Damion Berger’s work is interesting to me precisely because it has so little in common with the majority of his contemporaries. When I first saw it, we just had to talk. So talk we did, about everything: his early mentors, the photographic rat race, form and content, and the ubiquitous debate of large versus small format. He was born in Britain and presently divides his time between Monaco and New York. This summer, he’ll begin a new series about the public ritual of fireworks. His work is currently on display at the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York through September 5, and both of his major projects, RSVP and In the Deep End, will be published by Mets & Schlit in the spring and fall of 2010.
Damion Berger, from In the Deep End
Alec Quig Let’s start at the beginning. Is there any connection between your craft—your approach to it, or your particular appreciation of it—and working with Helmut Newton? Perhaps through osmosis?
Damion Berger I was 17, 18 years old at the time. Basically, I wrote him a letter. I was planning on being in the south of France for the summer, and he lived down there. This letter was a little quirky and off the wall; not your traditional job application. And the next thing you know, he was asking me to come assist him for the summer. At the end of the summer, he asked for me stay on, continue to work with him, and move down there. So I did that. I worked for him for a year.
Regarding his influence, I honestly don’t know. I think it’s almost impossible to quantify to what extent the myriad of one’s different influences might supplant or enhance one’s intrinsic style. Photography aside, being 17 or 18, and every day there being a new surprise as to which hot supermodel would walk through the door…that was pretty special.
AQ And at 17! That’s so young! My grandpa worked as a security guard at Texas stadium when I was a kid, and I met some of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders when I was twelve years old. I’ve been girl crazy ever since. (laughter)
DB I have great stories, great experiences. Of course, after the end of the shoot for whatever magazine he would be shooting for that day, he would segue in to his more personal work. With all of the infrastructure, the models, the assistants, hairdressers, and makeup artists already around—all of whom were generally thrilled to be working with the great Helmut Newton—he would often ask the model to dispense with the clothes, and nudity would reign.
One day we were under the neon lights of an indoor parking garage, and quite a well known model of the time was getting ready, undressing. She takes her clothes off, and, what a shame, she isn’t fully shaved. And on this particular occasion that ran contrary to Helmut’s aesthetic. So, we need a razor. Everyone’s panicking. “What are we going to do, we need a razor!” Well, I had my little scooter, and I’m saying, “No problem, Helmut, I’ll run back home and get my,” you know, “Gilette Sensor XL.” And in reality, I’m barely old enough to shave. So I come back with my razor, and she takes it, looks at me and says, “Aren’t you gonna help me?”
Of course she was kidding. So, after going off alone and having done the deed, she presents me with this extremely hairy razor in a little box. Meanwhile, she had had the makeup artist put this waterproof, semi-permanent lipstick on her lips. And she walks directly toward me, takes my face, exaggeratedly kisses both of my cheeks, and creates these ridiculous lip marks that you just couldn’t get off. I’m pretty sure I didn’t use the razor again. But I admit that it might have been a few days before I washed her lipstick off my cheeks!
DB So apart from experience, the main thing I got out of working for him first and foremost was seeing the world of fashion photography at its pinnacle. Really, where it doesn’t get any better, in terms of budgets…in terms of everything! Seeing it at the top, at its peak…and then realizing it’s not for you. That’s more valuable at age eighteen than anything else. At that stage, I knew fuck all about photography, to be perfectly honest! I knew more about fashion photography then simply because I knew nothing of anything else! I was getting a business degree at the time, but it was after working with Helmut that I decided to give that all up, go to New York, and get a photography degree at Parsons.
AQ And your experience there was positive?
DB Certainly. Without a doubt. My teachers, or professors—a title that somehow doesn’t seem appropriate—played an important part in my development both from a technical and conceptual standpoint. Probably the most significant influence I had was from Charles Harbutt.
AQ I was thinking earlier about how different your work is from his. I’ve presently only seen Travelogue. But wow, how utterly different in temperament his images are, next to yours! He strikes me, at least in memory via the photos in that book, as a slightly cynical, American, modernist Cartier-Bresson.
DB Well, at first he can be quite brusque (laughter), but actually he’s not that cynical. There are elements of great humanity in his photographs. You have to see his photograph, “Blind Boy,” from his essay on a orphanage for the blind, and his other book, Progreso.
AQ You’re right. And that essay in Travelogue is wonderful and on-point. I remember it, in an abstract sense, almost more than the individual photographs themselves. While reading it, the whole time I’m thinking, “I’m right there with you, buddy.”
DB He tells it to you straight, without embellishment.
AQ Like his photographs.
DB Like his photographs. He’s a superb teacher. Sometimes he does it by not saying much, and other times he says a lot and thick skin is required.
DB Well, before I took his classes, I had done this series in Southeast Asia. I tacked them up for critique, my fellow students lined up and patted me on the back. So I was feeling pretty good about myself. Then, to my surprise, he came and tore it down to size. Which is what I needed. The problem with a lot of photography is that it goes round and round in circles, learning more from itself than the world outside. It’s a recurring danger. I was following in the shadow of people whom I admired a lot, through emulation. But it’s important to exorcise those demons.
AQ How would you describe your style? I mean, I would describe it a certain way, but I’m interested in how you would describe it.
DB My style—which might be an evolving thing—is about the threads or aesthetic sensibilities that run through my work as a whole. The RSVP and In The Deep End series are very different bodies of work, but they have a similar style. I’d like to think they share a certain compositional elegance and the pursuit of that singular moment. The only problem is that I’m currently working on a few very different projects—one being large format, with a somewhat similar sensibility. But conceptually and otherwise, they’re very different.
AQ And you were shooting film. With a Leica.
DB In the case of RSVP, yes. Regarding this new project, I’m using large format for the first time, but whether it’s a Leica, digital, large format…you pick the tool for the trade. It’s a wonderful camera, but more importantly, it’s also the only camera I could have used for this project. Shooting without flash, at 1/15, 1/8 of a second, in very little ambient light. It was the perfect tool for the job. I was initially most interested in photographers who historically used the same tools, and it’s probably no accident that I started using a Leica to begin with, but in this case there was no other choice.
Damion Berger, from In the Deep End
AQ Well, when I saw your stuff for the first time I…it was like, “Wowwww!” I don’t often see new work with this particular brand of craftsmanship anymore. The word that keeps coming back is “stately.” It’s muted. It’s not doing much criticizing, and most current photography is about critique, criticism. In every conversation with photographers—this rarely comes up with painters, but always photographers—we’re always talking about judgment. About whether photography is judgmental or not. And the consensus is, you know, that you’re making a judgment by making a picture.
DB Of course, but there’s a difference between…
AQ …Having an axe to grind.
DB Yes! Having a chip on your shoulder. You wrote an email to me earlier about having a journalistic mission, and there not being much of one in RSVP. But I think “journalistic” is a word that might be appropriate. You’re photographing what you see, as you see it—which is not to say that I’m working without a compass. Far from it. In the moment, my decisions are based on more of an instinctual judgment. One also needs a certain amount of distance, which is why the editing process is so important. It’s not a question of it being judgmental, it’s a question of being nonpartisan.
AQ And that’s a useful distinction.
DB It’s very easy to go into situations with a preconceived notion of what you want to illustrate, and then photograph accordingly. I mean, I’m a big fan of much of Larry Fink’s work. But his high society photographs from Social Graces, despite being quite interesting and beautiful photographs…I see that body of work as a self-fulfilling prophecy. He’s going in with a flash that’s automatically harsh. I think it’s very easy to say, “OK, these are rich people that are completely oblivious to the other hardships going on in the world, so let’s just portray them in that way.”
AQ Yeah. “Those assholes.”
DB It’s too easy. It’s much more interesting to go in there with a fairly grounded view of the world and see what emerges. That doesn’t mean that you wont make a photograph of someone doing something embarrassing. Like if I see the bathroom attendant picking his nose, I won’t think, “This poor attendant, he sits there all day for minimum pay, I mustn’t take that picture, instead I should portray him as the only ‘real’ person amongst this crowd of irreverent rich people.” It’s just far too easy to do that, and I fought that approach enormously. What I’m saying is that it’s perfectly valid to let each photograph from the body of work stand for itself and not come down on one side of the line or the the other.
DB Documentary photography is documenting what’s going on. It isn’t illustration for other conceptual ideas. It can be, and it often is, but that isn’t my intention. I tried not to fall into the trap of only seeking out the type of photograph that conforms to a biased persuasion. Perhaps the decisive moment is more important because its instinctual—the moment is fleeting and therefore less evident.
AQ But somehow this idea seems to have become passé.
DB Certainly, the majority of contemporary photography today is large format. It’s not a question of the project as a whole being pondered over. It’s fundamentally a debate over the relative merits of how thought-out or considered each individual photographic act should be before tripping the shutter. I don’t belittle my photographic decisions in any way because I take less time pondering over the actual recognition of that question: “Is this important or relevant to say?”
I readily admit that there’s something of a sport to this kind of photography. When you say Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson, Lartigue, this whole slew of photographers from the first half of the century…their ability to capture a moment that has not been staged is quite remarkable. And there’s something in proving to yourself that you can find the ‘bulls-eye’ as well as anyone else. I think once you’ve proven that to yourself, there’s something liberating in being able to concentrate on the content of the photograph with the knowledge that the formal elements will take care of themselves. They become second nature.
AQ Yes! This is what I’ve very recently had the joy of discovering myself, photographing out west. But it’s sad to me, the extent that my generation seems to be over straight photography. They’re coming at work via the internet. And the process now is not going out into the world and discovering what’s out there, but pondering, getting “inspired,” and conceptualizing big projects for, you know, that fine day, sometime in the future, when they finally acquire a large-format and the right equipment and so on.
DB Taking the time with the large format is associated with a heightened intellectual investment. This might be a controversial thing to say, but I think that’s bullshit!
AQ What is, specifically?
DB I’m talking in generalities here, but when one chooses to work large format, one’s work is by association regarded as having been conceptualized to a greater degree than work done with a small camera. I just think that’s a tremendous fallacy. I don’t know if it’s part and parcel with the fact that there’s commitment there. Lugging this big heavy gear around to capture images.
AQ There are a million ways to legitimize oneself.
DB There seems to be this pandering to the idea that the photographer has gone to greater lengths and has invested himself more in the taking of a certain image if he’s using large format as opposed to small format, which, by extension, is associated with the snapshot, loosely composed, shot from the hip, “I don’t know if I took 500 images on motor drive,” shot from the navel kind of thing.
I mean, to be honest, I think that’s rubbish! In my own work, very few of my better images have more than one frame on the contact sheets. My framing is just as rigorous as anyone else’s. You have one chance and one chance only. It’s fleeting. There’s no second or third shot. This doesn’t imply any undue reliance on the accidental. I think the taste-makers—curators, writers, critics—need to find the hook beyond the image itself in order to…
AQ Have something to write about!
AQ But RSVP’s conceptual bent, the reason you’re doing it…
DB There were a number of things I was specifically interested in with RSVP. In The Deep End, which presents its subjects removed of any social context, was in part reactionary, coming as it did after RSVP, which is about heavy social context. As with many things in life, the deeper you dig, the more you observe and learn, the more questions develop–one’s initial impulse to pursue a certain project is often supplanted by a broader conceptual horizon, and that was certainly the case for me.
To begin with, it was an adventure. It wasn’t just: rich people, black tie, cool environment, let’s explore. In these social circles, where people are all dressed up in dinner jackets and ball gowns, everyone’s reduced to a uniform; different, but not unlike the waiters and staff. The guest’s dress code acts as a membership badge of sorts, a uniform that symbolizes belonging to a higher social stratus. The fact that my subjects are reduced to such a uniform means that it’s a great common denominator, a leveler. And it serves to highlight their other more specific and individual differences.
AQ You plunge yourself into a sphere of homogeny that’s rare to encounter on the street.
DB I was interested in that question: are there intrinsic nationalistic and cultural traits that come across in body language? I wanted to investigate, through photography, what generic human characteristics one could extrapolate. I also wanted to highlight how, upon entering one of these events, it feels like you’re walking into a bygone era. These parties lose their context within the contemporary world. In these days of TMZ.com and celebrity pop culture…
AQ That’s a connection I didn’t make!
DB …I’m not sure if most people are aware that this world continues to exist to the extent that it does. I was interested in this sense of timelessness. But that’s a dangerous word in art.
AQ How? Why?
DB Well, I’ve discussed RSVP in the context of this issue before. The fact is, I don’t actually consider this work as timeless in the conventional sense. These photos are somehow out of time. The sense of nostalgia that arises when looking at these photographs immediately gives way to surprise when the viewer is confronted with the knowledge that they’re not from a bygone era. They’re representative of a wholly different time: today. Maybe sooner or later we’ll look back at these pictures and they’ll represent the end of another era, hence, “the end of opulence.” It’s quite interesting how work can be re-contextualized. In light of recent economic events,RSVP has a much deeper contemporary significance today.
AQ This economic downturn seems freakishly convenient.
DB It’s interesting. New York Magazine just ran two of my images, and the headline was “The Rage of the Rich.” This work is getting a lot more attention right now because of this.
AQ Yeah. Popular hatred of the super rich seems to have reached an all-time high. Sinister bureaucrats and CEOs are constantly gracing front pages. Now the journalist is being expressionistic and the artist is non-partisan!
DB Though I completed the project little more than a few years ago, in such a short period of time, the work has progressed a ways from initially being considered “less worthy.” Rightly or wrongly, documentary work has traditionally been considered more worthy when aimed at those on the periphery.
AQ I’m glad we came back to this. It seems different superficially, but you’re essentially doing the same thing as the photographers who go after the margin-dwellers. You’re exploring another world, one that’s somewhat unfamiliar.
DB I could argue that it’s more important because it’s uncommon! There’s something about photographing the dispossessed that’s considered more deserving. What I’m saying is: well, it’s just not that cut and dry. Today, because of what precipitated our current economic climate, what I find interesting is that this project has been completely turned on its head. When people might have looked down their noses at the virtue of turning one’s lens on the subject of wealth, it’s now of great interest.
Damion Berger, from In the Deep End
DB We were talking about competition for grants for emerging photographers, and people are saying, “Exposure, exposure, exposure, I want as much as possible.” There is this herd mentality within the sphere of emerging photographers. And I hate that term, by the way. “Emerging photographers.” I absolutely hate it. Because emerging means…
AQ Well, it throws you into a barrel!
DB Let’s face it, it describes where you are in your career. It’s an economic designation rather than a judgment of where you are artistically. It seems to have an overriding theme of…
AQ “They don’t know what they’re doing yet.”
DB “They’re doing some sort of interesting stuff and maybe we might consider it relevant or accomplished sometime in the future.” There’s really this herd mentality with all of these competitions. And I have to admit, I’m a little guilty, because I’ve gotten in some of them. You’ve gotta do this contest, and you’ve gotta get that award, and you jump aboard this merry-go-round with everyone else. Everyone’s competing, tit for tat, in emailed press releases and in competitions judged from small JPEGs on a computer screen.
Art shouldn’t be competitive in that way. Many follow this identical path of validation. It should be different for everyone, and ambition shouldn’t be tempered by traveling this well-trodden route. The emphasis should be on great work in spite of the constant bombardment of contests and their final deadlines!
AQ And shit, Damion, most of the time, you pay a lot of money to enter them!
DB Well, there are many photography organizations that should be applauded for the tremendous amount of hard work and effort they put into promoting new talent. On the flip side there are others that offer these competitions for largely self-serving motives and who take advantage. Some of it is definitely a racket.
AQ I don’t know if you saw this, there was some post in which that lots of people were raging on…
DB Around a certain photography magazine’s contest, I think.
AQ And they’re talking about how it’s a racket. I had all these suspicions, and, you know, the next day, found this post.
DB I think it’s dangerous to generalize, but yes, in some cases, I do think it’s used as a profit driver rather than purely to cover costs in association with the contest they’re promoting. Some less-established review events charge a small fortune for little return. Many are first come, first serve. You pay a substantial fee to attend. Then you have the option of listing your area of interest, such as galleries or publishers, rather than your preferred reviewers. One review in particular offers you the option of securing a slot with a specific reviewer in exchange for another hefty fee. For many reviews, the fee you pay is divided up, and a large amount is given back to the reviewers to cover travel expenses and so on. But I do know some that are expensive as hell, require little overhead, and the reviewers are donating their time and covering their expenses one hundred percent. Reviews can be a very worthwhile investments of a photographer’s money and effort, but only if they’re chosen selectively.
Damion Berger, from In the Deep End
DB You were talking about production value earlier. I’m not one to prescribe the sort of thinking that low production value, unpolished, rough art, equals high art.
AQ More often than not, I’m compelled to respond to that kind of thing with my middle finger. Your work has immense appeal to me because, in the face of this, it has such an emphasis on craft.
DB I think photographs should always retain a degree of seductiveness.
AQ It’s essential!
DB I agree, completely. I go to considerable effort in making the richest, most beautiful prints I can. And it’s also about presentation. In my RSVP photos, context is very important because of what I was talking about earlier: the photos seem out of time. If I were to matte and frame the work in the same traditional time-honored fashion, something might be lost. I wanted to underscore the dichotomy between when one thinks the photographs were made and when they actually were. There have to be real reasons that you’re presenting the work in a particular way.
AQ Is your work’s insistence on tight form a response to this, even if unconsciously? Is this “taking a stand?”
DB It’s certainly important to me, but I don’t think the level of craft or the effort I put into making good prints has anything to do with “taking a stand.” I try to make work that is every bit an equal to the conceptual considerations behind it. First and foremost, I’m in the business of satisfying my own creative needs. I’m my own best barometer. If I’m excited about the work I’m doing, it’s because I sense something original and fresh in the direction I’m pursuing. I aspire to make great pictures, and to create work that has the ability to surprise, to seduce, and to stimulate. I’ll state the reasons why I think it’s relevant, but above all, let it sit out there and resonate. With a bit of luck, perhaps I’ll hear an echo!