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Winner of ASCAP’s Johnny Mercer Songwriter Award, David Berkeley, is a well traveled, soulful musician who graduated from Harvard University with degrees in literature and philosophy. His sound has been described as an amalgamation of Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake and Tim Buckley with a hint of Beck’s mellower side. Berkeley has toured with Nickel Creek, Howie Day and Ben Folds, and his music has been featured on CBS’s Without a Trace. His second album Live from Fez has already sold over 10,000 copies since its release in September 2005 and boasts a bigger sound with his full band. While Berkeley has an affinity for song writing, he also has a sincere adoration for photography. He started out taking pictures in Alaska while on assignment for the travel guide Let’s Go Alaska and has since traveled the world with his camera by his side. Recently, we got Berkeley to take a break from his busy touring schedule to talk about how he sees the world through his camera lens.

© 2006 Robbie Stauder (TGP): When did you first become interested in photography?
David Berkeley (DB):
I started casually at 15 years-old, but the first time I bought a real camera and started taking pictures was when I got a job writing for the travel guide Let’s Go Alaska. The guide didn’t really have photos. I took pictures for myself.

© 2006 David Berkeley

TGP: What kind of camera did you use?
DB: A Canon EOS 500N, which I still use. It is a great camera because it is pretty light so it is really good for wild life shooting.

TGP: Do you still work with film or are you now working in digital?
I work in digital now, but only because it is easier. I prefer film. Aside from my analog camera, I also have a point and shoot Panasonic with a 12x zoom. While in Alaska, I took a bunch of slides, which was a lot of fun. But, of course, I never really did the slide show that I wanted to.

Panasonic lumix DMC FZ5K
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5
© 2006 David Berkeley

TGP: What was the slide show that you wanted to do?
I documented a lot in Alaska for my self-imposed photojournalistic project. I learned tons about the culture. I went out to the Aleutian Islands and photographed there as well. I realized while in Alaska that there were things that I didn’t know about the culture and the land that others didn’t know as well and might appreciate. So I wanted do a slide show when I got home, but things didn’t happen like I’d planned. 

© 2006 David Berkeley

TGP: Do you prefer black and white film or color?
I’ve done black and white, but I don’t think that I’ve nailed it. I’m not sure if it’s that I’m not using enough filters or what. I always think I am seeing something while I’m shooting and I think “oh this is going to look great in black and white,” but it doesn’t. I’ve yet to understand why. I’ve had a couple portraits work well in the past, but I don’t totally grasp the contrast in black and white photography, so that is something I would like to get better at because I love black and white pictures. The idea of seeing in black and white is intriguing, but I can’t do it yet.

© 2006 David Berkeley

TGP: What attract you to certain images or what catches your attention when you take your photographs?
What draws me into photography as a form is similar to when I write songs. Both photography and song writing are very emotionally instigated and desired forms. Some things just call out to take a picture of it, such as a stupid sign or a striking shadow. That is easy to capture, but often I have to be moved by something visually to photograph it. What I really like about photography is that I can see an image I want to capture but then the trick is to try and figure out a way to photograph it. You can’t create that emotion with just a mirror image of what you see. You have to try and figure out the best way the camera can capture it and still convey the emotion that you felt at that moment. For example, if I see a field with a mess of flowers, my reaction might be something about the infinite space of the flowers. I can’t just hold the camera where I am standing and have a good image come out. I have to get into a good place so that I can capture it, but still convey the feeling of endlessness. Of course, the photograph in the end is artificial, but the nice part is that I can take the produced images and ask myself why I am having that reaction and what it is that is provoking that feeling.

© 2006 David Berkeley

It is neat looking at the world through the frame of a photograph and noticing certain patterns on a window that I could have easily walked by. Over time, I’ve learned to know what looks good framed in the photograph’s parameters and what doesn’t. Sometimes I see certain rhythms of line and patterns that if I were to draw a boundary around them and take a picture are going to be pretty striking, but without that boundary just wondering through the world they may not be so striking. Thinking through the concept of a photograph objects suddenly have more meaning that they wouldn’t otherwise.

© 2006 David Berkeley

A song is a totally different medium but I approach it the same way. I have an emotion and then try to figure out how I can get out into the world through a song.

TGP: Do you photograph life on the road while touring?
I bring my camera everywhere I go. I do take a lot of pictures on the road, but I don’t document the band quite as much as I would like to because I am always sort of in the middle of it. But I do as much as I can.

© 2006 David Berkeley

TGP: Have you tried to integrate your photography into any of your performances such as a slide show or featuring them gallery-style on the walls of a venue?
I haven’t yet, but that is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. I think I would have to do something intended to couple the music because what I have right now images wise I don’t think would really work well with a performance. But I do integrate my photographs into the booklets of my CDs in order to convey a certain emotion. The visual with music is a perfect fit. When I wrote a song for Without a Trace, the music was much more effective over the image and I think the same is true for photography and music. 

© 2006 David Berkeley

The only think I will say that makes me slightly less interested in combining the two is that I like the abstract looseness of music. I like how people can have images in their imagination that they want to have. I hesitate in limiting the experience for the audience. Because my music is very lyrical, for some listeners it might be a really great experience with the images and for others it might not be what they would have felt and that might takes a way from the performance as a whole. If my music were more abstract and formless than images then a visual element would be amazing no question.

© 2006 David Berkeley

If I was to integrate my photography or do a slide show it would be very non-literal. I’d want it to be sort of thematic stuff. Doing a collaboration with my two works would actually be kind of challenging for me because I have a definite interpretation of what my songs are and there are images that I would easily want paired with them, but I would try to resist that.

TGP: Who are some of your favorite photographers or even other artists that you try to emulate or admire?
My knowledge of the greats of photography is very limited and trite. I don’t know some of the people I should know. I draw my inspiration from poetry for my photography and music. I guess it is just a way of seeing. Recently, I’ve been inspired by the current poet laureate Ted Kooser who is also a painter from Nebraska. He writes about the seasons, family and aging. Kooser just has this slowed down rhythm and way of approaching the world and seeing beauty in small places and sameness that I like. Wallace Stegner is a novelist who also inspired me. He wrote in many different genres, but he mostly wrote about place and the importance of identity. Reading writers who are very visual awakens all of your senses and that is what has influenced me in my general aesthetic.

© 2006 David Berkeley

TGP: What do you want to accomplish in the future with your photographs and music or in combining the two?
While I am not looking to become a professional photographer, I would like to do more portraits mostly because I like looking at them. I also would love to get a dark room and learn to print in black and white. I’ve only had the opportunity to tinker with things while someone was holding my hand.

© 2006 David Berkeley

I do like the idea of eventually adding a visual element to my music. Despite what I said earlier, I feel like I’ve had times where I have felt like the camera was apart of me and I could express the world and see it for better or worse through it. I like the times when I feel shooting is natural and I can get what I am looking for with my camera. That kind of feeling is fulfilling. The camera becomes an instrument and I can express what I want to through it and the same goes for my music with songs. Sometimes I actually feel like I can speak the language of photography and at other times I can’t. I guess I just want a certain level of expression and naturalness to both my images and songs.


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The figure at the bottom of that canyon. The grave stones. The statue. I love these shots. They are not haunting in a cold way. To me there is a realness to them. A warmth which is alive. The figure and the statue are my favourites. They inspire stories all of their own. I want to know more.
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