Photographer of the Month Interview: Ben Weddle | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, October 2012:   Ben Weddle

This month, our featured guest is Ben Weddle.

We want to thank Ben for taking time from his busy schedule to answer our questions and share some of his work with us! Please visit his site links to see more about him and his work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.

:: How did you get your start in photography?

I was in my second semester of college following a stint in the Air Force, where I served as the world's most incompetent aircraft mechanic, when someone told me I could get free hours towards graduation if I worked on the yearbook. As I sat there pasting up ads, an odd looking fellow, resembling Ichabod Crane, came in and told the editor he needed his field passes, parking pass and film for that weekend's football game. I watched as they turned over two bricks of film with all the required credentials and I then queried the editor what that was all about. "Well, he's a photographer," was the response.

"So he gets to park next to the stadium, roam the sidelines shooting photos and you pay for the film and processing?" I asked.

"Yup" he said.

"Then sign me up, I'm a photographer!" Borrowing cameras from the yearbook and committing every mistake possible was my initial foray into the world of making images.

:: What pushed you into the commercial side of photography as opposed to strictly fine art?

I came out of the Missouri School of Photojournalism disillusioned by the starting salaries offered by metropolitan newspapers. Long story short, I ended up working for a large advertising agency as a producer, who shot all the A/V shows. Often I'd work in concert with established commercial shooters and was always impressed by their attention to detail and level of finish, not to mention their day rates. In 1984, following a failed gambit (demanding a raise), I quit and established Ben Weddle & Associates with a $10,000 dollar unsecured loan from a local bank. My company's first year revenues were double what I had made the previous year. There was no looking back.

:: You have a wide variety of subjects in your portfolio, but mostly landscape fine art, and commercial work. Do you photograph for weddings or take portraits, as well? If not, why?

I don't do weddings or family portraiture. It's apples and oranges to me and I've seldom seen anyone who did both well.

:: How do you distinguish between your fine art and commercial work? Obviously there are similarities in both, but how much "art" is too much in a commercial piece, and how do you keep the fine art work from having too much of a commercial feel to it?

The base definition of commercial vs. fine art is, with the commercial work, I already have a purchaser who, since they're paying the tab, is responsible for dictating the subject matter and style in which it will be shot. Fine art is what comes from my eye, my style, how I might visually interpret a scene. The payoff is often deferred for months, if not years.

As to how I keep the fine art from being flavored with a commercial bent, when I'm out shooting "art" I have to be moved by a scene to the point of rising before dawn, leaving the warm confines of my pick-up and hauling gear down a desolate path until I can frame the perfect moment.

:: To me, your outdoors commercial work reminds me of paintings, especially the trains and cowboy images. Is there any kind of conscious effort in this style?

Good question...I don't really make a conscious effort to stylize my work one way or another. That's not to say I'm not influenced by those whose work I admire. I catalog images in my head and try to note what made their photo or painting special from other similar scenes. Then I'll try and incorporate the rudiments of those previous compositions, light treatments or moments into my personal vision.

:: I love your website; is the diptych and triptych style used in your work, or just a way of showcasing things on the website?

Actually that was the result of my hiring a consultant who revamped all of my marketing and sales materials. My previous website and portfolio displayed a single photo per page. She reasoned that if I showed two or more at a time of related imagery, it was an opportunity to show the prospective client just that much more what I could do. It was a good decision.

:: Do you feel more creative outside? What challenges does shooting people inside present for you creatively?

I'm definitely an "outdoor guy." My fine art sojourns usually involve hours of driving across rolling plains, punctuated with occasional whistle stops at the local watering holes, in towns who's better days are behind them. Often, during conversation with the regulars, I'll find out about a special spot to shoot from or an impending event that should be a target rich environment. So, in answer, yes I do feel more creative outdoors since it's strictly up to me how I'll capture these moments and how I might render something special from what countless others have looked at and seen nothing outside the ordinary. As Degas said, "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see."

Shooting people or product inside almost always requires I augment the existing light to tell the tale I want to tell. Outside of time constraints, non-professional talents, nervous agency people and Murphy's Law, I like big indoor production shoots almost as much. It's a hoot to be able to bring my palette of experience to bear, and now with the immediacy of digital photography, leave people wondering why what they see with their eye is not nearly as interesting as what I've created.

:: Can you describe your business model, and how your gallery space is used to create something different for your clients?

My business model doesn't differ greatly from most service providers. Be professional, casual yet confident. Understand that while they can always get it cheaper, your talent has worth. Value it fairly for all parties involved. You can charge whatever you like but it's better to work 3 days at 3K that none at 10K. Try to work with the best people in their respective fields. You'll learn a lot, your photos will look so much better in the end product and they won't try and pinch every penny. Donating your talents to charities of your choice helps build professional contacts and offers exposure to a wide range of potential clientele. When it comes to the "nuts and bolts" of business, i.e., accounting, legal, etc., hire it out. You wouldn't want your accountant shooting his company's annual report. Don't do your own taxes.

My gallery is an opportunity to impress on clients that what they're buying from me commercially is indeed "art." The person who shot your line of clothing is the same guy who produced that stunning landscape you want to hang over your mantle.

:: Do you enjoy the commercial side of photography as much as you do the fine art aspect, or is the fine art side more a product of being somewhere great for an assignment and finding something to do between shoots?

I occasionally will stay over on-location and shoot for myself, but often the logistics of impending shoots, travel arrangements for the shoot crew, need for quick turn around on what I've just shot, etc., makes it difficult. Unless there is a scene or event, that being on-location affords me easy access, I'll usually try to keep them separate.

:: How has the "new age" of digital photography affected your personal style, workflow, philosophy on photography, and your business from a competition standpoint? With everyone being a photographer now, and stock images not really being the same market as it used to be, how do you deal with this loss of business?

Digital is both a blessing and a curse for those that chose this profession. The immediacy, latitude, and the ability to manipulate and deliver photographs with the push of a button are the advantages of technology applied to an established science/art. However, when you remove the alchemy of photography and the vetting process associated with shooting film and darkroom printing, you open up a subjective medium to the masses and every soccer mom or distant uncle who has a digital camera is now competition when dealing with an unsophisticated clientele.

You can best counter this by trying to work with those that understand the value of professional photography. In lieu of that, you can be flexible in your negotiations and try and make the situation work for all those involved. We often explain that, compared to the cost of media, photography is negligible and yet what is most memorable to potential customers.

As far as my fine art, I shoot it all on film on a 6X17 camera, scan the film so we can tweak the colors, take out an errant phone line, etc., and print all but the 10 ft. wide pieces in house.

:: How has social media played a role in your business?

Social media is a necessary evil. I say that, because as I just mentioned [in the previous question], it gives an audience to the unqualified. And just as when our mothers would compliment any art we hung on the refrigerator door, all our "friends" fawn over any hackneyed snapshots people throw up on the web and proclaim as "art." The bar has been set incredibly low and it takes a true visionary to not be swayed by the next photographic fad and stay true to what they want to say and how they want it to be said. And...,that being "said" it's essential that someone wanting to work as a professional photographer stay topical. Social media offers an opportunity to display one's competency and when presented with interesting articles or links to other photographic resources, it draws people to the site who, at some point, might need a good photographer.

:: What assignments have you had that were particularly memorable, good or bad?

The best day's assignment might be the shoot I did of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, in Cowboy Stadium, for Lee Jeans. I'm taking pictures of pretty, pretty girls and getting paid for it. That was a good day. But the best assignment I've had over the past 25 years was for Daimler Chrysler trucks. They hired me for a period of six years, to travel to 49 different states and Canada, to shoot environmental portraits of owner-operators of their truck lines, Freightliner, Western Star, Sterling and Thomas Built buses. It provided a handsome living for myself and my staff, as well as a multitude of creative opportunities. I rode a lot of airplanes, had a good many adventures and made some life long friends.

The worst incident was probably when we had hired a ranch in Oregon for a location shoot for Bayer Vet Pharmaceuticals. We had scouted out this shallow stream where these cowboys, on horseback, were to drive a herd of cattle through the water to the other side, like a scene from Lonesome Dove. Well, it began raining the day before we arrived and continued to rain for another three days. You can only shoot so many soggy cowboy photos before the steam goes out of the crew, cowboys and client. By the time we were ready to shoot the hero shot, the stream was a level 4 rapids!

:: Are there places or types of shoots you've never done but are looking forward to trying someday?

I've been very fortunate in that my career has been as a generalist, I've covered everything from editorial, to fashion, to sports, to industry. I guess if I was looking for something I've not done a lot of, it might be making portraits of famous people, mainly musicians. Being headquartered in Kansas City, those opportunities are rare.

:: What is your favorite piece of non-photographic equipment, and why?

Wow, I guess it would have to be one of my guitars. Try as I might, I can't seem to get any better than the most rank amateur. I wonder if practice would help.

:: What was the best piece of advice you got while you were learning photography?

I guess it might be to think before you push the shutter. Why are you taking this picture? Can it be better? How?

:: What advice would you like to give someone working towards a career specifically in commercial photography?

I would tell them, as I do my interns, be certain as to your level of commitment. This is one of the most hyper-competitive fields you can ever encounter. In Kansas City, there are 40 professional football players. There are approximately 4-5 commercial photographers here operating at a similar level to myself. Consequently, I muse, you have a better chance of playing in the NFL than you do of being an elite commercial photographer.

:: What inspires you most about where the craft is headed? What would you like to change if you could...what scares you?

What inspires me regarding where we're going is, technology has made quantum leaps in a heartbeat of time. The quality is superb, the prices are falling and people who would never have had the opportunity can now explore the craft without the expense.

As far as a change goes, it would be nice if one could track their photos on the web somehow. What is scary for the future of the craft is CGI (computer generated imagery). When a designer can sit down at a workstation and compose a completely lifelike photograph, exactly to their specifications (and the auto industry is doing it now) then it might be time to look into an alternative career path.

:: What interesting projects are you currently working on?

I've been working with Volvo Rents and The Folds of Honor organization over the last few months making portraits of injured vets and how they're being reincorporated into the workforce. I'm a Vietnam era vet and but for the grace of God go I, so this is particularly rewarding.

:: What is your favorite image that you've made in the last six months, and what makes it so special?

I love this portrait [editorial note: view it above right, on this page] of an Army soldier who became a bit overwhelmed with her being chosen as the model for this photo. Proud, yet a tad weepy.

Ben Weddle

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