By Shannon Rasberry
A Swiss photographer famous for his depiction of nude women has written a book about his trip from Geneva to the United States during the late 1970s, a turbulent era of sexual liberation, drugs, and carefree living that captured his imagination and defined a generation. John Bernhard’s autobiographical book, America’s Call: The Rocky Road of the American Dream…A Travelogue of One Man’s Discovery, tells the story of an open, free, and curious American culture through the youthful spirit of Bernhard’s journal, which chronicled an odyssey lasting over a year and covering more than 28,000 miles.
America’s Call recounts Bernhard’s exploration of much of Canada and the United States with his best friend Alain from the early days of 1978 to the spring of 1979. The book is a matter-of-fact account of a bygone America by a young Old World pilgrim who backpacked his way across the New World fueled by childhood stories of cowboys and Indians, of John Wayne and James Dean.
When people ask about the unusually frank depiction of casual sex and drug use in his book, Bernhard always responds with a Cheshire grin, “But there was nothing unusual about any of that then.”
However, the America of the late 1970s bears little resemblance to the America of 2012. In fact, Bernhard says he decided to write his book, more than 30 years after the events in his journal, because of the changes that have taken place in America, his adopted home.
“For me, the trance of reliving the memories in my journal was bittersweet,” Bernhard said. “It was a magical time for America, and myself, in terms of opportunities for freedom and personal discovery. Sex and drugs were as easily found as coffee and cigarettes. Some people think that was a bad thing and are happy those days are gone.”
“But other things were equally common. Such as a sense of community and the hospitality towards strangers, the ability to trust someone you didn’t know to give you a ride in their car or a hot meal or a room to stay for the night without suspicion or concern. There was a freedom, a love, to the way people thought and behaved and interacted with one another that was personally and spiritually emancipating. And all of it, all of those things, are gone now, lost over the past three decades to the cultural isolation of conservatism, fear, and hate.”
John Bernhard was born in Switzerland and after his backpack adventure, the draw to the U.S. tugged at his mind until he returned and settled in Houston, Texas to pursue the American dream. For the past three decades he has chosen the medium of photography to explore the everyday world from new perspectives, breaking away into different pathways of artistic expression. He is the author of seven monographs, including: Nudes Metamorphs, Nicaragua, John Bernhard, Drift, Diptych, China, and Body Work.