Eric Berger likes to laugh. He also likes to do it with style. He doesn’t just scheme about epic trips to far-flung locations; he schemes about epic trips to far-flung locations with all the proper accoutrements, accompanied by the right people to ensure the trip is, in every conceivable way, the best it could possibly ever be.
Like an assignment in Northern British Columbia: three trucks, six sleds, prearranged heli and hotel; gourmet chef buddy in Smithers; Eric Pehota, Dan Treadway and Shane Szocs. You’d think he had even pre-arranged the weather—serious storms interspersed by spectacular bluebird.
Or an assignment in Bella Coola: The Swede, Chris Davenport, Dan Treadway; 10 days, all the fishing gear and fish and powder you could ever want; a little bonus budget for a few bottles of fine wine; one side trip to a remote hot springs, another to catch Dungeness crab for dinner. Saddled up in the hotel like the guys from Matchstick? You kidding me? Tweedsmuir Lodge private chalet all the way, baby. Berger likes to call you “baby,” especially when everything’s going his way. It usually is.
A native of Montreal, Berger is a youthful 44. Which probably has something to do with the fact that he doesn’t have any kids… yet. He’s a Libra, which, as far as he knows, means balanced. Oh, yeah, creative and artistic too. His hair—from his perspective—looks good. “Because I’m so tall you can’t see the top,” he chuckles. A little grey with salt-and-pepper sides. George Clooney style, he’d tell you. But he ain’t that slick. It’s unkempt and not coiffed; he doesn’t complicate things with hair product.
He appears fit. Though The Swede once said to him, “You ski like my grandma.” Berger’s quick rebuttal was handing off his loaded-to-the-tits camera bag to the chastiser. “Holy shit,” replied The Swede. “It’s heavier than you.” That’s right, Berger keeps it tight. Tight but not light.
“My workout is my lifestyle,” Berger says. “I do a lot of moving around and activity. My wife’s got me on this moola bandha program. It’s where you pull up the whole sack and package, and as a result it turns the keg into a six-pack.”
Right. But back to the pack. Berger never leaves home without being prepared for everything and anything. Need a Leatherman? He’s got it. Every lens ever created? It’s in there somewhere. He saves weight by not eating.
“I don’t worry about what I eat, but I don’t eat a lot either,” he says. “I love chips. Right across the board, I’m always trying to keep it fresh. Lay’s is a good base.”
His athlete comrades call him “The Milkman.” Treadway, one of his favourite subjects, will tell you it’s because rather than going into a zone to bang off one shot, then move on, Berger finds it efficient to really work an area for all it has to offer (i.e., milk it).
Berger, however, has a different explanation: “As far as I’m concerned, they call me The Milkman because I always deliver.”
Fair enough. He’s prolific, publishing photos in ski, snowboard and outdoor magazines around the world. Not to mention work with numerous corporations.
“I’m pretty successful,” he comments. “I could work harder and not change much, put a little more out there, but I choose to do enough work to maintain the lifestyle and keep a lot of freedom so I can have some fun with my wife and friends. Pretty full-on in winter, summer not so much. I’m not that driven by money—I strive for balance and enjoying life. I like to say I’m training for retirement.”
Milking life, quite possibly. Makes sense given his preferred vice: sleeping in. If it’s not snowing outside his Whistler post-and-beam chalet, he’s probably still hanging a leg out from under the duvet at 9:45 a.m. And he relishes it.
“My office is 30 feet from my bed,” he says. “I allow myself to sleep in because I don’t commute.”
After a traditionally late start, Berger takes pleasure in listening to Vancouver traffic reports while checking e-mails. Relishing in the apparent style of his life. When it comes to shooting, though, he knows how to hang it out there.
Berger rose to notoriety in the early ’90s after making frequent trips to Alaska back when it was fresh.
“Best place I’ve ever been to ride in the world,” he says. “For a lot of reasons—size, stability, just the beauty of the wilderness is mind-blowing.”
When he first went to Alaska, in 1992, it was as senior photographer for Transworld Snowboarding, a position he held for 10 years. Travel budgets were big back then.
“My first trip I was really green. I’m from Montreal, so my big-mountain experience was limited to Whistler. Up there it was a whole other level, humbling and exhilarating at the same time, very addictive working on these huge slopes. From a photo standpoint, it’s dramatic and an awesome place to work. From a skier’s point of view, it’s an amazing place to rip. Of all the places I’ve been, it’s still the best. I’ve had most of my near-death experiences there.”
Pioneering Alaska is perfectly in line with Berger’s motives to do every trip right. He can rough it, but he’s going to rough it in style. Like busting out a Thermos of Crown Royal, Earl Grey tea and maple syrup in the middle of nowhere—when some photographers won’t even carry water to save weight. Little things that add to the experience.
“It’s all about getting creative in putting your package together right,” he says, with conviction. “I certainly like that. More comforts and bonuses really add to everything. It helps you get more out of your athletes, creates a better vibe. It’s not just about getting out there getting photos and making money; it’s also about experiencing the travel and people. If it’s not fun, it’s not worth it.”
Little things like the odd hand-rolled cigarette, Berger’s second-favourite vice. Like most young people in Quebec, he smoked back in high school. Smoking actually played a role in his seeing the light. Fresh out of college, he was working in a Montreal photo studio, what he explains as a predictable transition job. He stepped out of the studio to have a smoke and a coffee one day and remembers being blinded by the light. A definitive moment.
“I realized I didn’t want that life, so I quit smoking, left my job and moved out West,” he says.
The hand-rolls crept back in when he started setting up long shots—sitting there waiting for the light or the athlete to get into position. Now he just smokes on occasion. And only in the field. Another dash of style? Oh, yeah, and all with confidence.
His images are bold and clean. They often let the athlete do the talking. Subtle, not too artsy, but really good, and technically perfect. The confidence might come from the fact that Berger decided to get into photography during high school. He figured he could earn a decent living and travel. Which, by all intents and purposes, he did.
“Being able to look back and appreciate that I made it happen has given me a lot of confidence. Reflecting on my work and feeling good about it fuels the inspiration to get out there and try new things. If I love a sport and understand it, shooting it comes easy. When I step out of that comfort zone I can be a little timid. Maybe that’s a mileage issue. When that happens I try to focus on capturing things as I see them. I look for what comes naturally. When I left Transworld in 2001, I was known for big-mountain shooting. But at the time there was a shift in snowboarding towards more freestyle and urban stuff. When I tried shooting that, I struggled. I had a tough time relating, and it was not as much fun for me. I didn’t regain my groove until I got back to shooting what I was stoked on—big-mountain riding. It basically cost me my position at Transworld. But moving away gave me freedom to do whatever I wanted.”
Moving away also saved his soul. Back then he snowboarded.
“It’s just another sport. Another feeling. Another experience,” he goes on. “I don’t surf, and I never have. When I snowboard I feel that’s as close as I’ll get. I try to keep an open mind to the different experiences.
“I do take exception to BigFoots,” he says. “Except if you use them to hang behind cars in the winter.”
Different experiences. It’s probably what landed him in what The Swede calls “Clown Town.” Berger arrived in Whistler in the mid-’80s, back when few knew just how golden things were Out West.
“The best advice I ever got was from my raft-guide buddies back in Quebec. They all told me: Go straight to Whistler—don’t stop in Banff.
“And today? Well, I’m at the number 1 resort in North America,” Berger says, where he’s enjoyed a longtime gig as one of Whistler Blackcomb’s contract photographers, not to mention the perks that come with being a stylish photo dude in a stylish town. When asked about the growth Whistler has experienced over the years, he answers: “If you think it’s going to stay stagnant with no progress, then you’re kidding yourself. You have to take the good with the bad. There’s lots more lift-accessed terrain available now than back then. The backcountry is still here, and it’s just as easy as ever to get away from the crowds if you know where to go. This is the Coast Range; there’s plenty to go around…. It’s definitely harder to work on the mountain and still make it look fresh, but it’s doable if you know where to go. And I know where to go. I love the fact that I live in a small town with big-city dining and nightlife. You just have to accept the changes; once you can’t accept it anymore, then it’s time to move on.”
Still, Berger doesn’t just eat at La Rua and schmooze with his heli-pilot buddies (although he does do that quite a bit). He loves to rip, too. Which is better, though: epic day or epic shot? Tough question.
“There’s no doubt that epic days with friends, when you’re hitting everything, are unreal,” he says. “Those days always stay with you. But as a photographer, you get real exhilaration out of nailing an epic shot. Standing back and letting the athletes hit their line, capturing that, it’s very intoxicating. To me, it ranks equal. Maybe photographers can really only understand that. It doesn’t happen all the time, just like an epic day of skiing—that’s what makes it so special.”
Like everyone else, Berger joined the digital revolution after years of shooting film, another testament to his ability to adapt. To rise (albeit long after the sun’s come up) with style, to a new day.
“There’s a bit more room to breathe with exposures,” he says of digital, “which takes the pressure off a bit. You can experiment and shoot more without the big expense of film and processing. I used to really dig working in the darkroom in college; I even had one at home. When I went to slide film, I lost that. Now I’m educating myself to the power of digital editing. It’s cool; I feel like I’m in the darkroom again.”
But he’s not in the darkroom when it comes to today’s super-competitive photography paradigm, what with all the young bucks trying to be the next Blake Jorgenson, Paul Morrison, or Eric Berger, for that matter. But he’s cool with that. He realizes he’s fortunate to be recognized and respected in the winter-sports world.
“I’ve certainly gone through times where I’ve felt threatened by the young bucks. But the last few years, everything has fallen into place. People recognize that I can deliver quality consistently. That comes with time and experience. So I’m not as threatened by up-and-comers now. How you are as a businessperson, what you’re like to work with and the quality of your photography are what count. If you’ve got that, it doesn’t matter.”
On the road Berger is the consummate pro: he can talk a D9 cat driver at Kitwanga Junction into a toothless smile like he were a paid model in downtown New York. He respects his subjects. He respects other shooters out there. He respects the athletes, the little things in life, his past, the future, his home, his wife, the road, balance, the moola bandha, Crown Royal and Earl Grey. And all this The Milkman delivers straight to your doorstep in the world’s best winter-sport mags: fresh, tasty and always plenty.