Aaron Berger’s street snaps capture the vibrant heart of NYC

Photo: Aaron Berger

Photo: Aaron Berger

Some street photographers don’t think twice about shoving their Leica under a stranger’s nose. Especially in New York City. The shot comes first. All eyes on the prize. But Aaron Berger’s approach is decidedly less macho and confrontational. He gets his best shots – which capture the vibrant life of the city’s most bustling streets – by quickly moving through the crowd, through the torrent of commuters, consumers and crazies. Most people, he says, don’t know he even looked at them. He’s there, he clicks, he’s gone.

Despite his refusal to puff up his chest and face his subjects nose to nose, there’s a sure-footed confidence to his work. Behind the lens you sense an eye that’s drawn to certain repetitions in human behavior, to people who, often without realizing it, look identical. I called him up recently to talk about his wry observations of New Yorkers, what he thinks about the prevalence of smartphones in street photography, and those rare times when he presses the shutter and instantly knows he has something special.

Photos: Aaron Berger

Photos: Aaron Berger

Your work clearly takes time – time to spot things, to see things, to get lucky on occasion. How long are you out there at a time?

It often depends on the weather and what I’ve got going on that day, but usually it’s at least six hours, sometimes maybe up to 10 hours, if it’s a nice summer’s day.

Are you trigger-happy when you’re in the streets?

Oh I’m very trigger-happy. I don’t think I go for minutes or even a whole minute without taking a picture. I’m an optimist, I think, when it comes to something maybe turning out as a picture. So yeah, I click the button a lot.

What’s your eye drawn to?

I’m really trying to not look for anything. I like to let myself react to whatever I react to. I want it to be intuitive, I don’t want to be thinking about it or knowing what I’m going to do ahead of time. I try to have a clear mind, and whenever I intuitively react to something that makes me want to take a picture, I just do. Then of course as I look through my pictures you can see what I tend to react to. But it’s not something I’m going out looking for. It happens more naturally.

Do you have any favourite NY spots where there’s maybe better odds of finding characters?

I wish I didn’t because when I keep going to the same spots it starts to feel too familiar. But yeah, I do have reliable chunks of land in New York City that are always crowded. Obviously Midtown Manhattan, Herald Square and Times Square, and Central Park, like the really fancy shopping area, there’s sort of that stretch of land where it’s just really crowded everywhere. Grand Central, too. So inevitably I end up walking around those places.

Photos: Aaron Berger

Photos: Aaron Berger

Do you have a method for keeping people unaware of you?

I think I’m just pretty quick. I guess if I have one approach it’s that I never – pretty much never – stop moving. As I’m passing by people I’m taking their picture as I’m walking, as I’m stepping. I don’t stand still ever. I don’t really make eye contact with people before or after the picture’s been taken, so they often don’t even know. A lot of times people look behind them. They never felt that I looked at them.

Do you ever hear people shout after you’ve pressed the shutter?

Oh yeah, it’s happened [laughs]. It’s bound to happen if you do it all day. But very rarely now. In the beginning it used to happen a lot more because I was more nervous. I would be furtively glancing up at people to see if they were reacting to me and that was much more noticeable. But now, very rarely.

In some photos it seems like you had the balls to move closer to people and capture them.

I don’t know if it’s balls [laughs]. It’s just that I found a way of getting away with it that suited me. It’s definitely not a really macho thing, but I know in the picture you can see I got really close to people and it might seem like I’m able to jump in front of their faces, but that’s not how it is. It’s just that very brief moment that I was there and then I’m gone and I’m doing everything I can to not disturb people and not have any interaction.

What are your memories of taking the photo of the two Asian girls on their phones?

That’s right next to the old Apple store on Fifth Avenue, which was always kind of a landmark for a photographer walking around New York. Everybody would eventually walk by that huge, fancy Apple store right near Trump Tower. I always used to go to the Apple store to use their bathroom. That was my bathroom pitstop. And I was just coming out of the store and I saw them doing that. It was a bizarre thing, the type of thing that I would always react to, the strange, mirrored image of two people interacting, touching each other.

Photo: Aaron Berger

Photo: Aaron Berger

Tell me about the photo with the guy in the doo-rag with dollar bills between his lips. There’s echoes of that Jeff Mermelstein shot of the old woman with bills between her lips.

He’s great! I was walking home, after a really long day of walking, and like most days I didn’t get anything [laughs]. I was feeling discouraged. And then this guy was coming out from the Subway and he turned the corner. And I saw the money in his mouth as he was walking up the Subway, up the steps, and I thought, I wanna take picture of this guy who has money in his mouth. As he turned the corner the breeze whipped up the bills like that, and yeah, fortunately I was there and was quick.

Did you know instantly that you had something good?

Yeah yeah, of the hundreds of pictures I take a day, very rarely do I know that, okay, something is really happening right now; if I can frame this reasonably well, this could be really interesting. So yeah, I felt that one. I thought, Oh this has a good chance.

The work harks back to the NYC street photography of the 70s. Do you look up to people like Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz?

I very much admire Garry Winogrand. He’s sort of the guy. And all the others as well, I like all of them really. But Winogrand is the one that I felt most inspired by. His photos don’t hit you over the head. There’s a subtle, wry humour in a lot of them. That’s definitely something I relate to.

Photo: Aaron Berger

Photo: Aaron Berger

Words: Oliver Lunn