Photojournalist Fred Bruemmer was drawn to the vast loneliness of the Arctic by an almost obsessive fascination with the people who lived there. With no formal training in anthropology, he used his Nikon cameras to document a traditional life that was vanishing quickly.
Recalling his early Arctic visits, he wrote, “I met people traumatized by transition, suspended between two worlds: one beloved but dying, the other new, alluring, but essentially alien.”
His admiration for the Inuit tied him to the North for more than 30 years. He spent each spring and summer in small villages and isolated hunting camps, recording a tenuous existence that depended on the seal hunt for survival. Each fall, he returned to Montreal with hundreds of rolls of film and enough stories to support his family for another year. His wife, Maud, tended both his business and their two sons during his long absences.
At the time of his death last month at age 84, Mr. Bruemmer was an internationally renowned Arctic photographer and writer. His 25 illustrated books and hundreds of magazine articles earned him an international readership and the respect of all who knew his work. He was a member of the Order of Canada and had an honorary doctorate from the University of New Brunswick.
Robert McGhee, a former Arctic curator of archeology at Canada’s Museum of Civilization says, “Fred recorded a period when things were changing very rapidly and he did so faithfully and accurately.”
Born Friederich Karl von Bruemmer in Riga, Latvia, in 1929, Mr. Bruemmer missed his chance for a noble, genteel life by a generation. His father was descended from a line of ruling-class Baltic Germans who had served the imperial armies of Sweden and Russia, but Bolshevik revolutionaries destroyed the sprawling family estate of Alt-Kalzenau early in the 20th century.
As a child, Mr. Bruemmer was drawn to natural science, and by the age of seven, was volunteering as a weekend assistant to paleontologists at Riga’s natural history museum. He and his three elder siblings spent each summer at their parents’ rustic farm, where young Mr. Bruemmer became a self-described “barefoot savage,” exploring the fields and barns at will until school resumed in autumn. That idyll ended abruptly in 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland. Latvia was to be ceded to the Soviet Union and the Bruemmer family fled with other Baltic Germans to the relative safety of German-controlled Poland.
For five years, the family lived comfortably on a large agricultural estate near Gdansk until the Soviet army swept through Poland in January, 1945. When he was 15, Mr. Bruemmer’s parents were summarily executed on a roadside; he and his 19-year-old sister, Hella, were sent to slave-labour camps.
Mr. Bruemmer wrote reluctantly about his gulag experience in his 2006 autobiography Survival: A Refugee Life with the insistent encouragement of his friend Anna Porter, publisher of his Arctic volumes.
The story reads like a hellish teenage adventure novel filled with brutality, deception and death. In the gulag, he came under the protection of a tough 25-year-old German who taught him the thieving and smuggling skills that kept him alive in a factory camp with a 10-per-cent survival rate. After 21 months, he was released as a child orphan and shipped from Ukraine to Berlin via freight car. Although he was actually 17, he was emaciated enough to convince his jailers he was four years younger. Recurring nightmares haunted his sleep for the next 17 years.
In late 1947, Mr. Bruemmer escaped East Germany and reunited with all three of his siblings before making his way to the gold mines of Kirkland Lake, Ontario in 1951. He learned photography at the local newspaper, gave up mining to become a writer-photographer, and wandered through Europe and the Middle East for seven years.
Marriage and a newspaper job eventually brought him to Montreal where he lived with Maud for 50 years. She was the daughter of his eldest sister’s best friend and had spent part of her childhood in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Indonesia. Before their 1962 marriage, the couple agreed that Mr. Bruemmer would switch to freelance work after two years of full-time experience – he believed it better to risk an impoverished life than be trapped in a regular job.
The young photographer first discovered the Arctic and its people during an assignment for Weekend magazine; his editor had been vague, telling him to “do a story about Eskimos.” Until then, he was uncertain about a special focus for his work, but was enthralled by the people, animals and landscape of the harsh northern wilderness.
René Bruemmer believes that his father was drawn to the Inuit because he saw their traditional life in decline. “Dad had lost his ancestral home … the home to which your soul belongs. A very similar thing was happening to the Inuit when he was up there … they were losing that way of life and he felt a deep kinship right away.”
The Inuit happily offered hospitality and lessons in survival, teaching him gently and patiently while making sure he didn’t scare game away during the hunt. Not all the lessons were successful, though. In 1969, he tried his hand at seal hunting, standing motionless beside a breathing hole in the ice of Bathurst Inlet for six hours before finally giving up.
Writing of that miserable day in Arctic Memories, he explained, “I was cold, creaky, cranky, and intensely annoyed with myself. … Yet the Inuit did this nearly every day for 10 to 15 hours, and sometimes they got a seal and often they did not.”
Mr. Bruemmer was a gifted and dependable freelancer, although heart problems slowed him down temporarily at 57. Former Equinox magazine editor Barry Estabrook still shares a letter from Mr. Bruemmer with contributors asking for deadline extensions. Typically understated, it reads in part, “Please be assured that I am not in the habit of missing deadlines, but I’m finding out firsthand that heart-transplant surgery is still very much an experimental science.”
After a year convalescing, Mr. Bruemmer returned to the Arctic. His son René says, “Dad had a history of always finding the right doctors. He’d get a lot of second opinions until he found one who said ‘go ahead, the worst that could happen is that you’re going to die.’”
When northern travel became too onerous late in life, Mr. Bruemmer switched to warmer assignments with Mrs. Bruemmer as his editorial assistant. Their last trip was three months in the jungles of Borneo photographing wild orangutans. Upon his return in mid-2012, he was diagnosed with colon and liver cancer. He died Dec. 17, leaving his wife and two sons, René and Aurel, and seven grandchildren.
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