Renowned Arctic photojournalist dies in Montreal

Fred Breummer: June 26, 1929 — Dec. 17, 2013


Fred Bruemmer in February 2008 at the opening of an exhibit of his photography in Riga, Latvia, his birthplace. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS IMAGE)

Fred Bruemmer in February 2008 at the opening of an exhibit of his photography in Riga, Latvia, his birthplace. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS IMAGE)

These photographs appeared in Fred Breummer’s book Arctic World, published in 1985.

These photographs appeared in Fred Breummer’s book Arctic World, published in 1985.

Fred Breummer, 84, who survived one of the twentieth century’s worst calamities to become a renowned chronicler of the circumpolar world, died Dec. 17 at his home in Montreal, the Montreal Gazette reported Dec. 20.

Born in Riga, Latvia to an ethnic German family who named him Friedrich Karl von Bruemmer, he fled with them to a German-controlled region of western Poland in 1940 after the Soviet Union invaded Latvia and the other Baltic states.

In January of 1945, the Red Army killed Breummer’s parents in one of the mass murders they committed while advancing through Poland to Germany near the end of the Second World War.

They captured Breummer and sent him to work as a slave labourer at a coal mine in the Donbas region of western Ukraine. Then 15, Breummer told his captors that he was only 12, and he was given an easier job than most other prisoners.

After an attempted escape, Soviet authorities sent him to a factory where thousands of slave labourers, many of them German speakers who had been ethnically cleansed from eastern and central Europe, died of torture and exhaustion.

“For me came the loss of my home, the murder of my parents, a work camp in the Soviet Union run by a corrupt and crazed sadist and a miserable existence with a simple focus: to survive,” Breummer said in his memoir, Survival: A Refugee Life, published in 2005.

In 1946, Soviet authorities transported him to what was then East Germany and in 1947 he managed to slip across the border to West Germany.

From there, he made his way in 1950 to Canada, where he worked at the Toburn gold mine in Kirkland Lake, Ont. and taught himself photography.

In a 2010 interview in Montreal with Kerem Saltuk, a student videographer, Breummer said he bought a Rolleiflex camera, then a Leica, and began to make trips around northern Ontario to take photographs.

After working as a photographer and writer in Canada, Europe and the Middle East, he travelled to Iqaluit, then called Frobisher Bay, in the early 1960s.

“I met a people traumatized by transition, suspended between two worlds; one beloved but dying, the other new, alluring, but essentially alien,” Breummer wrote.

He later visited Grise Fiord and travelled for 2,000 kilometres by dog team with two hunters on a three-month polar bear hunt.

“Then it was a marvelous adventure, shared with men I greatly admired. Now it is a part of the Inuit history that I recorded,” Breummer wrote.

That trip led to the publication of his first book, The Long Hunt, published in 1969.

“Mr. Bruemmer has succeeded in presenting a warm and, for the most part, faithful portrait of an important and poorly documented aspect of Eskimo culture: hunting as an art, and the hunter as a person,” Milton Freeman wrote in 1970.

Following the success of that book, he travelled widely throughout the circumpolar world, through Greenland, Canada, Alaska and the Arctic regions of the former Soviet Union.

For the next three decades, he spent nearly six months of each year in the Arctic “commuting between two worlds.”

“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.

In 1969, he lived for six months at a camp in Bathurst Inlet with the family of Joseph Tikhek, where he photographed Inuit life on the land.

That led to a book called Seasons of the Eskimo: A Vanishing Way of Life, published in 1971. Reprinted many times, it was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and made him famous.

Breummer published more than two dozen books, including his unforgettable memoir, which appeared in 2005. He has won numerous honours, including membership in the Order of Canada and an honorary doctorate issued by the University of New Brunswick.

He is survived by wife Maud, his sons Aurel and René, and numerous extended family members.

Breummer’s funeral is to be held Dec. 21 at 10 a.m. at St. Philip’s Anglican Church, his Gazette obituary states.

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