Is Photography Art?
A Conversation with Benjamin Walls
By Angela Wampler | January 27, 2009"Today, despite my image's accolades or successes, I consider my work a shadow and a reflection of the immense beauty and grandeur that our natural world has to offer." — Benjamin Walls, photographer
"When you got your first camera at age 7, what did you photograph? What inspired you? When did you fall in love with nature photography?
When I got my first camera, I climbed straight up a huge tree in our yard to take photos of a mother dove on her nest. She didn't fly away because she was protecting her babies from a crazy little kid. I don't know if I ever fell in love with nature photography — to me there was just no other kind of photography. When I was only five, all I ever wanted to be was on the other side of that window! It was instinct from the start. For me, that's like asking me when you fell in love with your parents — it's just always been there.
My love for all things outdoors is largely instinctual, but I was so fortunate to be encouraged by a mother who would never say no to my childhood demands to be outside, and a father who loaded the Jeep every weekend to find a new adventure among the forests and rivers of the southern Appalachians.
In high school and college I constantly pushed my limits, and my adventures grew into places few people I knew had ever been. I found it increasingly difficult for my words to express the beauty and wonder of the natural places and animals I had witnessed. Time and again it was my images that captured the imagination of my audience. Verbally, I could go on about the size of the mountain or the depth of the snow for hours, but without the image that told the story, my audience's expressions were dry and simply polite. My images gave me the power to move others, gave my words a platform to stand on, and authenticated my opinions with a great deal of credibility. It was at that point that photography became my passion.
I never went on an adventure without a camera and never returned without an image. Eventually, the reason for going became the image itself — to find and tell a story worth telling, to tell a story, or stir an emotion without saying a word. The images and themes evolved as well, from the bragging rights of youth, to the genuine concern for those places and animals that I had come to hold so close to my heart.
Why do you still shoot film? Why have you not gone digital? Do you develop your own film?
There is something tangible about film that I love. Also, I like the pressure of knowing you don't get a second chance. With film you can't see the product on sight and can't fudge the details in a computer. I like that pressure, and most of all I like that reality. There are many other technical reasons for shooting film — reasons I don't share with the public.
Why do you print wall-size, panoramic images?
I think ART is the total package. From the piece being presented, to the way it's presented and especially the size in which it is presented. My work is about impact — the beauty and reality of our natural world at its most remarkable. I often spend weeks waiting on a 10-second window that's truly inspiring. I don't want that moment to get lost in translation. I've spent all that time and effort, Mother Nature has cooperated, it seems to me it would be a shame to lose all that by not capturing and conveying that to the viewer. The large images that I produce are the best way I've found to do just that.
As I state on my website, "I want my work to impact people on an emotional and personal level, in their everyday spaces at home and at work... not in the small sizes and distant perspectives offered by a magazine, but in life-like reality on the wall beside them; in hopes that they can be reminded daily of the beauty in our natural world and find inspiration to make a positive change for our wild places and animals."
If you find one image that catches your attention on my website (www.benjamindwalls.com), I bet you'll stand speechless at a full exhibit. That's what a proper size can do to change your perspective.
What sells better, wildlife or landscape? Which one has more of an impact on people in a gallery setting? Which one do you enjoy more? Why do you do both?
For me, panoramic landscapes sell slightly better and the wildlife images get a few more oohs and ahhs at shows, but I enjoy them both equally. I'm drawn by the immense challenge of each. Imagine if someone told you: "Your job is to photograph things that everyone can see, in places where millions of camera-toting people go each year, but do it in a way that will put people in awe to the point they are willing to spend money on what you've seen and how you've portrayed it. It truly is like mission impossible — and that's what I love about it. Not knowing if I'm good enough to pull it off is one element that gets me out of bed in the morning."
Who prints your limited edition panoramic images?
Yeah, right! Look, I'm an artist who uses a fair few tools to create my artwork. Painters use brushes, paints and canvases. The process in which I create my images is proprietary. But it is worth noting that everything I use to make my images is available to everyone. Just like all the ingredients of Coke are readily available, it's the way they're put together and presented that counts.
Is photography art? What's the difference between photography and fine art photography?
To me, photography is art when it is approached from its origination as art. When the person taking the photograph is looking for and able to find that defining split second that embodies an emotion, feeling or mood that escapes words and requires the label of art.
If I chose to photograph for magazines like National Geographic, Smithsonian, or BBC Wildlife, I would take a completely different approach to photography. I would use different equipment, shoot on a different schedule, and approach my subjects differently. It takes skill to create a publishable image, but it takes something special to create a fine art image. It's such a fragile concept that it's hard to describe. I'm not saying that nothing that is published is fine art worthy. But take a nature magazine and rip out all the photos. Would you put those on your walls? If I shoot 10,000 photographs, I would say that half of them are publishable — that's photography. And I would say that only 10 are fine art images, worthy of an art gallery — that's fine art photography.
Over the years, how have you marketed your photographs? How do you get a gallery or tourist attractions to represent your work?
Instead of "If you build it, they will come," my philosophy is "If you awe one, ten will find you." I have made very few marketing efforts. Instead, I've put all my efforts into creating work of unparalleled quality and aesthetic appeal. When I'm finished with an image, it has to stand on its own. I'm not there to sell it, justify it, or explain it. Easy to say and hard to do, but artwork that stands on its own sells itself. Most of my collectors and all the galleries I've sold out of have come from word of mouth. It's just kind of grown legs by itself. I'm amazed at the emails, letters and cards I get about my work and how many people actually know about it. I feel very blessed. Perhaps a good example of this snowball is the fact I didn't contact you about doing an interview.
As far as tourist attractions, I assume you mean the exhibits at the Smithsonian, the Natural History Museum of London, and now the Wild Earth exhibit. I was selected for these honors by submitting images to them for review and then being picked out of the crowd — usually about 30,000 entries submitted from dozens of countries. I've been very successful at this; in fact, each recognition could be considered a career crowning achievement. However flattering this may be, I don't put too much stock in it. The confidence I have in my own work comes from the immense amount of time I've spent in our natural world. I know as well as anyone how rare these moments truly are and just how difficult they are to capture and artistically convey. The reaction I get from people who see an exhibit of 50 or more large pieces tells me how I'm doing.
How important is framing and presentation for a photograph in the art world?
Essential! You can take the viewer's eye to certain parts of the image with the right framing technique. Custom framing allows my images to fit into different styles of rooms and sets the tone for the images. To me, the biggest mistake photographers make is hanging an entire exhibit in the same black frame and white mat.
Why are more and more people choosing to collect photographs over the traditional mediums? What areas of the world are leading this trend and why? How does this area fit in?
I think photography is doing well because it's based in reality. Reality is a fascinating thing. For me, photography mixes enough verifiable reality with artistic and interpretive latitude to be the most intriguing of all art forms.
— Wildlife Art & The Environment.
— Returning to His Roots.
— Back to the Main Story.
"Elements" is a panoramic photo of a thermal pool in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. The image was one of 75 award winners in the 2006 BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. The image was seen in 30 British venues and more than 10 countries. Most recently, it was selected for a five-year international exhibit entitled "Wild Earth." Fine Art Photography by Benjamin Walls, www.benjamindwalls.com
"The Twelve" is a panoramic photograph of a massive storm system blowing off the ocean at sunset in Port Campbell National Park, Victoria, Australia. The image shows the sea stacks that have been eroded and isolated from the massive sandstone cliff. The photo was selected as the only landscape to be featured in the flagship exhibit, June-November 2008, of the new Oceans Hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Fine Art Photography by Benjamin Walls, www.benjamindwalls.com