Photographer Bert VanderVeen has been working with the High Point Market Authority, capturing images of the High Point Market since 2005. VanderVeen has been a professional photographer for more than 20 years and a small business owner for 10 years. He and his wife, Becky, are the official photographers of the High Point Market Authority for the furniture markets held each year in April and October.
How and when did you first get interested in photography?
Well, I come from a family of photographers. I am the fifth generation of my family to follow this career path. I started getting paid by my family to take photos in junior high school at age 12. I would sort the mail for the family business and then work in the dark room and get paid to take some photos. I kept getting paid to do photography and, in my mind, it beat all the other options. I am mainly self-taught and mentored by my family. I did attend several photography workshops in Maine with renowned portrait photographer Amy Arbus. She once teasingly said that I am too tall to be a photographer since I’m 6’4” but over the years, I’ve found my height works for me.
How did that lead to the job with the High Point Market Authority?
I started working with the Market Authority in 2005. They were working with an ad agency called Emissary that brought him in to do events. One of my first event was at the Leif Petersen showroom taking photos of designers talking about products. Then I started shooting more events and became a street photographer taking “Flavor of the Market” shots for the HPMA. At this point, I’ve been photographing the market in one way our another for 17 years. Prior to that, I worked with In Furniture magazine in 1999-2000 with Cheminne Taylor-Smith. One of the challenges back in those days was to take the images and get them sent to the editors at the shelter pubs in NYC as soon as possible.
What is your favorite part of photographing the High Point Market?
I enjoy just seeing how fabulous everyone is since this is where we all look our best. Every market, I prepare to be “wowed.” I never get tired of seeing people in these beautiful, amazing spaces. With each showroom, I realize that it took so much time to create this beautiful environment. At market, the people are beautiful, smart and interesting. It’s really the best part of anything you could ever see. One of my first jobs, back in 1992, was working at the International Home Furnishings Center to take trash out of the showrooms and it amazed me that they continually reimagined the spaces.
How have you seen the market change the most over the past few years?
One of the main ways market has changed is that there is more diversity. There are a lot more women and people of color and young people. I remember when I initially came to market, and it was mainly older white men. Now, it’s this great diversity and people come dressed up in amazing couture fashions. I really enjoying seeing the young people, 22-year-olds that are just getting started in the industry. It’s amazing seeing this vast array of different types of people that come to market and seeing how talented they are. The showrooms change and the people continually change. There is always another person to see and another perspective to view. I remember when I first started the men at market would wear the same pair of leather shoes for five days. They would bring one suitcase to market and wear the same suit as well. In that way, it’s changed so much with all the fashionable clothing now seen at market. Also, instead of all the brown furniture from days gone by, there is now a huge diversity of product with color and vibrancy and everything in between. There is much more risk-taking with product now than when I first started.
Has the advent of smart phones changed how you approach your job?
Actually, smart phones have been helpful in that we can go on Instagram and see what pics we missed. We will add certain showrooms to our list after seeing great photos on social media, which we use as a springboard. Market is so large that it always helps to have more eyes on something. Everyone at market is looking for beautiful objects and people. The other change is that we used to take photos of people looking at the product and would hope they might touch it or look at the price tag. But now, we take pictures of others taking pics of the product with their phones. It’s a more active type of shot.
HPMA president Tammy Nagem mentioned that her list of requested market photos almost resembles a scavenger hunt. How do you approach that?
Well, I think it is a scavenger hunt and it’s also a bit like fishing, waiting for that perfect shot. There is a map in the transportation terminal; I will wait there hoping to get a photo of someone looking at the map. Then I get bored after five minutes and worry that I’ve got to get boots on the ground somewhere else. So, I’ll turn around and take a picture of someone else looking good. At that point, someone else will get to the map and I’ll try to react as soon as possible. Many times, I blow the shot and have to wait another five minutes. Or else, I will leave the map alone and a day later a person is there at the map, and they look fantastic. Many times, I waste 30 minutes worrying about getting the perfect shot and then it happens organically.
You and your wife, who is also a photographer, form a team to cover the market. How do you divide up the assignment? Do you enjoy working together?
At some point, I realized that the size of market was more than one person could handle. My wife Becky has been a photographer for 25 years, so she offered to help. She has a different eye and sees things completely differently than I do. Becky is great at taking photos of people being their authentic selves. I’ll know it’s a Becky picture since everyone is smiling. We go with whoever has the strength in a certain area. Becky has been going on the designer tours for eight to ten years now. She’s just part of the group now, touching and looking at product. Where I will often find a new showroom on the outskirts of the market and I really enjoy finding new, interesting and beautiful things and capturing them. We both know what the HPMA is looking for and we know how to take images that will make the story pop. We both feel we get just as much out of market as we give back.
What types of market pictures do you enjoy taking the most?
I really love the variety of going from a smaller showroom with gorgeous pieces like Julien Chichester to showrooms like Michael Amini and Hooker that are so much bigger with more diversity. I found a new showroom on the back side of Wrenn Street recently that had a neat product line. It was just one guy who had hand-made several pieces that hit all the right notes. I love telling that story, the arm of a chair, a dynamic color, natural wood, a strong form. I love seeing that.
How do you keep your photos fresh after covering the market for so long?
The technology is always getting better, which is helpful. The lighting gets better. I remember when all the showrooms had black ceilings. In the past, the showroom lights were glaring but it’s better now. What I think is still working is staying in the moment and remembering that this is all new. I need to have no preconceptions. I do end up going to the same places, Four Hands and South & English. That’s where walking the market helps the most. I’ll realize there is a new showroom that I’m unfamiliar with or another one moved. For example, Visual Comfort had a new wall this year, and SplashWorks added a new vendor and then I’ll want to stop by Hurtado. It’s like a walking tour of the whole city and I don’t know where I’ll end up part of the time. I keep it fresh by having no plan. And I do end up getting in the right place at the right time. I’m lucky to have good timing.
Can you offer any advice for others who are taking pics at market?
I think that most people who are taking pics do a good job, and the iPhone does a really nice job. I recommend keeping things straight and clean with no extraneous objects and no extra people in the shot. If it’s too cluttered, try to recompose it to get a clean composure. I think most furniture should be shot straight on or on an angle to help it to look architectural. If you want something more than an iPhone, get a camera that can take a nice video. The nice thing about modern cameras is that they are small so they can go in your purse or pocket. If a camera is too big and bulky, you likely won’t use it. Also, if you get caught up in the moment, try to avoid the trash can in the back of the photo or the water bottles all over the table. It’s good to clean to clean it up in the beginning.
At a glance:
What was your first job?
Running the bank and post office and darkroom for my family’s photography business. I’d go to the bank and post office and work in the black and white darkroom pulling prints off the dryer.
What photographer do you most admire?
I am a fan of street photographers and others that capture candid unguarded moments. Henri Cartier-Bresson is famous for it, and I like Amy Arbus’ work in the Village Voice back in the 80s. Check out Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment and Amy Arbus’ On the Street, 1980-1990. Also, the tabloid photography of Weegee has always interested me, using photography as a way of “fast seeing.”
How many steps do you take in an average market?
According to my iPhone, I average 23,000 steps per day.
What book are you currently reading?
Light and Air: The Photography of Bayard Wooten is a book I found a long time ago, and it’s a great book of early 20th century Southern life.
Do you have a New Year’s resolution?
It’s always to get in better shape to walk those 23,000 steps at market. It’s my constant New Year’s resolution. But I usually put it off until April and go to gym two weeks before market.
Least favorite household chore?
It would have to be dusting, I hate dusting.
This Portrait appeared in HAT’s January 2023 issue.