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Phlearn-Interviews-BenZank
Jun 04, 2013

Phlearn Interviews Ben Zank

Ben Zank is a 21 year old photographer who was born in Bronx, New York. At the age of 18, he began taking photographs for fun after he discovered a Pentax ME Super in his grandmother’s attic. His self-portraits aim to stretch the viewer’s imagination and express his feelings when words fail.

He recently graduated from SUNY Purchase with a BA in journalism. Ben’s passion for photography is seen very clearly while looking through his photos created in his ongoing 365 days project.

Ben is a young and very talented photographer. Join us as Ben speaks openly about his photography and his life, and that one time he dropped his camera in a swamp.

How did you become interested in photography?

My sister and I started making silly youtube videos after I graduated high school. We had something like 100 subscribers and thought it was time to upgrade to a better video camera. It was a little Sony Handycam, and I learned that it was able to take some pretty decent still images. I started taking self-portraits in my room for vanity, and I’d be pretty embarrassed to show you them. It wasn’t until my grandmother gave me her old Pentax ME Super film camera that I really decided I wanted to stop playing video games 24/7 and take pictures of stuff.

Do you have any formal training in photography?

I took two photography classes during my sophomore year in community college . Digital photography 101 and a portrait class. My professor was beyond awesome and he really gave me the ambition to continue with photography. I’m also glad that I didn’t take any classes while attending Purchase. I don’t think my style would be anything like it is now if I had.

Is there a piece of equipment that you just can’t live without?

My bike. It’s getting old and it’s a little beat up from being out in the elements from two years of college, but it gets me to all of my shooting locations and keeps me active. I’m pretty much stuck in my room without my bike. Other than that, I like my remote timer very much. I would probably lose my mind in frustration without it.

Are you interested in anything else within the arts realm?

I love to consume art, but I’m not very good at making it if it’s not photography.

What 3 websites do you visit the most?

Facebook, Flickr, Reddit. Rinse and repeat.

What inspires you?

The list grows every day.

When not doing photography, what do you do in your free time?

I’m really into fitness and healthy eating. I should probably use my free time to look for a job, too.

I know you’re still very young, but so far, what is your proudest moment as a photographer?

It sounds egotistical, but last winter I visited an old friend of mine in baltimore. The following night, we went to a club to meet up with some of his friends, and one of them, to my greatest surprise, was quite a big fan of my work. It must have been the alcohol, but this guy was screaming like a little girl. I felt like Brad Pitt.

What is something you wish you were better at?

It would be cool if I could play the piano really well.

How long is the process of creating an image for you?

I shoot nearly every day for my 365 project, so the process of getting my ass outside is probably the hardest part. All of the other stuff is incredibly fun for me. I tend to spend no longer than three hours outside shooting, with most of that time spent wondering around and looking like a deranged tourist. Editing depends on the photograph. I’m always excited when I’m able to take a photo and all it needs is slight color and light retouching. Other times, I’ll spend hours figuring out how I’m going to make something work. I’m not that efficient with Photoshop yet so it probably takes a lot longer than it should to reach the final image I want. Living in the Bronx has limited me greatly in terms of rural and beautiful locations, so I’m doing a lot of compositing in my work.

Could we see a before and after of one of your most edited images?

Do you ever sketch your ideas before hand? If so, could we see the sketch?

I do sketch some of my ideas, but I’ve never actually executed them. It might be due to the fact that the sketches look like an intoxicated five-year-old drew them.

If the world was going to end and you knew it, what 3 things would you do?

I would gather my entire family together and we would go for a walk on the beach and sum up our life together. Anything else would be pretty meaningless.

What motivates you to do the best job you can with your photography?

I’ve got an obsessive personality. I’ve been obsessed with dinosaurs, trains, Pokemon, painting Warhammers, playing Final Fantasy XI every waking hour of my teenage life, and making youtube videos. I put 150% of my effort into all of those hobbies. Photography is just another obsession, but it’s something that can hopefully pay the bills one day, and that’s what I’ve always wanted. An obsession that other people can appreciate.

What is the favourite photo you’ve ever created?

I really like “Seaspray” and “Typhoon”. They were both incredible learning experiences for me to shoot and edit. (See images below, Seaspray right, Typhoon left)

What’s on your gear list?

I was using a Canon 5D Mark II and a 50mm 1.4 with an interval timer, but it fell in a swamp and broke last week. I’m now using a Nikon D90 with an 18-70mm 3.5-4.5 lens and a dinky tripod. I edit all my photos using my Macbook, Photoshop CS5, and a Bamboo tablet.

Can you tell us about your experience of dropping your camera into the swamp? What dropped further, the camera or your heart? 😛

It was my last night at college and me and my roommate were taking photos in the woods when we found an incredibly unique and hidden swamp-like location. It was straight out of a fairy tale, and I got really excited.

For Gastrophobia, did you actually put snails on your face?

Yes, I did. I went out at one in the morning the previous night and collected about 13 snails in the community garden. I stored them in a little plastic container with poked holes and put a generous amount of dirt flooring and pieces of the plants and flowers that I found them on. I promptly released them the following night in the same spots that I found them. Having snails on my face was a really different experience. It was the moment I realized that I was getting pretty damn invested in photography.

To follow up that question, what’s the craziest thing you’ve done for a photo?

I did climb on top of my school’s library during a light snow flurry for a photo in which I had to continuously jump on a surface with a 45 degree angle. They set off the library’s fire alarm and I even slipped on dirty ice while coming down from the roof and got my pants soaked (Which I am glad that no one saw). I was almost arrested by the campus PD and I am now on disciplinary probation until December. Too bad I’ve graduated and I’m not coming back!

You use a lot of different props within your photography, what would you say is your favourite prop that you use?

I’m a big fan of my “halo” photos. It was actually part of a stain glass chair that was broken. I plan on taking many more pictures with it!

What type of photography interests you the most?

All of it. I want to try everything until I can truly say to myself, “this is something I’m going to do until I die.”

I’ve noticed that smoke is a common element within your photography. Is there any reasoning for this other than to add depth and atmosphere? And how do you accomplish this, fog machines and smoke bombs I’m guessing?

I’ve always wanted to get my hands on some smoke bombs but I have no idea where to purchase them! Any good action film has lots of effects–light and smoke being one of the most defining elements of a cinematic moment. I use my fog machine inside, and it helps diffuse light in the dreamiest way. I really I owe that all to Kyle Thompson. He gave me tons of advice on where to get smoke bombs. People keep asking me where I get them, but I’m getting worried that they’ll be sold out when I try to buy another batch.

What would you consider some of the key elements to the development of your photography?

Spontaneity, resourcefulness, and willingness. If I’m out shooting and I see a location that says, “you need to get naked and submerge yourself in that,” I do it.

Any big plans for the future?

I’m hoping to work with more models this summer, and build a fashion portfolio. My first goal is to replace my broken camera. I’m actually writing and videotaping my indiegogo project to get a new camera today.

Do you have any advice to offer us fellow photographers?

Don’t plan too much. Unless you’re shooting with an entire crew of assistants, your ideas will seldom look like they do in your head. Always keep an open mind when shooting, and be willing to change your paradigm on a whim. The best photographs I’ve ever taken were either last minute insights or complete accidents.
To keep up with Ben and his photography you can check out his Website, Tumblr, Flickr, and Facebook Page.
Interviewed by: Angela Butler

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