Ben Baker, a photographer from Australia who has lived and worked in New York City (and elsewhere) for more than ten years, struck me recently as an extremely attentive, often humorous portraitist. I had the opportunity to put some questions to him recently. From my questions, you will know why I like his work …
1. How did you get into photography in the first place? When and why did you decide to do it for a living?
My high school had a great photo program and wonderful teacher .. I always knew my work would be creative and photography hit me first.
I didn’t get accepted to my local photo community college so i went and worked for photographers in my hometown of Adelaide, Australia. It didn’t really lock in until i started shooting in NYC, after seeing the first cover… i knew then it felt right.
2. Why did you specialize on portraiture – what does it mean to you?
You must do what you love, there are far too many talented people working out there, you must do what comes naturally … I love meeting and talking to people … The photography is part of the that conversation.
3. Whom do you consider as your photographic ancestors, which photographer(s) impressed you most, and why?
Ancestors … that sounds like i have evolved … not sure if we have … but inspired by Irving Penn, Sander, Newman, Avedon, William Klein. All have taken iconic images of the people of our time.
4. What are your criteria of excellence in photography — what makes an image a good image?
A good image can be so much … all in the eye of the viewer … i dont really have criteria or set rules. If it has moved or inspired me for even just a moment then it has succeeded.
5. Judging from your website, much of your work seems to have to do with ‘What does it mean to be American?’ (the video Three things, for instance). Why is this topic important for you, being Australian?
I hope its not all about being an American … probably just a reflection .. It’s probably that way as I work here for American magazines. The outsider’s eye and perspective is always refreshing, take a look at Robert Frank – The Americans. I doubt that book could have been shot by a local American. It does take someone to look from the outside to ask questions.
6. You do many portraits of celebrities and politicians. How much time do you get for a shooting with someone like Barack Obama, and how do you ‘break the ice’?
Enormous preparation, clear ideas, be direct, be honest, get close and show them immediately they are in very good hands … they will relax and give more … put yourself in their shoes. Think about what the president is dealing with, make their life easier … and there will be a greater chance of getting that moment. The average shoot is probably 10 -15 mins.. some are 3 or 5 … Don’t know how I still have all my hair …
7. Some of your portraits strike me as not particularly flattering (maybe they’re not meant to be …), especially the men’s, for instance: Jim Rogers, Warren Buffet, or Anderson & Sheppard. Maybe it’s the short lens you used? It always seems to be a precarious balance between ‘realistic portrait’ and a kind of distortion that, in some way, is just the right measure of representing the person’s or group’s characteristics, whether positive or negative – do you see what I mean?
Interesting … each of those subjects liked the images… as long as it’s an honest take and respectful, then i think people are fine. And if others react positively then they go with it. I am not in the business of taking cheap shots or overly flattering images that are not honest. I just react to them on the day and tell an honest story.
In the McDonald’s Board portrait, for instance, there seems to be, in spite of the relaxed atmosphere, a kind of artificiality about it that throws some (maybe unwelcome) light on what they sell. I think it’s a combination of the lighting, the colors, and the lens distortion … How do your subjects or their PR persons react to this? Do they even notice? 🙂
It’s Mcdonalds … we wanted to make it hyper and a little unreal … its mcdonalds. They were very difficult to work with but once we decided to go with the product in there they didn’t really care. Apparently they like the image at the head office .. funny. It’s best to ignore PR people, be nice but stay on track, shoot fast and keep them distracted …
8. In your bio, I read that 4 days after arriving in New York City, you started to work with Annie Leibovitz. How did that come to pass, and what was it like?
That was a lucky break, I knew someone who knew someone … And Annie was just starting her Women’s book project. I worked on that and lots of Vanity Fair shoots, was one of those lucky breaks.
9. Do you ever work without an assignment? If yes, what inspires you most?
Almost all of my work is assignment-based … except for Images from Peru and portraits of my mum …
I would like to do more personal projects … just need the time … In terms of being inspired it’s all about the people i get to meet and shoot and if the story will be relevant to people in years to come … will it help tell stories of our time? People inspire me … good and bad … why do people make those decisions they do? why do some people rise to greatness?
10. I like your series ‘American Beauty‘ very much. It presents portraits of a great diversity of women of various ages. The portraits strike me as utterly normal and utterly beautiful at the same time. The series title suggests they are American women. What do you see as their ‘Americanness’? Please tell us something about this series – how did you come to do it, how did you find the subjects?
This project started as a simple series of images for Marie Claire magazine photographing american women for the beauty section. It grew to being a monthly section. Now other magazine and advertising companies are asking to create similar projects.
All the women come from me setting up a small light tent in random towns and cities, and the women happen to be passing by.. quite amazing to see the diversity in America. I love working on this as it’s the opposite of environmental portraits. With these, i can just focus on the person and conversation. I usually don’t get too long to work together … always wish i had more time with them.
11. What are the topics or projects that are most urgently on your mind, at the moment?
I am so swamped with my magazine shoots … there are a lot on my mind … but the magazine work just keeps rolling in and it’s great work … how can i say no? There will be a few projects on the go soon, will keep you posted.
Ben, thank you very much for your interview and for the permission to show some of your work on Schauplatz.org!
The images from ‘American Beauty’ were published in Esquire May 2010 together with what they say about themselves and their ambitions.
Other web articles on Ben Baker:
- Feature Shoot, Interview, 13 May 2009
- What’s the Jackanory, Interview on B.B.’s Fortune Magazine mega shoot, 30 April 2009
- Time Magazine, showing his portraits from the UN General Assembly
- Culturepublic commenting on not separating corporate and fine art work
- Interview with Ben Baker as guest of The Spark, hosted by Tift Merritt.
Here’s also a short self-description of Ben Baker’s showing some more of his artwork: