After reading Ron Berg’s Photo District New article about his passion for Kentucky Derby fashion, Alison McCreery of POP Blog approached him and asked if she could interview him to delve a bit deeper into what inspired and connected him to the this project. To see what he reveals, the interview is in its entirety below.
How did this project come about?
My wife is from Kentucky and through her I became interested in all things Kentucky: Bourbon, horses, and of course Derby fashion. I did some research and saw that no one had done a project on derby fashion. You see snapshots everywhere, but there was no cohesive, formal project.
I decided to shoot it like Avedon’s American West project, but in color because of the fashion element. I’ve been in the biz for 20 plus years and that project has stuck with me the entire time. I grew up in a rural area and appreciated the slice of life that he captured.
From my research, fashion has always been a big part of the Derby experience. The tradition of the southern gentleman and lady has been behind this, mixed with the need to wear a hat to protect yourself from the sun or rain. Add in the celebratory atmosphere of the Derby and you get Derby fashion.
Because everybody is excited to be there and people are proud of their Derby attire, it’s a positive, fun, party atmosphere. It doesn’t feel like a football game where people are there to compete against each other. They are there to show off their Derby fashion and enjoy themselves.
I ended up shooting in excess of 500 people over two days and I had 15 seconds to one minute with most of the subjects. It was one of those typical mid-western summer days—hot, humid, and sticky. But as most may know, there is a lot of fanfare and people are super excited to be there. I got the sense that the people we photographed for the most part were not the serious gambler types. I’ve never gotten that feeling from people who go to the Derby weekend. But, then again I’m not rubbing elbows with the high rollers.
How important was the location of your setup and how did you get people involved?
I thought after talking with our location scout Dan LaBorde we both agreed that we should setup and get our permit to shoot near the infamous Wagner’s Pharmacy & Diner. It is on the main thoroughfare for the infield gate among the food, t-shirt and souvenir vendors. Also, for the fact that most of the pedestrian traffic walks by that area. Wagner’s has always been an icon for many reasons—their proximity to the infield gate, their history providing pharma for the horses, and the silks they make for the jockeys and horses. Then to top it off they are a diner, in which you might find yourself eating right next to a horse trainer or jockey.
My team was my studio manager/producer Melissa Dean and KC art department & location scout Dan Laurine (Melissa’s boyfriend). Essentially, they were carnival barkers and recruited people with flyers—people weren’t necessarily just going to come up to us at first. We explained it was for a book project and that we would email them an image for free. Once they knew there was no catch and saw how much fun people were having being shot, they lined up. It was pretty much a slam dunk from then on. The lines never died down and eventually the local news station got wind of it and I was interviewed by that news crew and featured on the nightly news.
What was your lighting setup and what were the challenges of shooting throughout the day on location?
We had strobe mixed with daylight and the sun was going in and out behind clouds because it had just rained. We would be in the middle of a shot and the sun would disappear. There was no time to adjust the packs, so I made all my adjustments in camera.
[For lighting we used Profoto 7B, and Honda Generators for power. And a Canon 5D Mark II camera & lenses. We shot tethered to a large Apple monitor so the people waiting in line and walking by could see what we were doing.
What was the size of the crew?
Besides the indispensable Melissa Dean and Dan Laurine I spoke of earlier, we had two local Louisville assistants that also worked their tails off. Michael “Goat” Goatley & Alexander Brown. Goat was my digi-tech and Alex helped in every way possible. We all were grips before the masses ensued!
How much pre-planning did you do?
We treated this like it was any other client’s project. It took the typical amount of time to pull together like anything else would, so we started a few months before the Derby weekend. We (Melissa and the location scout Dan LaBorde – from Louisville) produced it and got our permits like we would for any other shoot. Dan and Melissa didn’t run into any road-blocks—everyone was very accommodating.
I expected to maybe shoot approx. 200 people total. I had no idea the level of participation we would have. When the numbers started to exceed our expectations all I can say is hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
To feature the hats, you often chose not to have your subjects looking into the camera or to have their faces partially obscured by the hats themselves. How did you handle this on set?
At first, some would ask “Why am I not facing the camera?” I would tell them that I was trying to get options to try to show off their great hat and fashions. Then, I really went with my “gut” instinct on how to direct and pose people. Since I didn’t have much time to goof around, I really wanted to come away with images for the project, but also images for the subject that they would love whether it was for Facebook or to hang on their wall. So quickly after I got a few under my belt I figured out to first shoot a series for them and then shoot a series for me. While people were waiting in line, they got a feel for what I was doing and what to expect.
With such a short window for each portrait or group shot, how much directing were you able to do?
I’ve had many people who have seen this book of portraits ask me how much I directed the people. It was a combination of both directing them and also letting it unfold. It took a lot of directing on my part because most of these people had never posed for a portrait like this and they were front and center on the set with a lot of people watching them. When most of the people stepped onto the set they approached it like they were getting a mug shot or party pic. I learned to act quickly, go with my gut, and direct them as best I could. Like the guy in the seersucker suit with the crazy Australian guys in the bright patterned coats with their pants down is a great example. I was photographing the guy in the suit when 20 – 25 of the Aussies rushed in. It was crazy. At first the guy who was being photographed was a bit thrown off, but he just went with it and it ended up being really fun.
I appreciated being able to work that fast. Most of the people really enjoyed the moment and said it was really fun and made them feel special at the same time.
How did you decide whom to photograph and whom to include in the current edit of the book?
Once I was thrown into it, I felt like I had to document what I saw and felt: from the women in their outrageous hats to the souvenir vendor and the ticket scalper. All these characters and people were important to capture the full essence and all aspects of Derby Fashion.
So this diversity of the people was the most exciting thing I had done in awhile. I’ve always loved meeting new and different people, from farmers to CEOs. Because even in that brief moment of time, you learn something about them or their vocation and appreciate them for this. And going back thru the images you relive that moment of time with them. So including everyone felt very natural to what motivates my photography.
I understand you are looking for a sponsor for this event? What types of clients would work and how would their partnership with you be beneficial?
You’ve shown the book at NYCFotoworks and PhotoPlus and the project got a lot of attention from art buyers. Why do you think they were so drawn to this project?
I had my general portfolio along with a couple other personal projects I’ve been working on. People really gravitated to this book because of the story and the people in it. Many were of course were intrigued by the people, hats and fashion but I feel it came down to the fact that this was an ambitious, formidable project. And the enormity of it really became the underlying spectacle. Many said it made them smile and wish they were they to partake in the festivities while many more said that the Derby was definitely on their Bucket List.
What was your Derby fashion?
I have a seersucker suit and started out in the seersucker slacks and a simple dress shirt. But it was so hot that I had to switch to plaid shorts, of course trying to stay in the mode of Derby Fashion.
Favorite Kentucky Bourbon?
Never tasted one I didn’t like! Every trip back to see my wife’s relatives, I drag her to many tastings and tours. At least she loves those Bourbon Candies!
What is the format and design for the final book?
The book measures 7 x 9” and was designed by Cheryln Quan in San Francisco and the covers were printed by Kansas City letterpress printer La Cucaracha Press. We printed the photo pages in-house and hand assembled them ourselves as well.So far, we’ve printed 10 copies. My rep, Heather Elder and I are actively pursuing some of the Bourbon makers for PR possibilities and also have chatted with a couple publishers. Everything looks positive, but it is too soon to tell what the possibilities are for the printing of a formal photo book. Interested? Email us at email@example.com.