Richard Bernardin’s parents met in Chicago: She is of Haitian-Italian descent while he is of Haitian-French descent. After Richard was born and racial tensions mounted in United States during the ‘70s, his parents decided to immigrate to Canada, first moving to Toronto before settling down in Trois-Rivières, where Richard and his siblings would grow up.
As first generation immigrants, Richard’s parents are very strict. Fortunately, they have the opportunity to enroll him in an Anglophone school where diversity is prominent. His friends heed from around the globe: Norway, China, Poland, Africa, France. From a young age, he shows curiosity about other cultures and openness on the world, as well as a keen interest in architecture. While he dreams studying architecture at McGill, he opts to enroll in the Marines instead due to lacklustre grades in chemistry. That’s where he’ll start toying with a camera and developing a passion for photography.
“I like the voyeuristic aspect. The fact that I can immortalize a moment that might have gone unnoticed is fascinating.”
After an accident pushes him to quit the Marines shortly before the start of his 4th year, Richard tempts fate to focus solely on photography.
In 1992, he goes all in, moving to New York City in the hopes of snagging an apprenticeship with acclaimed photographers to hone is craft. With no Internet, Facebook or smartphone, Richard researches via magazines and the phone book, pinpointing photographers, tracking down their agents and making cold calls.
I believe that in life, timing, being at the right place at the right time, is everything. Richard’s story is no exception. One morning, armed with his portfolio, he drops in on a shoot to offer his services as an assistant. After being rebuked by an unimpressed studio director, he comes across the man that would become his mentor and biggest sources of inspiration.
Richard Avedon is near the elevators Richard is going to take to leave the building. He is asked to see his portfolio.
“We sat and had a coffee. He asked me lots of questions on my art, my vision. He analyzed my work in a way I’d never done myself. He was very generous and asked me to come back the next day. I ended up spending a week on set, observing. He was shooting a Versace campaign. Stephanie Seymour was there, and Christie Turlington too. It was surreal.”
What Avedon bestows upon him is the importance of being a gentleman. Above and beyond talent and the actual work, the attitude of the photographer and his personality can make or break him.
Having been fortunate enough to work with Richard a few times prior to this week’s collab, I can tell you that what he prioritizes on set is respect and a genuine collaboration between his vision and that of the artists involved. Everyone is granted wide creative liberty and the multiplication of talent is the secret behind the Bernardin magic.
When I ask him about his signature style and where the inspiration came from, he mentions Vogue magazines his mother bought, but also his dad’s Playboys. The latter taught him the difference between elegance and vulgarity. It’s a fine line that Richard never crosses throughout his career and that helps shape his unique, instantly recognizable aesthetic.
The man who has shot covers for Playboy, The Title, Grazia, Fashion, French and Dress to Kill, to name a few, is a feminist. Married for 30 years, he thinks that the world would be in a better place if we were a matriarchal society. He believes that women can be beautiful, smart, strong, independent and sexy at the same time. Objectifying women is never his goal and he gives models the power to draw their own boundaries. I can’t tell you how refreshing this is.
Richard is a star photographer who isn’t a celebrity. That’s refreshing, too. Respect is king and master of his universe. He never loses his temper on set, and diva-like outbursts are just not him. Even though his career leads him to extraordinary people and creative fulfillment, when asked what excites him for the future, his answer is surprising: He’d like to use his art and talent to curate an exhibit or book about elephants. Fascinated by the animals since forever, he’s keen on raising awareness for these endangered creatures. It’s a project we hope comes to fruition in the next couple of years.
When I bring up regrets to this accomplished man and dad of two young men (18 and 20), he doesn’t really have any. But starting his family just as he penned a contract in NYC with one of the world’s top agencies (Peter Lindberg was also signed) didn’t exactly help his career. Nonetheless, family was always a priority. So he came back to Montreal, vowing to return to New York on his own terms.
Can you reach the top while being based in Montreal? “Yes, and I’ll be even more proud because I did it my way, with no compromises and without sacrificing my family values. As the saying goes, all roads lead to Rome, and life isn’t a race. That’s what I’m trying to instill in my sons.”
My takeaway from my chat with Bernardin is his warmth, humanity and closeness. His ambition never shadowed his family life and this is clearly what has kept him grounded all this time. With 25 years in the industry and zero signs of slowing down—au contraire!—I have a funny feeling that the best is yet to come.