Bernice Kolko (November 2, 1904 - December 15, 1970) was an artist of Polish descent and the first professional female photographer in Mexico who at the same time was a friend of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Kolko befriended Frida during the last two years of her life. Kahlo mentions Bernice on several occasions in her diary, where she also writes about her great personal attachment for the Polish nation.
She was born on November 2, 1994, in Grayevo, Poland. The youngest from two brothers and one sister. In 1920 the Kolko family emigrated to USA. In 1926 she graduated at Crane High School of Chicago and married in the same city. In 1929 her son Eugene was born in New York City.
In 1932 Kolko travelled to Europe. At Vienna University, she followed a Photography course with professor Rudolf Koppitz. There are some photographs from that period. In 1934 she returned to the United States and worked as an independent photographer in New York. In 1935 she participated in a Collective Exhibition at R.K.O. building, New York as well as the Arts and History Museum in Evansville, Indiana, USA.
During WWII Kolko worked at Lockheed factory, Los Angeles, California. In 1944, with a license from the factory, she enlisted in the Women's Army Corps, as photographer. From 1946 to 1947 she lived in Riverside, California. She worked in experimental photographic work and followed courses of commercial photography at the Art Center School, Los Angeles, California. She met Man Ray. In 1951 she studied at the Los Angeles City college, Los Angeles, California.
ELIZABETH CATLETT (1915 - 2012) Women of America (Unidad de la Mujer Americana). Color woodcut, 1963. 241x324 mm; 9 1/2x12 3/4 inches. Signed, inscribed "To Bernice Kolko, in admiration and with affection" and numbered 16/40 in pencil, lower margin.
Bernice Kolko, Elizabeth Catlett in her studio, 1947
Bernice Kolko Frida Kahlo malująca I Frida Kahlo Painting
In October, 1951 Kolko arrived in Mexico to spend her holidays. She started her project Women of Mexico. In 1953 she establishes a close friendship with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Rivera wrote a brief text introducing her photographic work.
In the last days of her life, Bernice Kolko was very much attached to Frida. When she found out about her passing, she came to the Casa Azul: On entering the house, I was understandably very nervous. I was received by Cristina, who led me into the house. “We have lost our Frida”, she said. I then approached her bed and looked at her. We waited for a longer while, but I did not manage to talk to Diego, who had shut himself in. Kolko took a photograph of Frida as she lay on her deathbed. Around seven p.m. her jewellery was taken off, leaving only the rings and a chainlet. She was placed in a grey coffin and transported to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where the body was laid in state, in accordance with the Mexican custom of honouring the departure of distinguished personalities. As regards Rivera, Frida’s death was wholly unexpected, and it was only now that he understood – all too late – how much he would miss her love.
In 1955 Bellas Artes National Institute exhibited Women of Mexico, first individual exhibition in Mexico and probably the first woman photographer to exhibit in Bellas Artes, Mexico. She gpt close to David Alfaro Siqueiros as well as to Chavez Morado and Olga Costa, painters. In 1961 she exhibited Rostros de México (Faces of Mexico) at the Guanajuato University, Guanajuato, Mexico. She travelled in Israel and exhibited 122 photographs of Faces of Mexico in Jerusalem, Israel. In 1962 the magazine Artes de México dedicated a special number to Markets and Merchants illustrated with her photographs. She travelled in Asia: Saigon, Karachi, Birmania, Formosa, India, Thailand and Japan. In 1966 she exhibited experimental photography at the gallery of the Mexican American Cultural relations Institute, Mexico City. The University of Mexico published her book Faces of Mexico and the Anthropology Institute exhibited The Indian world of Bernice Kolko. She travelled in South America: Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina.
In 1970 she exhibited Faces of Mexico in Puebla and the Museum of Man in San Diego, California. She died in Mexico City around December 15, 1970, while preparing a trip to South America.
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