revealed only small glimpses of his remarkable personal story, until finally, we were able to read the full story for ourselves with the 2005 release of his award-winning autobiography: Survival: A Refuge Life. It’s not an easy read. He was born Friedrich Karl von Bruemmer, in Riga, Latvia in 1929. His family, who were Baltic Germans, found themselves on the wrong side of the border during the upheaval of WWII and its aftermath. His parents were killed and Fred ended up spending his teenage years in one of Stalin’s work camps where he suffered unspeakable brutality. He survived against all odds, finally escaping and making his way to Canada in 1951. He found work in the mines at Kirkland Lake, Ontario, where he spent his days off exploring Ontario’s north country by motorcycle. Eventually he made his way to Montreal and work at the Montreal Gazette. He told his wife Maud, “I can only do this for two years.” His restless spirit could not endure the routine of a daily job. True to his word, he quit after two years and began a freelance career and the first of his northern journeys. To say Fred Bruemmer was a photographer and author only scratches the surface of the man’s extraordinary life. He was a true renaissance man, he spoke nine languages, was widely read – he could quote at length from the Bible – was meticulous in his research and had a disciplined work ethic. He overcame hardship and obstacles that would have defeated lesser mortals, including a heart transplant at the age of 57. When recovering from the surgery, he asked his doctor if he could drive. When the answer came back “yes,” he got in his van and drove from his Montreal home to Inuvik and spent the summer on the land with an Inuit family. He continued with his rigorous travel schedule, spending several months of each year exploring some remote part of the world, right up until last year when he became ill with cancer. Fred’s insatiable curiosity about the world around him, and especially the natural world, was an inspiration to me in my own career. That he was able to interpret that world in elegant prose and beautiful images garnered many honours including: the Order of Canada, Fellow of the Arctic Institute of North America, Honouary Doctorate from the University of New Brunswick, the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee medal and the North American Nature Photography Association Lifetime Award, just to name a few. His 1964 photo of a baby harp seal was included in the book: Photographs That Changed the World. A few years ago, on my way north to Labrador’s Torngat Mountains, I had a few hours between flights in Montreal, so I spent an afternoon visiting with Fred and his charming wife, Maud. When I told Fred where I was going, he said, “Oh yes, I spent the summer of 1969 hitchhiking around the Labrador coast,” which meant, of course, that he hitched boat rides from community to community (there were no roads), from Quebec, north along the Labrador coast to Ungava Bay, a typical Fred Bruemmer journey of exploration. I think of him as the last of the true adventurers and it was a rare privilege to have known him.