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Photographer and longtime Ralph Lauren contributor Carter Berg sits down with Lake Bell to discuss the keys to a great photo, the psychology of the selfie and his new book

hotographer Carter Berg, whose work has appeared in Departures and Elle Decor as well as numerous Ralph Lauren advertising campaigns, grew up in New York City, which is obvious when you flip through his stunning new volume, New York Snapshots. Immediate, intimate and personal, the book teems with photos of graffiti-decked rooftops, endangered signage and hidden architectural gems—an ode to the city that only a born-and-bred local could produce. To celebrate the book’s publication, Berg sat down for a chat with his longtime friend the writer-actor-director—and new mom!—Lake Bell.

The cover of Carter Berg’s book, in stores now

 

Lake Bell: I’ve known you basically since I was born.

Carter Berg: Yeah, I remember being in my mom and dad’s apartment, and your mom was holding you like you were a little baby and you were going pppfffttt.

Bell: I can still do it, by the way. [Makes pppfffttt noise.] Can you fill in the blanks of where photography started to be (a) an interest and then (b) a profession?

Berg: I was a senior in college. It was March of 1996, and I was a sociology major at Hobart College. I had my spring break coming up, and my mom [longtime Ralph Lauren executive Mary Randolph Carter] was going on a shoot in Mammoth Lakes, California, with Bruce Weber, who, really, at this time of my life I didn’t know much about. And she asked if I wanted to come along as a production assistant.

Bell: A PA.

Berg: I didn’t know what that meant.

Bell: It means getting coffee, that’s what it means.

Berg: Yeah, exactly. All I knew at the time is that life experience was becoming more important. Meeting different types of people, seeing places. Seeing and doing.

“I have to have my camera with me at all times. Even if I’m going to park the car or I’m going to the store to get milk or something.”

[Baby cries.]

Bell: Don’t worry.

Berg: You can get up.

Bell: She’s cry-talking.

Berg: It’s going to be pretty awesome when we look back on this in years, and there is going to be the baby crying in the background.

Bell: Totalllllyyy.

Berg: The bottom line is, I found myself watching Bruce Weber and even watching his photo assistants work. That was an epiphany. His assistants were these cool surfer, kinda rock-star types who were like holding— If you ever had Bruce’s camera in your hand, it was an amazing feeling. It was an incredible, big Pentax 67. I remember being at catering during this shoot, waiting in line, and I was talking with Bruce. He asked me, because he knew I was graduating college, what I wanted to do, and I remember I was like “I wanna do this.”

Lake Bell on the day of the conversation, photographed by Carter Berg. Carter Berg, photographed by Lake Bell.
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Bell: And how long does the book span?

Berg: About 10 years of pictures.

Bell: So do you bring your camera everywhere?

Berg: Yeah, I do. I would say 99.9 percent of the time I bring my camera with me—and that’s non-iPhone camera.

Bell: [Laughs.] Right.

Berg: I made a decision, like, eight years ago: My camera has to be like my keys. I have to have my camera with me at all times. Even if I’m going to park the car or I’m going to the store to get milk or something. You can never say to yourself “No, no, I won’t see a picture. There’s no way I’ll see something.” I think that being wrong enough times and the regret of not having that opportunity is much worse than whatever burden carrying your camera around can be. I mean, this book probably got created because most of the pictures I take are—

A desolate Coney Island, as shown in New York Snapshots

 

Bell: On the way to get milk?

Berg: On the way to get milk.

Bell: That’s why the snapshots are not self-conscious or have too much intention. The book is very much your eyeballs looking at your city and taking everyday, mundane life and putting it on a pedestal. I almost feel like there’s nostalgia for the city that you’re currently existing in, which I think is romantic and I think people can relate to. I digress. You brought up iPhones for a second, and I was curious, because of the rise of iPhones and Instagram, what do you think of that kind of expression? Do you shoot film? Do you miss it? Or are you OK with technology?

Berg: When I first started, it was all film. Then it just became “If you don’t start embracing digital technology, you’re going to be left behind”—unless you’re an icon like Bruce Weber, who still shoots film. In the book, there are pictures, since it spans 10 years, that were film, but it is mostly digital. I didn’t like Instagram until I did it, and then I loved it. People think that Instagram takes a bad picture and it automatically makes it good by putting filters on it. I think good pictures are still good pictures, and, yes, a filter can make clouds look puffy and more three-dimensional. But for the most part, you either take a great photo or you don’t.

Bell: And post selfies all the day long.

Berg: Yes.

Bell: I find them really offensive. Why do I want to see you over and over again? I mean, I send selfies to my husband to be like “Look at me living life over here. Wish you were here next to me in this selfie.”

A sampling of snapshots from the new book
A sampling of snapshots from the new book
A sampling of snapshots from the new book
A sampling of snapshots from the new book
A sampling of snapshots from the new book
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Berg: Now there are selfie sticks where people put their iPhone—

Bell: What is it? No, come on. Do people walk around with a selfie stick?

Berg: People walk around with a rod like this. [Berg holds out his arm as if pointing with a stick.]

Bell: Wow. Hey, by the way, stocking-stuffer alert, right? The selfie stick.

Berg: Yeah, definitely.

Bell: You know what else is a stocking-stuffer alert? New York Snapshots, by Carter Berg.

Berg: Hey, yes!

Bell: Is there anything you want to say to people about this book?

Berg: Here’s what I would say: The one thing that I noticed about some of these pictures is that some of these things are just gone. I know it sounds obvious that things change, but what it is speaks to me. For example, my wife’s from Poland, and in the East Village, there’s an old homemade-pierogi place that had the coolest sign. It was just awesome, and I got the picture I wanted of it one day. It becomes: Now you own that. You have that forever now. They had been there a long time, and they just closed. The woman just wanted to retire. But before they took down this amazing sign, I got that picture.

What I learned is, even if you’re not in the mood to take a certain photo, these things change so fast. Everything. I’ve just learned to pounce at the right moment. Sometimes I find it can be a little self-conscious taking pictures out in the public domain. Sometimes you’re feeling stronger, more confident in certain moments, and sometimes you’re not. Sometimes your shoulders are up; sometimes your shoulders are down. But you need to push yourself to do it because you can’t say, “Maybe I’ll do it next week.”

 

Carter Berg’s new book, New York Snapshots, is out now from teNeues; Lake Bell, who appears in the upcoming The Coup, has starred in such films as Million Dollar Arm and wrote, directed and starred in In a World…

  • photos by carter berg unless otherwise noted, published by teNeues
  • © 2014 Carter Berg
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