Bernhard enjoys capturing life’s moments
By Anthony Welch
Photographer Lee Bernhard’s plans for “retirement” may surprise some.
“I already retired when I graduated from college,” the 74-year-old said. “That’s what I always tell people. What is retirement? To me, retirement is doing what you want to do and not having to say ‘yes sir’ to anyone anymore. God was good to me.”
Since the time he left the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Bernhard has been fortunate to not have a boss. He co-owned a photography business in Vegas before venturing to Colorado Springs in 1997 and opening Colorado Classic Images.
Prior to attending UNLV, Bernhard served four years in the U.S. Navy. He worked on an aircraft carrier, the USS Oriskany, during the Vietnam War. It was one of two ships that suffered major fires on board.
“Talked to a guy who was on the inside, he told me how near we were to blowing up and sinking,” Bernhard said. “It also was the carrier that John McCain was shot down off of.”
Bernhard earned a business degree from UNLV, but wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do for a career. During his sophomore year of college, Bernhard met a student who was a photographer. Bernhard’s interest in photography was sparked, and the two starting working together.
Following graduation, the duo opened Bernhard and Williams Photography above a bridal shop in Las Vegas and starting shooting wedding photos. Later, the business expanded to do doing school photos, and the business grew.
Not too long after, Bernhard would fall in love with a young photographer that came to work for the business, Rebecca. The couple was married in 1991. It was Bernhard’s second marriage, and the couple would have a son, Shane, in 1994.
A falling out with his business partner in Vegas, led the couple to relocate to Colorado Springs in 1997.
“Right from almost the very beginning, we had the idea that we were creating memories. That’s been shown to be true over and over again,” Bernhard said. “With the fires we had here in Colorado Springs, people would say, ‘The first thing I grabbed was my photographs.’”
Bernhard has always strongly believed that photos are the best keepsake. A moment in time captured on film is priceless. He experienced just how precious photos can be and how they can help trigger great memories.
Bernhard’s wife Rebecca passed away from breast cancer in 2009. She was only 49.
“When my wife passed away, and we had the memorial service, just looking out at the people who attended after we showed the slideshow, you could just see how all those people, every photograph would affect them in a different way,” Bernhard said. “That’s the strong connection. It’s something of real value preserving those memories of our life. A still picture just brings back floods of emotion when you look at them. I still look at pictures of my sweet wife, and a tear comes to my eye and that’s brought from looking at the photograph. It’s kind of going back in the file cabinet of your brain.”
Colorado Classic Images’ staple is shooting high school and middle school sports team photos. Even in the digital age, Bernhard feels traditional team photo prints are invaluable to players and parents. Years of experience aids Bernhard in coaxing even the most restless and uncooperative players into posing for photos.
“I have to talk to them and tell them in 20 or 30 years they’re going to be happy they had the photo taken,” Bernhard added.
Instances, where young athletes have passed away before their time from auto accidents or illness, bring new light to the value of Bernhard’s photos.
“Sometimes when we go to a memorial service, it’s those photos that are sitting there,” he said. “That makes my work really meaningful.”
Bernhard is the sole employee of Colorado Classic Images. This allows him to take time off as he pleases. Shooting high school team photos for 11 schools in the area, Bernhard works full-time … sort of. The breaks in between sports seasons give Bernhard time to enjoy things he loves doing when he’s not working.
“It’s working but not stressful and totally time consuming. But it keeps me busy,” he said.
His real passion is shooting scenic photos. Bernhard takes a lot of road trips and captures images along the way of the landscapes. Just being outdoors is a pastime for Bernhard. He loves searching for fossils, arrowheads and petrified wood – “All the things you can look for, for free.”
Of course, being his own boss, he enjoys having the freedom to go visit his four kids and grandchildren whenever he pleases.
“Between working, friends and travel, it pretty well takes up all the time,” Bernhard said. “There aren’t many days where I’m wondering what to do.”
Bernhard is an active member of the Professional Photographer’s Guild of Colorado Springs. He has no plans to stop working in the near future.
“It’s just exciting to having gotten in a profession where you can keep going,” he added. “Until I can’t get to the next photoshoot, I’ll keep photographing.”
In the meantime, Bernhard will continue to fully enjoy his “retirement.”
“There are tons of people who retire but have no idea what they’re going to do. My main thought is try to find what you love to do, even if you’re not being paid for it, and pursue it,” he said. “If you’re kind of bored when you retire, find some things you can be excited about. Pursue those things until you can’t pursue them anymore.”