Ron Berg Goes to the Races for Derby Fashion

November 9, 2012

By Barbara Goldman

© Ron Berg

 Kentucky Derby fashion and style.

 The Kentucky Derby is steeped in tradition. The venerable horse race goes back to 1875, has never missed a year in racing and is known as the most exciting and fastest two minutes in all of sports. Besides speed and longevity, great fashion is also an intricate part of the Derby. Derby fans deck themselves out in stylish attire with fantastic hats, dresses and suits to celebrate the granddaddy horse race of them all and the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Photographer Ron Berg received his introduction to the Derby when he married his Kentucky bride some years ago. He became enthralled with the many things that make Kentucky what it is and, of course, the Derby was at the top of the list. “I am intrigued by it all. After some research I was unable to find any efforts to document the Derby fashion. Sure there are snapshots galore but nothing extensive,” he says. So Berg made it his mission to document Derby Fashion for a new book project.

Based in Kansas City, MO, in the Crossroads Arts District, Berg is an “image creator” of the stylish and unique and is inspired by both past and current cultural trends. He gives viewers the feeling they are seeing a special moment in time that only he could have created. It is with this kind of feeling that both clients and subjects continually connect with him and his industrious production team. Berg’s work focuses mainly on controlled locations. You could say he often brings his studio to the outdoors. He loves to photograph people and lifestyle and embraces the differences, uniqueness and nuances of urban and rural life, whether his subjects are “real people” or models.

His images have appeared in Esquire, Vogue, People, InStyle, Fortune, Fast Company, Wired, Forbes, Money, GQ and The Wall Street Journal, to name just a few. His client list is diverse including such names as: Toyota, Sprint, Honda, AT&T, Hallmark, John Deere, AMC, Verizon, Kendall Jackson, State Farm, Beauty Brands, Sheraton and numerous banks, hospitals, hotels, casinos and aviation companies.

Berg based his approach for Derby Fashion on Richard Avedon’s American West project. There was no staged composition or posing. He tried to evaluate each person or group that he saw and photographed them differently. “Some were meant to be taken seriously in a classical matter, some more graphically or fashionable, while some warranted a more fun, free-style party approach,” explains Berg. He and his team photographed over 500 people for two days and ended up using 89 subjects in the current book. Even though only 89 were chosen for this edit, most of the 500 subjects are worthy to be included in a final larger book. Rain, temperatures that reached 95 degrees and above and 100 percent humidity were all challenging factors for both the crew and the people. The message for all became: Hydrate, hydrate and then hydrate! 

For the actual shooting, Berg and his crew set up a white fabric background outdoors near the infield gate and the celebrated Wagner’s Pharmacy & Diner. For those who are not familiar with it, Wagner’s is a staple for Louisville folks and known for their down -home comfort, their biscuits and gravy, modest prices and pain old southern hospitality and friendliness. Being between both locations was prime, thanks in part to Berg’s meticulous pre-planning and research. “I also partly knew what to expect since I have attended the race before. And also in part to Wayne our Wagner’s contact who thought what we were doing was an amazing idea. He said that a lot…this is amazing,” laughs Berg. The Derby attracts over 100,000 people each race day and the crew was ideally nestled on this main thorough fare amongst t-shirt and food vendors alike. Berg used the ambient daylight mixed with Profoto 7b lighting, a Canon 5d Mark II and Honda generators for power. But the natural light became another challenge for him because the sun was moving in and out of the clouds, often making it troublesome for shots to look consistent. But, in true Berg fashion he persevered and made it work.

Berg and crew also had to first explain to people that the picture taking was free, there was no catch, and that it would be quick and they would get an email copy. “Most people were on a mission to get to the races. I literally would spend less than a minute with some of the people or groups. I got a rhythm down and really learned to be able to judge people quickly, act swiftly and shoot quickly,” he explains. He also made signs and posted them along the streets, while crew handed out flyers. But indispensable to Berg were his studio manager/producer Melissa Dean and her boyfriend Dan Laurine, who is also a talented location scout and art department guru. “They basically became almost like carnival barkers to get people’s attention. Once they did get that attention it was a slam dunk and people were excited to be a part of the project,” he says.
It eventually got to the point where people had heard about the picture taking and now started coming out of the woodwork to be photographed and interviewed. On top of that, with all their new attention, Berg and his crew were also interviewed by a TV crew.

Currently, Berg has done his own printing of the photo pages and hand assembling of the books with letterpress covers in his studio. The covers were designed by Cheryln Quan of HEAT in San Francisco and printed by La Cucaracha Press in Kansas City. He plans to find a publisher or self publish at a later date. That should not be too difficult when you consider Berg has been named one of the Top 200 Advertising Photographers Worldwide by Archive Magazine, while his Web site has been recognized by Taschen Books as one of their 200 Favorite Web Portfolios. He has also been honored in Communication Arts, Graphis, Archive, American Photography, PDN, the Addy awards, One Show, HOW, American Photo, AIGA, the professional association for design, and PRINT.

The Kentucky Derby is all about tradition, but it may never be quite the same now that Ron Berg has captured its fascinating and unforgettable fashion. Who knows you might see him next year at the Derby, so be sure to wear your best.

You can see more of the stylish and unique on his site at Berg is represented in San Francisco and New York by Heather Elder at

© Ron Berg