THE HOT SEAT: Celeb Photographer Maria Ponce Berre

Maria Ponce Berre has photographed actor Joe Manganiello, musician Common, mogul Martha Stewart and actress Sophia Bush, among others. But the wife to husband Trey Berre and mother to daughters Fiona, 4, and Alessandra, 2, is still as chill and approachable today as she was growing up in a culturally rich Mexican-American household on the north suburban shore of Chicago. Her artistic inclinations weren’t revealed to her until her early 20s, but she made up for lost time by landing killer internships and assistant gigs in New York City and Chicago with some very respected names in the photography world. Maria opens up about family, fashion and furniture (including the custom Henry sectional sofa she designed for her home).

When did you decide to pursue your interest in photography?
I was first drawn to photography while studying abroad in Seville, Spain—specifically during a trip to Morocco. I was majoring in sociology but after that I added a concentration in photography. After college, I was connected to Chicago-based fashion photographer Victor Skrebneski, who referred me to his protege, Michael Voltattorni, where I worked as an assistant for 2 years. After that, I got turned off from the business for a lot of reasons, and left for a sales job with Modern Luxury Media (CS Magazine). After a few years doing that, I decided to give photography another shot and moved to New York. I worked for lots of very cool photographers, and lived in some amazing places. I decided to move back home in 2009 and open my own studio in Chicago, in the Ravenswood neighborhood.

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Maria Ponce Berre’s photography subjects have included (from top left) musician Common, actor Joe Manganiello, mogul Martha Stewart and actress Sophia Bush, among others. All photos by Maria Ponce Berre.

What’s your favorite photography subject, and how did you discover that?
I like to shoot people—any face, really. My favorite thing to do is to make real people feel and look their best. I’m a commercial portrait photographer; I don’t consider what I do to be “fine art” per se. I built my reputation here after I returned from New York. John Carroll, the President of Modern Luxury magazines in Chicago, was such an advocate for me. I used the sales experience and contacts I gained working for him and transitioned that into an artistic career. I started with a joint art show in November of 2009 called “On Air/Off Air” with my mom, who is a painter. I shot local television reporters with a “behind the scenes” angle. The show created a lot of buzz, and helped me gain credibility.

And your reputation just started to build from there?
I started off taking advantage of my contacts in New York; I used to go back there and shoot. But my relationship with Splash Magazine helped the momentum a lot. Susanna Homan [former Editor and Publisher of Splash Magazine; current Editor and Publisher of Chicago Magazine] has been extremely loyal to me, and I’ve been with them since the magazine started. I also shot for Chicago Mag when Dick Babcock was the editor there. I’ve worked long enough now that there’s plenty of local portraiture clients to keep me busy.

Where are your roots?
I grew up in [the Chicago suburb of] Wilmette. My father is Mexican and my mother is American. I have 2 older brothers: Dan, an anchor for WGN, and Anthony, host of “Backseat Rider” on Podcast One— they live just a couple miles from here. My parents live close too—we’re all within a 5-mile radius.  

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Photographer Maria Ponce Berre pictured on her custom Henry sofa with daughters Fiona, 4 (right), and Alessandra, 2 (left).

Tell us a little about your husband and daughters.
Trey and I began dating after I moved back from New York in 2009. We got married in San Miguel de Allende, with a “Día de Muertos” theme for the wedding. After that, Trey and I rented a home that my parents own in Ravenswood, from 2012-2016. We had Fiona first, and then Alessandra 19 months later (pictured with Maria, below).

You recently moved to a new home in the city, which required an intense renovation. How did you decide on this house and this neighborhood?
They say “buyers are liars” and it’s totally true for me and Trey. We told our real estate agent that we didn’t want to be north of Foster or west of Western. But we found this house in that exact location.  While it’s technically in Lincoln Square, it’s really a smaller corridor called Budlong Woods that was developed primarily in the early 1950s. Trey saw it first and loved it, and I actually let him make an offer before I toured it. It’s a midcentury ranch; we love Palm Springs and always dreamed of living in a midcentury-style house. I think we’re the closest to the city you can be and still have a house like this. We were really drawn to the diversity; it’s a working class neighborhood, and we liked that idea because we saw a lot of positive things about having our kids see that not everyone looks like them. I went to [the prestigious North Shore high school] New Trier, and that’s not real life. Here, we could have the house we always wanted, in a neighborhood that’s improving. And now that we’ve renovated, we’ve built a home we are truly happy in now, and that we’ll hopefully live in for a long time.

What’s the most challenging part of being a working mom?
Having energy for both. Because they’re young; maybe it will get easier as they get older. There are constant interruptions, and I certainly can’t get any work done. But I have help three days a week, so that’s when I schedule my shoots and editing time. Sometimes I can sneak some work in during naps too.

What’s the best thing about being a working mom?
I think it’s really important to have your own identity, to be someone outside of your kids. It benefits them to see me walk out the door and have my own agenda. My mom was a working artist—she had a studio in our attic—and that was my example; I learned a lot from that. The good news is, because my life is balanced, I love the moments out of the house as much as I love the moments in the house (mostly!)

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Photographer Maria Ponce Berre’s custom Henry sectional sofa, pictured in her midcentury-style home in Lincoln Square.

Let’s talk fashion, since you’re always dressed impeccably.
I think my fashion sense is similar to my home design: minimal, less is more. I admire Helmut Lang as a designer, but I don’t spend a lot of money on clothes—I dont think that’s “fashion.” If I’m going to spend money on anything, it’s shoes and coats. In this city, you wear them all the time. You can throw a Burberry trench over whatever you’re wearing and look great. I get all my good shoes re-soled and I wear them for a long time. I barely wear jewelry; just my engagement ring—I like to keep it simple. My tattoos are my jewelry. This one [on her left arm, a Día de Muertos-style skull] is a momento from my wedding; my father designed it.

Last but not least, how did you decide on the custom Henry sectional sofa?
Well, of course I fell in love with a super expensive sofa from B&B Italia at Design Within Reach—it was around $13,000. I wanted something similar, but less expensive, so we customized the Henry sofa at a fraction of the price (shown above). The entire family is always in or around the sofa, and it’s held up super well.

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