Fred Bruemmer was born in Riga, Latvia in 1929. His parents were Baltic Germans of reasonable means, sufficiently well-off for his father to purchase a small farm in northwest Latvia that served as the family’s summer get-away. It was here that Fred’s life-long love of birds, and nature in general, was conceived and nourished.
Back in Riga, this innate and youthful curiosity about the natural world was further encouraged with a weekend volunteer job in the city’s Natural History Museum.
As a child he had two dreams: to become a Naturforscher – a naturalist, and to travel. The Second World War quickly ended these reveries, and brought disruption, and ultimately great tragedy to the Bruemmer family.
His parents were shot and the children were torn apart. Fifteen year old Frederick, the youngest of the siblings, ended up as a slave-labourer in the Soviet Gulag. His youthful guile and remarkable resilience allowed Fred to survive brutality, disease and near-starvation, until he was released in September of 1946.
For a year Fred lived as a refugee in East Germany eking out a living by selling stolen books, being an assistant at a teacher’s institute, and teaching Soviet officers German, and ambitious newly-socialist Germans, Russian. Remarkably, Fred was to find out that his three siblings had also been imprisoned but had survived and were now living in Holland and West Germany.
In late 1947 he escaped to the west and then in December of 1950 followed his older brother to Canada, to work in a gold mine at Kirkland Lake in northern Ontario.
For his 2 week holidays in September 1951 Fred shunned the allure of the big city and instead travelled north to Moosonee, near James Bay, taking hunting/trapping/fishing trips with the local Moose Cree Indians.
According to the autobiography of his early life, Survival: a refugee life, it was here, canoeing and camping in the wilderness of northern Ontario, that Bruemmer decided to become a photographer and writer, and to document the north and its indigenous peoples. He picked up some rudimentary photography and English writing skills at the local Kirkland Lake paper. Shortly thereafter Bruemmer bought a camera and a motorcycle and left northern Ontario behind to pursue his passion, and what would be his life’s calling.
In the late 1950’s Fred worked as a photojournalist in Europe, where he teamed up with the American photographer Leonard Freed, who immeasurably helped Bruemmer to hone his craft. While in Europe Fred married a Dutch girl; Maud was to become his lifelong soulmate, confidante and first-line editor, and on Fred’s long absences up north, the solitary caregiver for their family of two boys.
Fred and Maud returned to Canada and settled in Montreal. In 1964 Fred found himself on assignment for a magazine in the High Arctic. Here, in what the Inuit call Nunassiaq–the beautiful land, Bruemmer truly found his muse.
For the next 30 years, until 1995, Fred made annual trips, often for six months at a time, to document what was a vanishing way of life. Even a heart transplant in 1986 barely slowed him down. Over the years Bruemmer travelled widely in the circumpolar world, with his observations and photographs ending up in hundreds of magazine articles and 25 books; including Seasons of the Eskimo, The Arctic, The World of the Polar Bear, Arctic Visions, and Children of the North.
His book The Arctic was hailed as “the most comprehensive single book on its subject matter ever presented.”, and his work brought him international renown, many awards and membership in the Order of Canada.
Ernest Hillen wrote in a 1982 profile for Maclean’s magazine that Bruemmer’s images and stories about Inuit life made him one of the least-known world-famous men in Canada. And what drove Bruemmer? “Because I want to see, see, see and then see some more”……͞I loved the Arctic, its rugged beauty, its haunting loneliness, its infinite space. It has the vastness of the sea, the grandeur of a Bach fugue, Breummer said. But more than the setting it was the people that drew him there.
His son, 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.
Bruemmer himself wrote I met people traumatized by transition, suspended between two worlds: one beloved but dying, the other new, alluring, but essentially alien. His lasting legacy was the chronicling of that vanishing world.
In 2013 Fred Bruemmer passed away at the age of 84.