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Issue Date: February 2009


Behind the Mask

Photographer Keith Berr’s Ruins and Lives captures a true expression of Southeast Asia.
by James Krouse
Keith Berr spends most of his time looking at faces. As a freelance photographer, the Cleveland native has captured the personalities of presidents, executive teams and employees from some of the nation’s largest corporations for advertising and marketing materials. It’s a world away from the temples of Angkor Wat, villagers in Vietnam and Thailand and the vistas of Ha Long Bay — the subjects of Berr’s latest exhibit,Ruins and Lives — but he sees them as one and the same.

“The faces carved in the Angkor temples — warriors, goddesses, kings — every single one was carved from an actual person,” says Berr, who traveled to Southeast Asia with his partner, Linda Barberic, last January.

“Every time we turned a corner, we were struck by these faces that represented an entire civilization but had so much individual personality,” he adds.

Berr has dreamed about photographing Angkor since he saw photos of the temple ruins in a 1960s edition ofNational Geographic magazine.

“Those images were mysterious and beautiful, but what I saw there offered much more in terms of light and texture,” he says. “We would arrive early in the morning and get this gorgeous light illuminating these incredible faces. I wanted to go beyond documenting the temples’ existence and capture the personalities within them.”

The exhibit also displays faces not carved in stone. A series of portraits of villagers and monks taken in Vietnam stare out with an intimacy that seems to have been captured in a fleeting moment. But Berr explains that the portraits were created not with a stolen snapshot but by developing relationships with people — difficult, considering the language barrier.

“I would approach a person and hold up my camera,” says Berr, holding up an imaginary camera and lifting his eyebrows — his intention instantly clear. “Once they nodded back to me, I would start taking pictures, and we sort of played, looking at the pictures and changing expressions.”

One of the more stunning photos is of a stern-looking monk glaring at the camera.

“His first inclination was to smile at the camera, but I gave him a stern

expression, which he gave back to me,” Berr says. “People put on a mask when they are in front of a camera — it takes two-way communication to remove that mask and get to something truthful. I use the same technique with CEOs. It’s universal.”

Ruins and Livesalso features ghostly black-and-white images of Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay — a landscape featuring nearly 2,000 rocky islands that shoot dramatically up from the water. When his cruise ship made an unexpected stop there, it provided Berr with a perspective of the bay rarely seen.

“We were six stories up looking across the bay, which is normally photographed from sea level. That series took me back to some of the old, basic landscape techniques where you’re capturing the drama of the scene.”

Ruins and Lives can be seen by appointment at Keith Berr’s studio. For more information, visit keithberr.com.

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