By Jim Colton
“Map out your future - but do it in pencil. The road ahead is as long as you make it. Make it worth the trip.” -- Jon Bon Jovi
The path that a photojournalist travels is one that is blazed by inspiration and fortitude. We all fall along the way, and there is no crime in that. The crime is when you fall, and you don't get up. Life is full of stumbling blocks...we all face them. But if we don't look at what made us fall and learn from it, we are destined to remain grounded without any chance to take the next steps toward our eventual destination.
That road to becoming an accomplished professional photographer is filled with twists and turns. Around every corner are new obstacles and adventures. Those who succeed are the ones who confront those challenges and move forward with focus, versatility and a willingness to embrace change. One photographer who has done exactly that, is David Bergman.
Photography was not Bergman's first love. He fancied himself as a musician (drummer) and attended the Berklee College of Music where he started taking pictures of his friend's band. He transferred to the University of Miami and wound up shooting for the school newspaper and eventually sold his drums to buy camera equipment.
In 1993, he landed a staff photographer's position at the Miami Herald which he held until turning freelance and moved to New York City in 2001. Since that time, he has photographed for publications as varied as Sports Illustrated (13 covers), TIME, Newsweek, People, Rolling Stone, USA Today and the New York Times.
Other clients have included Atlantic Records, CBS, MLB.com, Sony Music, the Travel Channel and a litany of entertainers from Gloria Estefan to Drew Carey. He has been Bon Jovi's official tour photographer since 2010.
He was one of the first waves of professional photographers to embrace digital technology and became so proficient during its infancy that he actually helped train the staff photographers at Sports Illustrated during their transition from film. One photograph he took during President Obama's inauguration on January 20, 2009 -- utilizing a new technology called GigaPan -- has had over 20 million views!
This week, zPhotoJournal has a conversation with the affable and self-proclaimed "extrovert," David Bergman as he discusses his journey upon a road well-traveled.
Jim Colton: Tell us a little about your early years. When did you know that photography was going to be your calling? Who or what were some of your earliest influences?
David Bergman: I was a musician first and played drums. Positive that I was going to be a producer, I attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston for my freshman year. During my time there, I had less interest in performance and actually found myself taking photos of my friend's bands. After I had the images processed and printed, my friends in the dorm would swing by to see the prints. I sold them for a dollar each.
The next year, I transferred to the University of Miami and stumbled into the school newspaper. I started shooting for them and sold my drums to buy lenses. The next few years I was the assistant photo editor, then the photo editor, and the editor in chief of the yearbook. I never looked back.
JC: You were a staff photographer for the Miami Herald for almost ten years. What were some of the major stories you covered there. And what did you learn about the business along the way?
DB: I literally grew up at the paper (although some might say I'm still just a kid today!). I was a relatively shy person who was raised in a peaceful, middle-class community. At the paper, I had to go into the "tough" parts of town and do some actual reporting. I also had to get names of all the people I photographed, which meant walking up to strangers and starting a conversation. Even though it was against my nature at the time, I learned quickly that I had to simply buckle down and do it. I'm an extrovert today and find people to be fascinating.
The newspaper also helped me define my relationship with technology. I learned that it's better to stay out in front of technology and use it to my advantage, instead of having it forced on me after the fact. I was a beta tester for some of the early digital cameras and, even though the quality was horrible, I knew that the revolution was coming. I was able to contribute my thoughts to the camera companies and some of my ideas were incorporated into the next generations of camera.
Throughout my time on staff, I covered a wide range of assignments from Hurricane Mitch, which killed 10,000 people in Nicaragua, to Fidel Castro in the Dominican Republic, and Monica Lewinsky on a book tour in Miami. I also shot a lot of sports and still have one of the biggest photos ever to run on the front of the paper when the Marlins won the World Series.
JC: How did you wind up shooting for Sports Illustrated? Do you remember your first assignment? What were some of your favorite stories you covered for them?
DB: I was the first full-time digital photographer at the Miami Herald, and had been using the equipment for years when I decided to go freelance and move to New York City in 2001. Since I was already covering major sporting events like the Olympics and Super Bowl, I knew a lot of the Sports Illustrated shooters and editors. Before I moved, I was in New York and went in to visit with Steve Fine, who was SI's director of photography at the time.
Managing editor Bill Colson was from Miami and used to see the Sunday paper every week in his NYC office, so he knew my work. He and Fine were interested in moving the photo department into the digital world, so we spent a lot of time talking about it that night (while watching the Clemens-Piazza broken bat throwing incident in the Mets-Yankees World Series). When I moved to Manhattan a few months later, they brought me in to help with the transition.
My very first month in New York, Steve Fine sent me to cover the Daytona 500. He wanted me to shoot slide film with the other SI photographers on Sunday, but to also bring the digital equipment in case there was a rainout and the race finished on Monday, the magazine's weekly closing day.
Unfortunately, Dale Earnhardt died in a crash on the last lap of the race. The other photographers all went home that night, but I stayed the next day and documented fans putting up a vigil at the track. I found a phone line in a hotel lobby and sent a few JPEGs back to the office. A photo made that week's magazine and everyone was thrilled, since it would have been difficult and expensive to get the images in if I had shot film.
For the next couple of years, I spent my weekdays traveling around the country training SI's legendary staff photographers to shoot and transmit images on deadline while also shooting my own assignments on the weekend. I am proud to say that I now have 13 covers, including an image of Drew Brees holding up his young boy while confetti rained down at the end of Super Bowl XLIV.
JC: You shot something that was viewed by more than 20 million people...quite impressive. It was a GigaPan image of President Obama's first inauguration (see link below). Tell us a little about that project and a little bit about the science of GigaPan.
DB: Something I ask myself before every shoot is, "Why am I here?" and "What can I do differently?"
I was able to get a credential to the inauguration through my agency, Corbis, but I knew I wasn't going to be in the best photo position. After the photo of the President taking the oath, the next most important aspect of the story was the fact that there were going to be two million people in front of the Capitol that day. That's an insane amount of people, so I researched different ways to document it.
I came across a company called GigaPan. Their technology was originally invented by very smart scientists at NASA for the Mars Rover program and then they turned it into a product for consumers. The GigaPan hardware is a robotic camera mount that facilitates the movement of a camera so you can shoot hundreds of evenly spaced images and stitch them together to make an extremely high-resolution image. The photo is so high-res that it's almost like Google Maps where you can zoom in and see small details in the image.
No one had really used it where there were so many people as it was designed for landscapes. I took it to the inauguration, but wasn't sure if I could really do anything practical. I was concerned about shooting my "traditional" images and the GigaPan was an afterthought.
I set it up and just let it do its thing. At the end of the day, after I had transmitted all of my "real" images, I checked out the photos from the GigaPan and was pleasantly surprised that it made some cool files. GigaPan also makes the stitching software and I let it stitch the images overnight.
The next day, I uploaded the final high resolution panorama to my blog and made one post on Facebook. Within a week it had over a million views and I was getting emails and write ups from all around the world. Last time I checked, it had over 20 million views!
I was able to make a memorable image, not just because of the new technology, but because I actually thought about what I was doing and why I was doing it. There were 500 of the country's best photographers there, but there was no reason to go and make the same images as everyone else.
JC: Didn't you also mentor actor/comedian Drew Carey in his efforts to become a photographer? What was that experience like?
DB: There was a rumor going around that Drew Carey had been spotted on the sidelines taking pictures at various USA Soccer matches. Coincidentally, Sports Illustrated assigned me to cover a match and they wanted to publish a sidebar about Drew's photography. SI's soccer writer Grant Wahl sent me Drew's contact info so that I could set up a quick portrait during the match. I emailed Drew, introduced myself, and told him that I would just need a few minutes of his time.
He wrote back immediately and was very excited to talk to a Sports Illustrated photographer. He said he really wanted to improve his skills and had a lot of questions for me. We agreed to meet before the match and talk shop.
We got along very well and became quick friends. I began to mentor him and he even assisted me at a Jets football game in New York! Without his glasses, wearing a photo vest, and carrying a 400mm lens over his shoulder, Drew looked like all the other photographers and wasn't recognized at the game.
He brought me out on his Improv All-Stars tour, and I did both still and video projects with him on the set of “Power of Ten” and “The Price is Right." He has since gone to photograph many soccer matches around the world, and has been published in quite a few publications under a fake name. He told me that if he had not been a comedian, he wanted to be a sports photographer.
JC: And on another wild note, didn't you also photograph a cruise with a bunch of naked people? What's up with that?
DB: I was the Barenaked Ladies tour photographer for many years, and we did a rock cruise three years in a row. The first time, we wanted to do a special photo to commemorate the event, so why not a naked photo? We put it in everyone's itinerary that, if they wanted to participate, they had to show up on deck in their stateroom bathrobe with nothing underneath. No cameras were allowed and we had security at every entrance so no one could watch unless they were going to get naked.
I had no idea how many of the 2500 fans would show up, so I had to prepare for any size group. Thankfully, 600 people arrived in their robes. On the count of three, all the robes dropped and I made as many images as I could in a short period of time.
When we asked the fans how they enjoyed the experience, they said we made it a lot of fun and they were proud to have taken part. The only awkward part was bending down to pick up their robes after we were done!
JC: Most recently, you've been hooked up with musician Jon Bon Jovi. How did you first meet him and how did you land the "tour photographer" job? What's that experience been like?
DB: Ever since my days as a musician, I always wanted to go on tour. When I was at the Herald, I pitched a story idea to photograph Gloria Estefan on the road after she came back from a bad bus accident. I rode the tour bus with Gloria, Emilio, and their kids, and was hooked.
When I went freelance in 2001, I made it my mission to get back on the road and have tirelessly pursued that path. I created TourPhotographer.com (see link below) a company that generates revenue for the artists by selling prints and producing books. I've since been out with a number of bands of various sizes. Sometimes it's just a couple of days making portraits and other times it's a full-blown tour.
My goal was to work with the biggest bands in the world, and Bon Jovi is at the top of the heap. They are consistently the #1 grossing touring act in the world. It literally took me years to get a meeting with their management, but when I finally did, I was ready. They had me shooting that night.
I've since traveled the world and covered all of their shows. In 2013, we did 102 concerts on six continents! Many of those were in front of 50,000 - 100,000 people. The band gave me unprecedented access to shoot anything and everything and I rode with them on the private jet from country to country. It was a dream gig.
JC: You have a new book out called "WORK" (see link below) an appropriate title. Tell us a little about that...how long it took to put together, etc.
DB: From the beginning, we talked about doing a coffee table book. By the end of the tour in December, 2013, I had shot over 800,000 frames. Bon Jovi's fans are incredibly passionate and it just made sense to put together a collection. The book is big and heavy, and features images that no one has ever seen. For example, I was in the operating room with Jon Bon Jovi as he underwent knee surgery in Ireland. I wrote all the text in the book (except the forward written by Jon) and it's definitely a career highlight to have something so permanent with a band of this stature.
I'm on a personal quest to bring respect back to the field of tour photography. Images come and go so quickly these days, but I believe there is something special about holding a print or a book in your hands and spending time to really take it in.
JC: Being a tour photographer must give you a lot of access not available to the general public. What's your best piece of advice for that type of coverage? Any do's and don'ts?
DB: Making images is really only half of my job (or less). The key is knowing when to be in the room and when to leave. Just because I CAN go into the band's dressing room whenever I want doesn't mean I SHOULD. Working with celebrities is all about trust. Very often, I was the only other person in the room when Jon had meetings with NFL owners, foreign dignitaries, and members of congress. He has obviously developed a deep level of trust in me. Even though the tour is over, we still keep in touch and I'm giving him photo lessons!
JC: So what's on David Bergman's horizon? Any new projects you are at liberty to talk about?
DB: Last year I was hired to photograph the 2015 Belikin Beer swimsuit calendar in Belize. Tough gig, right? This month, I head back down to shoot the 2016 edition and am looking forward to that.
Since Bon Jovi is done touring for a while, I'm looking to get back out on the road with another band soon. I'm not sure who it will be yet, but I'm hoping to bring my skills and business model to another major band.
JC: Lastly, what advice can you offer to the young photographer starting out today who may want to follow in your footsteps? Any last thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?
DB: The bad news is that you can't follow in my footsteps. What worked for me 25 years ago won't work today. The world has changed too much. If you think you're just going to get a staff job somewhere and make pictures every day, you are in for a big disappointment.
But the good news is that there are more uses for "visual information" than ever before in history. You can't get in an elevator without seeing stills or video on a digital display. The key is to figure out the business model. You may have to invent your own. Learn the business and be smart. Separate yourself from the pack and you'll find a way to make it happen.
This career has been a wonderful, exhilarating road so far and I hope there is a lot left to go. I can't imagine doing anything else.
David Bergman Website: http://www.davidbergman.net
GigaPan Obama Inauguration: www.ObamaGigapan.com
Bon Jovi “WORK” photo book: BonJovi.com/WORK
Limited Edition Signed Fine Art Prints: http://rockpaperphoto.com/david-bergman
Instagram, Twitter: @davidbergman
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