Ex-Bermuda policeman photographs rich and famous
The beach shot of Carl Weathers, the American actor, was taken in Bermuda.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Colin Powell were photographed in Washington DC; the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were also snapped there, alongside former president George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara.
Everyone in Philip Bermingham’s book, Portraiture: On The Job, isn’t as famous. There are families that are merely well-heeled, that he shot while they holidayed in favourite spots, as well as pictures of indigenous people in Australia and volunteer doctors with the World Pediatric Project, on the Caribbean island of St Vincent.
“I really have enjoyed every minute of it and I'm still doing it,” the 71-year-old said. “I'm still actively engaged and taking photographs. The people I've met have been, it's been amazing. I feel very fortunate to have met a lot of these people. And the interesting thing is when you're taking a photograph of somebody, they reveal themselves. I honestly enjoy the actual conversation and engagement.”
Originally from Cheshire, England, Mr Bermingham fell in love with photography after he was hired to join the Bermuda Police Force in 1972.
“I was 21 and it was just a magical experience,” he said. “I was there for six years and I fell in love with the place. It gets in your heart and soul; there's no place like it.
“The sheer beauty inspired me to buy a Canonet camera and I went to a night school photography class. It just caught my imagination and I was just so besotted with Bermuda.”
He began taking pictures of his friends, and then joined the Scenes of Crime Department.
“That was the start,” he said. “As I kept on pursuing the thing it just became more and more clear that this is what I wanted to do.”
He was helped by “lots of great breaks” such as the opportunity to photograph Walter Sommer, who was then president of the Princess hotels here.
“It was just magical just hanging around with this guy. It gave me insight into things I'd never seen before. It was also interesting doing the police work as well. As a photographer, you would go to all the events. President Tito of Yugoslavia visited Bermuda and I went to photograph him at Government House.”
Mr Bermingham also photographed the Queen on a royal visit here.
“I followed her around for two days and it was exhausting. I don’t know how she did it.”
In 1978 he moved to Washington with his American wife, Ann, and launched Philip Bermingham Photography.
“It was just by coincidence Smith’s of Bermuda opened a store in Alexandria, Virginia, which is right on the suburbs of Washington DC, and I went along and showed the general manager my Bermuda photographs and he said it would be great to have these photographs in the store.
“So he bought about 25 large photographs and put them all over the store. And then I started doing some advertising work. I was literally just getting started; this was my first year in business and so Smith’s helped me.”
On a trip there owners Roger Davidson and Henry Vesey offered him “extra space upstairs” as a studio.
“I had a lovely relationship with them. And it was wonderful because I got the seal of approval. People would come in and see my studio in Smith’s of Bermuda and it was like an endorsement from Smith’s, who had a great reputation.”
An interest in the arts helped him to move forward. Mr Bermingham approached the Kennedy Centre and offered to take photographs of some of the artists pro bono.
“Live theatre is something that just fascinates me. I did 20 portraits of the National Symphony principles, and I had an exhibit at the Kennedy Centre — I did this pro bono, this was something I really wanted to do. I gave all the musicians a print of their choice and as a result of this, I ended up photographing the president of the organisation, Virginia Mars, who was married to Forrest Mars from the Mars candy family. I became great friends with them as I did all their family photographs and one thing led to another. I did Placido [Domingo, the Spanish opera singer] and through Placido I did the Washington National Opera.”
He then put his name forward for work with a magazine, Washington Dossier.
“Every year they did an ambassador's edition and they were terrible photographs. They looked like mugshots and I was very familiar with mugshots having been a police officer.”
He made 2,000 phone calls before 126 of the 132 ambassadors agreed to pose for him in their national costume over a three-month period.
“The next year, because the magazine was such a success, I did about 30 new ambassadors and everybody complied this time. I did it for about seven years but unfortunately, the magazine went out of business.”
The work connected him with the British ambassador, Sir Anthony Acland. It was on Mr Bermingham’s recommendation that Sir Anthony and his wife Jenny honeymooned here.
The couple had “a great time” at Cambridge Beaches and, on her return, Lady Acland cut the ribbon at the opening of Mr Bermingham’s new studio in McLean, Virginia.
The connection also worked in his favour when a photographer was needed to shoot a picture of the Queen with all the ambassadors on a Royal visit to Washington DC.
“It was just something I loved doing. I was very fortunate to have some successes like that. When I photographed the Queen and Prince Philip, Americans love the British connection, it gives you a certain edge. And I found that really helped my career.”
Conversation plays a big part in every photo shoot as he searches for ways to help people feel comfortable in front of his lens.
“What I try to do is just get them to be themselves. It’s not always easy. You can recognise when someone's guarded; they're just not relaxed. And my job is to get them to open themselves. And it's pretty straightforward.”
He works that way today, travelling to meet clients throughout the Caribbean, United States and Europe, with camera in hand.
The pandemic gave him time to pause and put together the book he’d “been meaning to do for so long”.
“It was just a magical experience just revisiting all the clients I've photographed, the memories. There's about 12 chapters in the book and each one's got a section of my life in it.”
There is a picture of Jerome Powell, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve, taken about 20 years ago and US Democratic and Republican senators.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the former associate justice of the US Supreme Court, was a neighbour who also graced the pages of Portraiture.
Bermuda remains “a great love”. Mr Bermingham returns as often as he can.
“It's always been in my heart and soul. I remember the first time I went I thought, ‘This is paradise.’ But I knew I had to leave to make my career. I don't think I could have made the career I did in Bermuda, because there were limitations on immigration. I was a police officer, I couldn't really switch jobs. So I was very excited for my own business and I really love it.”
• Portraiture: On The Job is available at the Bookmart at Brown & Co and Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art. The author, Philip Bermingham, hopes to hold a book signing in September. For more information: www.philipbermingham.com