Emma Bee Bernstein

For Emma Bee Bernstein, my friend and feminist co-conspirator

Before Emma left for Italy we met to get drinks and dinner in Brooklyn. We sat by the fire in the backyard of Iona’s on Grand Street and tried to catch up about all that had happened in her life since she had last been home. There was always too much to share in too short a time and we talked fast.  I told her how proud I was of her for the internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.  She was tired, nervous and unsure, but quickly switched to the topic of what she’d like to do with her second book.  She planned to put together a book of interviews and portraits of feminist artists she’d been working on and I was honored she asked me to work on it with her.  We parted ways after dinner but ran into each other later that evening.  Emma always seemed to be everywhere at the same time.  When we sat outside briefly to smoke a cigarette before I left, she joked about her hopes of being swept away by an Italian prince while in Venice.


I met Emma in high school at Friends Seminary when she was a freshman and I was finishing my senior year. I was drawn immediately from afar to her warmth, her incredible energy, and her ripped pink fishnets and matching hair. The few years difference in age and the short time we spent together at the same school made very little difference in the depth of our friendship.  When many other high school students were relishing a Sunday to sleep in, Emma would make plans for us to see a museum show early in the day, some galleries in the afternoon and a double feature in the evening, with time in between to stop home for dinner with her family. While I felt lucky to be frequently called upon for opinions of her newest writing or photographs, more often than not Emma was the one who introduced me to something new, and I was the one to feel forever grateful to know her.  Because Emma brought me to a young feminist organization, a New York City Chapter meeting of Riot Grrrl she often attended, I found a community of friends and fellow feminists, many whom I am closest with even now.  Because of Emma, I found a career working with women artists that gives more meaning to my life than I had before thought possible.

From the time when we first worked in the darkroom together over eight years ago, I was deeply impressed with Emma’s photographs. Even in her earliest adolescent play with portraiture - a kind of dress up game of which she never tired – she exhibited an extra ordinary ability to bring something hidden out in her subjects. I watched as her work grew throughout college.  I admired how she fought to maintain her independent vision even when it was not understood by those who has somehow missed the last thirty years of feminist intervention in the art world.  Despite her age, Emma had already exhibited her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, The SMART Museum, and at A.I.R. Gallery, among other venues. When she spoke about her most recent Masquerade series at "Beyond the Waves: Feminist Artist’s Talk Across Generations," a panel I organized last year at the Brooklyn Museum which also featured her mother, Susan Bee, Emma spoke with wisdom and wit making a lasting impact on the audience members, many who have contacted me since regarding her work. At the time she said her historical influences for this series, were “Julia Margaret Cameron and John Singer Sargent but filtered through Antonioni and John Waters.” Like Julia Margaret Cameron’s women, Emma’s subjects each exhibit a deep sense of agency, a knowingness that suggests mystery and conspiracy, a beautiful and unsettling collapse of artist and subject. No matter their actual distance from the camera one feels close — often uncomfortably close — to the people in her images — especially when it is Emma herself. Her photographs are at once confrontational and alluring.  She loved to play with opposites.

Emma’s commitment to collaboration is inherent in her photographs and in all else that she created. I feel so lucky to list myself among her many feminist co-conspirators. In an essay she wrote after receiving a scholarship to attend The Feminist Future Symposium at the Museum of Modern Art in 2007, Emma wrote: “Let feminism be an amorphous conceptual cloud that floats over women’s ideation and visual experience — and that brings us together instead of partitions us off from one another.” She thought that perhaps, among other things the real hope for the future of feminism might be, “the sustained creation of communities of support and the continued bonds of sisterhood.” Almost everything she did she shared, inviting others in to build something better together. In the spirit of her brand of feminism, she never forgot to look back, thankfully; for all that others had created before her. But she was also gifted with an incredibly innovative mind. Every new project she envisioned had a larger purpose and was based on building communities, friendships and even movements that would continue to grow organically and change the lives of her friends, family, fellows feminists and artists and even many woman and men she never met. I already feel how much I miss working with Emma and sharing in her new ideas but I know that the work she did - her writing and images — will continue to shape my life and many others.

Emma, I love you and miss you everyday.

—Kat Griefen