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Best of 2011: Keith Berr


In “The Sacred Treasures of Thunder Dragon,” Keith Berr was inspired by ethnographic photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis to examine and preserve Bhutan’s disappearing identity. New external alliances with this isolated Himalayan nation, sheltered for centuries from the outside world, are now causing a rapid decline in traditional ways. After their initial expedition to create these images, Berr and producer/partner Linda Barberic plan to return, to document other aspects of this charming, mostly Buddhist culture.

Keith Berr, Cleveland, OH

Web sites: (Commercial work) www.keithberrphotography.com
Web sites: (Fine art) www.keithberrfineart.com

Project: Personal fine art series, "The Sacred Treasures of Thunder Dragon," an ongoing study about the fragile culture of Bhutan.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

KB: I’ve been running a commercial photography studio based in Cleveland, Ohio, for a little more than 30 years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

KB: I’ve enjoyed my membership with the ASMP since 1985, some 26 years. Bob Bender, a mentor of mine from Cleveland, started our ASMP chapter and had a great influence on me over the years, even after he passed.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

KB: My greatest specialty is being able to communicate with people, whether I speak their language or not. I tend to be a bit of a goof, but CEO’s, steelworkers and people in remote parts of the world all laugh with me and feel at ease. Making people comfortable and having fun allows me to direct my subjects and create great images. My other specialty is to be able to see light, whether it’s natural or manipulated. Light is what makes a great photograph, so shooting food, brain surgery or people, it’s all the same — seeing light and making the image a work of art.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

KB: Canon digital systems, both for stills and video, have opened an exciting new world. I still love the Hasselblads and Leaf backs, but for ease of use and portability, I have to say it’s all Canon.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: What is unique about your approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

KB: I can walk in to just about any situation and be able to relate to people. I can also size up a shot, looking at the direction of the light, observe a person’s natural body language, set a stage and let things happen. I do it fast. It’s very second nature, and being able to work quickly allows for much more spontaneity.

I’ve seen so many photographers try to push a subject or pose, and in the end it looks staged. Natural is good; forcing a shot — food, people, product — it all shows. Light is number one. Composition, design and being real makes for a lasting image.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

KB: I traveled to Bhutan with my partner and producer Linda Barberic and another couple. Everyone was on a bit of a seminar with me. I was available to help them when there were questions on how to light, compose and approach the locals. We had two government guides with us and they were excellent, as we were not well versed in the Bhutanese dialects and many people did not speak English. The biggest hurdle in working with people in other countries and cultures is not the language, which is valuable, but researching the culture is much more significant. Knowing things that can offend or are just unacceptable is so critical. Manners, etiquette and respect for the local culture are the most important things when working in another country.

In Bhutan, as in many Eastern countries, there are many things to avoid doing where offense can be taken. Some of the more common things include:

  • Patting a cute child on the head. The head is considered to be the center of one’s soul, and touching it is not an acceptable practice.
  • Gesturing with the whole hand, palm up, is proper, not with a one-finger point, which is deemed very impolite.
  • Never touch food or people with your left hand, as it is considered unclean.
  • Temples have their own set of rules; so if you see shoes at the entrance to a temple, take yours off.
  • Women are not permitted in many temple areas, nor is photography. Ask your contact.
  • When it doubt, ask ahead of time. Research, use respect and common sense, as we are all guests in other countries.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: How many trips have you made to Bhutan and for how long? Did you begin shooting immediately or did you acclimate and observe at first?

KB: This was my first trip to Bhutan and our stay was a short two weeks. I have traveled to many countries in Southeast Asia but my interest has been in Bhutan for a long time. I studied with photographer Seth Resnick years ago, and he taught me a valuable lesson: Always have your camera and be ready to shoot. Those missed opportunities only happen once. I was shooting on the plane ride in and haven’t missed a day since.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: In what ways have Edward Curtis’s portraits of the vanishing Plains Indians’ culture inspired or influenced your work in Bhutan? Curtis photographed in black and white with a large format camera and made platinum prints. Have you consciously copied any of his techniques?

KB: Edward Curtis utilized the state-of-the-art photographic equipment of his era and set forth to capture the dignity of the Native American people, creating a permanent memorial to them. The Indians were willing participants, often placed in idealized settings in dramatic poses. He was making an attempt to depict the traditional Indian culture that was changing rapidly as a result of their contact with the European Americans.

Curtis has inspired me to capture images of the people from Bhutan in their natural settings in their native clothing. Their culture has remained unchanged for centuries due to its leadership’s isolation policies and its geographic location in the Himalayas. The people of Bhutan are being encroached upon by the entire world of the 21st century, and my work has a distinct parallel to Curtis’s work with the Native Americans and the European Americans at the turn of the 20th century.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

The king of Bhutan has had to form alliances with other countries for protection from aggressive encroachment. This has then allowed external views in television, telephones and news that have caused a rapid decline of the traditional ways. Bhutan’s fragile culture is being absorbed into the 21st century, and I have set my sights on preserving the disappearing identities of Bhutan.

Curtis utilized the most advanced photographic tools of his time, as I am also doing. I love the traditional platinum prints and large format cameras, but I believe that, given the opportunity of using today’s equipment, Curtis would have embraced the digital era. I have chosen not to emulate the processes he used, but instead I would have to say that the influence that I have received from Curtis is in his style, which would be seeing into the person’s soul through their eyes. The subject’s eyes always tell the story.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: Please talk about your use of color in your images from Bhutan and any decisions you made regarding the color palette.

KB: The color palate that I am working with is muted in tone. Many of the Bhutanese fabrics are brilliant in color, vibrant and cheery, and this does not work in my theme, as I want to portray the sadness in the eyes of a culture that is losing its identity. I am utilizing a specific action in Photoshop that I have written to keep a consistency to these images and cohesion to the photographs.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: During your travels in Bhutan were there any moments when you were surprised by the sophistication of the Bhutanese despite their years of isolation or, the opposite, found that your subjects misunderstood your presumably “advanced” ways? Please elaborate.

KB: The people of Bhutan are a sincere, charming traditional, mostly Buddhist society. Having studied the culture prior to our trip, we knew a bit of what to expect. But I have to say I’ve never been more pleasurably surprised to meet such genuinely beautiful people. I was thanked by everyone for making a portrait. I have sent many photos back to the folks, via my contact from the government, and look forward to seeing so many of these friends again.

One event stands out in particular. I was walking with my guide, Chhimi Rinzin, and met a farmer on the roadside. I expressed to him how beautiful I thought his country and the farms were. He asked me, through Chhimi, if I would like to visit his farm and pointed down the road to it. Chhimi explained to me that his only son had taken the crops to town for sale a while back and had seen a television with very interesting places that he wanted to visit. He had left his father recently and was not expected to return. The old farmer wanted to find someone who loved the land to take his farm from him, as he had no one else to give it to when he passed. He felt that he did not have much time left. I told Chhimi that I couldn’t buy something like this in another country and Chhimi explained to me that it was a gift he was offering, if I would love it and tend to it as he had.

It still brings tears to me when I tell the story. I photographed him and he thanked me. I have sent him photos and will return to visit again.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: What kind of advance arrangements or documentation was needed for your visits to Bhutan? Were you monitored at all while traveling in the country? Was your access to things restricted in any way or were you told there was anything you could not photograph?

KB: There is no U.S. Embassy or Consulate in Bhutan; the closest is located in New Delhi, India. A passport and visa are needed to enter and exit and all visas are approved from the city of Thimpu and only issued to tourists booked with a local licensed tour operator, directly or through a foreign travel agent. All visitors must obtain visa clearance before attempting to enter the country. Air tickets cannot be purchased without clearance and visas are only good for 15 days, but extensions are available. The Bhutanese Department of Tourism sets a non-negotiable minimum daily tariff for all visitors. The rate includes all accommodations, meals, transportation and guide services. This tariff varies but is around $200 a day.

Entry to Bhutan is through two airlines, Drukair and Buddha Air and is only available via India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Thailand. The Chinese border is closed. The only monitoring is through the local tour person and this person is required to be with you at all times. You cannot drive a car, they must drive for you but will go where you ask them and explain quite well what is happening everywhere.

The people are very open and receptive to questions. Many young people will ask about your country, sit and listen and practice their English with you. The only things you are asked not to photograph are the King, his family and certain Temple areas and artifacts. The government has a fear of letting people see the artifacts in the Temples, many from the 16th century, frescoes, gold statues, carvings, all spectacular. There is no good photographic record of any of this but it is all accessible for viewing.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: What kind of lodging did you have? Was this specifically reserved for foreign guests?

KB: Some of our lodging was small farmhouses, sometimes camping and a few lodges and small hotels. Barking dogs are very common and they bark in packs all night long, so earplugs are recommended. Some lodgings have water and electricity, many would use a small wood stove for heat and ghee candles for light. Some of the lodging was used by other Bhutanese travelers, but I would have to say it is generally for foreign guests of the country, as the Bhutanese tend not to stray far from home.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: During your travels in Bhutan did you see any Western imagery, or anything related to Western television or print media? Is the country’s history of isolationism reflected in how the people look at pictures (or photographers) currently?

KB: I honestly did not see a television at any time in the country, and print media was in Indian. It was evident that the traditional dress was sometimes moving towards western clothing but the King still insists on traditional Bhutanese dress, which is the gho for men and the kira for women. The people weave all their own fabrics and the patterns and textures are impressive.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: Please describe your collaboration with your partner/producer while working in Bhutan. What kind of advance research did she, or you, do?

KB: Linda did much of the research and planning for the trip. We collaborated on points of interest and the places we could visit on our first excursion. The country is so small, but traveling even 40 miles could take well over 10 hours by car due to the infrastructure. We are currently looking at other areas in the country to visit on our next expedition. Research is limited to the few books available and the Internet. After speaking with our guides I now have a good idea where in the country we will visit next.

We have a letter drafted to the Bhutanese government offering to work with them on photographing the artifacts and treasures of the country, mostly housed in Dzongs [fortress-monasteries], which are off limits to any photography and even a woman’s presence. The country has no good record of the art located in many of the temples and it is afraid to allow this information to be published due the fear of outside theft of the treasures. Our connections feel that if we were to donate these images for official use only, it would be a great service to the country and that is what we are proposing, in exchange for lodging and guides.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: How did you find the models for these pictures? Did you use guides, translators or fixers to assist in traveling or in searching for models, or did you work independently?

KB: These are real people and I would approach them on my own or at times with our guide. The guide was always somewhere close but we never really used him to solicit for us. I can approach and start a relationship to photograph someone just about anywhere. Most people are happy to be a part of this if their personal space is not infringed upon and you are kind and respectful.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: What kind of compensation, if any, did you provide for a subject’s time and energies in posing for these images? Did you ask your portrait subjects to sign model releases?

KB: I gave no compensation and in this country it is part of the cultural thing I speak of. Subjects would thank us for taking their photos and it would be considered an insult to offer money. I would ask my guide to deliver prints to subjects if they wanted and would gather a name and a country address. Our guide Chhimi has delivered many images to the models for us. We did not ask for releases.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: You mention being a fine art photographer with a 30-year commercial background. Has fine art work always been a part of your output? When did this take on a primary significance for you and what channels do you currently use to present and promote this work, in addition to your Web site?

KB: Being a commercial photographer occupied most of my time for many years and I have to say that my personal work had been put aside in lieu of making money on the big accounts. I had lost the drive for having fun and creating the art that had gotten me involved in photography. My partner and producer, Linda, actually bought me two Nikon F100s one day and told me to go out, leave the Hasselblad and 4x5’s behind and “have some fun.” I did and ended up taking a boot camp seminar with Seth Resnick who then converted me to Canon. That’s another story. We slept only six hours during the five days of intensive motivational training and I have to say it opened my eyes and re-energized me to do what I do today. Thanks, Linda and Seth.

I work on a number of different bodies of work at any given time and currently I am selling my personal art through various channels. I am allied with a company in Canada and California that places my images in Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond and various other big box stores. I have another company that mass markets certain work through Overstock.com, I have gallery representation for certain bodies of work, and in Cleveland a company called Red Dot that sells fine art to corporations. I also sell off my Web site and utilize juried art shows to get my work seen.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: What methods do you employ for fulfillment of your fine art print sales? Do you edition your fine art prints? If so, how do you determine edition size and pricing?

KB: I print most of my images from my Epson equipment in our studios, or I’ll supervise another printer for large-scale images that my printers will not handle.

I do like to edition much of my work and will establish small, medium, large and very large sizes. The smaller sizes generally have a larger edition number (150) and the largest size a small edition number (maybe 15). For some bodies of work I keep open editions so that I can contract with companies such as Target, and after they are through I can still sell the images. Pricing is something that we’ve played with over the years and is really what the market will bear. Our gallery pricing is higher than our Web site sales due to the commissions.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: Your Web site has a lightbox feature, with a shopping cart that connects to PayPal. How long have you had this system in place? Please talk about how this functions and what kind (and volume) of buyers it generates.

KB: The light box feature has been available on both of our Web sites for three years and is a great way to put a specific body of work together for a client, say an architect or interior designer looking for imagery in green and yellow for his or her client. I could suggest various abstracts, florals, landscapes and so on, and then mail the link of that portfolio as a light box.

The client can then look at just this image portfolio or explore the entire site if they wish. I often use the light box feature in my commercial work as well. If an art director wants to show his client my capabilities — for instance shooting an ad campaign for the Ohio Lottery with high energy people — I’ll select those types of shots and place them in my lightbox and e-mail the link. Again the recipient can view just the images presented or explore the entire site and see that I can also shoot food, kids and CEO’s. It opens up new avenues and allows people to know me better without a hard sale.

The PayPal feature is wonderful. People who have seen my work at art shows or gallery openings but have not taken the moment to purchase on site still have the opportunity to buy the images by going to our Web site. They can order the size they want on open editions, or contact us via e-mail or telephone to check on availability of edition number and print size. We also do custom sizing and will even frame and drop images digitally on a person’s home or corporate wall if they provide us with an image and dimensions of the space for the installation. It makes for an easier sale on high-end prints, if people can see it installed prior to making the purchase.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: You maintain a second business location in Santa Fe, New Mexico. How much time do you spend in each place and how much time is spent in transit? How much time do you spend in neither location, when traveling on assignment?

KB: Most of our time is spent in Cleveland. It’s a remarkable city with a diverse culture, theaters, galleries, museums, sports teams, restaurants and a great cost of living. The ad agencies and direct clients feed us very well here. We are in Cleveland about 55 percent of the year. Our Santa Fe location is a home and a smaller studio space. We use it to prepare for location shoots out west. Our travel time to Santa Fe is about ten hours door-to-door and we head out whenever we have a project or clients and friends that are looking to explore something new and have a getaway. Our time spent in Santa Fe is around 20 percent of the year. Our time spent in neither space, shooting on locations is around 15 percent of our annual work days, and time spent in locations for creating our art can be up to 10 percent of the year.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: Please compare and contrast these two photography markets (Cleveland and Santa Fe). Do you do any regional marketing to attract local clientele in either place, and if so do these efforts differ from one location to the other?

KB: We have two homes and studios, which are very different from one another. I designed and built our home and studio in Santa Fe about six years ago. We are located just outside the city, backing up to the Santa Fe National Forest in the hills of the high desert with views all the way to Arizona. It’s a small studio and is designed primarily for gallery exhibits and tabletop photography. Santa Fe is an art community and has little in the advertising industry to fuel my primary business. We use the studio as a platform for jobs out west.

Our studio and home in Cleveland is a property I also designed and built. The location is downtown in the urban, inner city, with lush gardens and 6,500 square feet of space suited for shooting cars, food, product and people.

Our marketing has primarily been focused on the Midwest but we are starting to hit the Albuquerque area. My commercial clients are all over the country and much of my work is location photography for chefs, corporations, schools and hospitals. Our clients don’t know where we are when we answer a call, so we are really available in either market, anytime. We’re just a plane ride away.

Our marketing efforts are mostly fine art, direct mailings to targeted people we want to work with and to existing customers that we don’t want to lose. Establishing new clients is a difficult process and your best clients are the existing clients. These folks must remain interested in your work or they will be lost to other more exciting artists. We also blog and do targeted e-mail blasts. We don’t believe in mass e-mails as we all get too much garbage in our mailboxes and I don’t want to annoy folks.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: Your Cleveland location boasts a large studio that can accommodate everything from automotive shoots on a cyc to a kitchen for shooting food. How long have you had this space? Please talk about the expenses related to operating this aspect of your business.

KB: We custom designed and built the Cleveland studio 18 years ago. It was a vacant lot in Cleveland’s Chinatown and we wanted the ability to produce anything the ad agencies could throw at us. We have a three-quarter acre lot with large private gardens, a pergola and barbeque entertainment area for clients. Private parking, chef’s commercial kitchen, a 40- by 70-foot cyc for automotive with a 10- by 20-foot Chimera light box, 20 foot ceilings, easy freeway access, a very cool studio and amazing Asian restaurants right out our door. My clients that come here to work from other major cities are blown away by our city and the studio and a usual comment is, “No way could we do this in New York.” The studio was a great investment and we paid it off after the first five years. Our only expenses are utilities, maintenance and taxes.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: I’m assuming you also rent the studio for use by other photographers or organizations. Please provide details about how this operates — i.e: rental fees, scheduling timeframes, the means by which you promote the space.

KB: Much of my work is location these days so I do use the studio less than I used to. We offer the studio to shooters outside the city and some photographers here in Cleveland that I know well. We have an affiliation with the top photography rental company in the Midwest, The Dodd Camera Company, where they refer business our way for rental. All equipment comes from Dodd’s and we offer space, a host, assistant referrals and anything we can do to help a shoot go smoothly for the shooter. ASMP also lists us and we prefer to rent, when we do, to ASMP folks, as there is definitely a respect level.

Rental fees are negotiated by Linda, our producer, and solely depend on the job type, amount of crew, equipment, setup, tear-down and so on. For anyone interested we have a PDF with full details, photos included. This is definitely not our main focus for income so we are very selective and will interview interested parties prior to offering the space for a rental. We also open this amazing space to a variety of charitable organizations and have hosted a number of charity events and fundraisers including the American Diabetes Organization and the Center for Domestic Violence. Any good cause can contact us to inquire about the use of our studio.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr

ASMP: Do you employ additional photographers or support staff in operating this aspect of your business? If so, please elaborate.

KB: We have a number of excellent people available on a freelance basis, mostly ASMP members. The people are versed in film as well as still work and I personally can attest to their professional levels of expertise.

ASMP: Generally speaking how much time do you spend shooting in this studio yourself? What has been the most interesting or exciting use of your studio, aside from your own shoots?

KB: On an average we only utilize this studio space a half a dozen times a month as most of our work is spent on various locations around the country. So much is now accomplished digitally that we used to do in the studio. The world and tools are changing and it’s just a matter of adapting to stay current and produce the best art and commercial work possible.

Some of our more creative and fun shoots here have been: Building a two-story home interior for a window company; staging a rainstorm, snow storm and mud fest for a car ad; building the interior of a city bus in pieces and parts for a single-shot-assembly bus wrap that shows everyone reading the local newspaper. Pre-digital, we grew grass in the studio for a Little Tikes ad of kids playing outside on the summer lawn, shot in the middle of winter. We’ve had amazing chefs, huge dinner parties, YMCA National Ad campaigns, Pearl Vision National, Aspen Dental, Cub Cadet tractors filling the parking lot, backyard and studio, Ohio Lottery with Leslie Nielsen, the list goes on and on.

Aside from my own shoots, some recent rentals that were interesting include an album cover shoot for Keyshia Cole, a food shooter from San Francisco and various video crew productions.

On the charity side we’ve hosted over 300 people for an American Diabetes Benefit, dinner parties with local legendary chefs and even a wedding for my niece with a 250-person sit down dinner.

© Keith Berr
© Keith Berr