Unique Viewpoints of the World

By Victor Gavenda

Raised in Manhattan and now living in Brooklyn, photographer Greg Berg considers himself a lifetime New Yorker. He thrives on the richly textured urban life of his native city and loves its physical aspects as well as the vibrant humanity of its population.

Berg’s photos of his hometown feature buildings and infrastructure (some shiny new, some old and decaying) as well as vivid portraits of its inhabitants. Berg delights in capturing the city from unique viewpoints.

Berg’s portraits of New York include derelict subway tunnels and dramatic cityscapes.

But it’s at street level that Berg produces some of his most memorable work. He practices a straightforward, unvarnished, even shocking approach to street photography. The Depression-Era photos of the rural poor by Walker Evans made an impression on the teenage Berg, and he tries to capture the same raw emotion in the unretouched faces of his urban subjects, documenting every wrinkle and blemish.

When he first took to the streets with his camera, Berg brought his abrasive, youthful attitude along. “The way I used to get into people’s faces,” he believes, “I could pull out an emotional side of them.” This was back when the great rush to post anything and everything on Instagram had just begun. Most people were posting snaps of their food or pretty landscapes; but as Berg says, “I went a different route, just putting up extreme faces.” 

To inspire others to join him, he started using the hashtag #postemotion in 2014. Within months, thousands of photos of faces expressing extreme emotions were posted. (It's now more than 170,000.) Berg is proud of the hashtag’s effect. He’s received messages from people telling him how the series has manifested itself in their lives. “When people shoot gritty, up-close scenes, it gets them to engage with reality.”

In an August 2015 interview on the #postemotion phenomenon with Andre Gee at Cypher League, Berg cited as inspiration the book The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Pressfield describes the process of working through the internal barriers that prevent artists from attaining their full creative potential. An important aspect of this is fear: “Are you paralyzed with fear?” asks Pressfield. “That’s a good sign. Fear is good…Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.” Berg has said that it was only when he learned to grapple with his fear and come to terms with it that he was free to develop his artistic sensibility and to find himself in the process.

When shooting on the street, Berg rarely asks for permission; when he does, the answer is usually negative but he snaps the photo, anyway. Challenged on this point, he responds, “I am not sure what is right versus wrong—all I know is my vision and nobody will stop that.” He’s had some violent encounters. “Knives have been thrown, some massive reactions have gone down,” he says. “Nobody can tell me ‘No’ unless they have a gun in my face. If they hit me, that's fine. If they do not get it, then that's their problem; my photographs aren't for everyone.”

Berg regularly plunges into unpredictable situations. In 2015, he and a friend drove to Baltimore to photograph the Freddie Gray protests. He caught remarkable images of the confrontations that ensued, as well as scenes of gang life. He sees the work as “documenting lifestyles from a totally unbiased perspective, meaning here's what is happening and this is what it looks like. No bullcrap quotes, no sound overlays. The raw product, showcasing exactly how I see it. I did not seek anyone out; I saw history being made by the Bloods and Crips joining hands. What am I trying to show in the photos? A city forgotten about, hopeless and thrown to the side to rot. People battling the systematic racism that this country was founded on daily just to eat.”

In his Baltimore series, Berg recorded violent crime and tense standoffs, but his lens also captured scenes of love.]

Berg hasn’t always been so confident. In his dark adolescence, he battled a variety of demons that left him ill-equipped to face the world. But at 13, he received his first camera and a little bit of film, and it instantly brought him a sense of happiness. “I could capture a moment, freeze it forever so I could come back and look at it, and recall the experience or the emotion of the moment.”

He “ran wild” with the camera and with photography. An avid skateboarder, he spent a lot of time on the street with friends. When they got into interesting situations, he and his camera were there to document the event.

His skill with the camera helped him find his way in the world. In photography classes he felt self-assured, and he found himself teaching his fellow students in the darkroom. “I’m grateful that I stumbled on the camera; it gave me the ability to attach myself to moments, and keep difficult memories in perspective.”

As he’s matured, Berg’s fearlessness has led him to take risks and capture scenes of striking beauty and impact in places where he probably wasn’t supposed to be. Take, for example, his vertiginous photos from the tops of skyscrapers with his own feet caught in the frame, treading nothing but air. “I’ve always run on rooftops—I love the views of New York that you get.”

“New York City is the most photographed place in the world, so being a photographer here is a joke,” Berg says. “But I bring people to the roof and I see their perspective change—they look upon the city with humility.”

Abandoned (and one assumes, forbidden) spaces also figure in Berg’s œuvre. But even in these entropic images of decay, Berg finds order and photographs them in a way that emphasizes symmetry and balance. This classic approach is no accident: “My teachers drilled the rule of thirds into my head.”

Berg’s exploration of abandoned structures led him to this old classroom and a now-silent synagogue.

Berg is fascinated by the items he finds in deserted spaces. “These details of old lives—ticket stubs, birth certificates, psychiatrists’ notes in hospitals—evoke a profound sense of history and memory.”

Berg hasn’t spent his entire career in large cities; he tried Portland, Oregon, for a year, an experiment that didn’t take. “Nature photography doesn’t resonate with me.” His small corpus of nature photography belies that self-assessment.

Berg brings the same technical assurance and urban aesthetic to his landscapes as to his cityscapes.

Berg’s work photographing music events has been a labor of love. He’s worked a variety of concerts, doing 50 or 60 shows each year, and has toured privately with some artists since 2015. He’s most at home in hip-hop, though the shows present certain technical challenges.

Berg says, “Hip-hop is a dark, mellow stage. You have to know your way around the software to make the images look their best; or I shoot on film and they always look good.”

Berg continues to look for new ways to extend himself, and he recently fulfilled a life-long dream: he used his savings to finance a trip to China. A month in China was revelatory: “I felt at peace, I felt welcomed,” he says. The rich urban environment provided Berg with ample fodder both for cityscapes and for street photography. The visit made such a strong impression on Berg that he has plans for another, more extensive, tour later in 2017.

Berg does his best to get images right in the camera—he uses Adobe Photoshop Lightroom for cataloging photos, but does little manipulation other than to pull down contrast and shadows. In a way, he’s a film photographer who happens to use a digital camera.

To see more of Greg Berg’s work, visit his website or check out his Premium Contributor photos on Adobe Stock.