The elusive photographer Benjamin Heller says: ” Film is about the movement and transformation of time.” Get to know the mind of this fascinating artist and his thoughts the digital world today.
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN
Current Residence: New York, NY
How did you discover your talent for photography?
I came to photography after working primarily in theater and live performance for some time. I had cameras when I was growing up, and I took pictures. But I feel like I really got started with photography when I got a camera with a lens that you could focus. At the time I think I was also looking for a place of quiet and privacy, as well as space I could carry with me. It was almost as if I fell into the camera and (working in) the darkroom. In the photograph there seemed to be this kind of instant recognition where the picture either worked or it didn’t. It was liberating to feel like I could disappear into the camera. Yet images emerged from wherever I went, and people responded to the images.
How has your work evolved to video/film?
I first tried working with film in 16mm around the time I moved to New York. I shot dailies of a short film, but then couldn’t afford to edit it at the time. I always thought that film was a wonderful bridge between so many of the worlds that excite me… so many different aspects of creativity have to come together for a film. I re-focused on still photography until a year or two ago when I got a DSLR that could shoot HD with a good lens. I have never really liked how video looked, but the image that comes from HD and particularly the lenses being used are really beautiful and exciting. I think that stills and film are very different in what makes them work, I love what they both can do. Stills I think are about a crystallization of the moment that you can really look at for a long time. It is something that can never occur in the world. Film is about the movement and transformation of time. There is a very interesting space that is opening up between the two media that is very exciting to me. I think this comes from the freedom of being able to shoot more freely and independently.
What differences have you experienced between film and digital?
The great thing about film is that it is a secret. I sometimes miss the period of time in which whatever has been shot has disappeared into the camera. There is also the aspect of film that comes from its actually being an organic object, so it’s imperfections are more beautiful since they come from crystal formations and water.
There are a lot of benefits to digital as well. The ability to shoot without having to send it out to a processing lab entirely changes the process, as well as doing away with the worry about cost.
Are there good aspects of older techniques, such as the use of film, that are lost by going digital?
Photography is a technological art form, and has always has been changing since the beginning. I wish they still made Type 55 Polaroid film, which is an instant film that gives you both a negative and a contact print. I use it with one of my projects, though I still have some from what I bought when they stopped making it. It is very sad to lose some of the special characteristics of film. There is something magic and alchemical in the wet process of working with physical material that I think is lost with digital photography.
Yet on the other hand I have done projects that never would have been possible with the material limitations of processing film.
Has the overall process of film making become significantly cheaper?
I think it still costs as much to create whatever it is one is filming. The cost of the film and its processing costs are no longer there, and that is a big change. There is no longer money being spent with the clicking-away of every second of footage. That has made a lot of new things possible. I find also that with software like Final Cut, I am able to do post production that I never managed to do when it was still just film.
Are there any recurring themes surrounding your work?
One of the most important things I think about is the movement of the body and the world around us. The transformations that happen within those movements are really fascinating to me. Disappearance and emergence is also something that I work with. Its tie-in with the process of nature and creation interests me. Sometimes we have to disappear and be immersed into something so that we can emerge transformed. I like to think that life happens from the inside out, though we perceive it the other way around. So, I like to create pieces or images that you can get inside of or at least imagine getting inside of or being in. This has led me to think of a lot of pieces as dream houses; not in the sense of a house that you would live in, but as different types of objects and structures that are made as places to dream.
You have very diverse textures and material in your work. How would you describe this?
When I work with materials I think of it as a conversation. The material always has something to say. I think the ideas come before the materials. The different ideas always call out for what they need from the piece, and this is something I always enjoy searching for. Once I have found the material, it always plays a part in guiding the process within the artistic conversation that has already begun. I used to work a lot beginning with this material conversation. I would see a material, or a potential in it, and then the idea would come. I think that all materials and media have unique strengths and a unique nature in them that have a way of showing us something that we could never see otherwise. I think that as we go through the world, we are always interpreting what anything in our surroundings can do for us, or how it makes us feel. Using various materials and textures is a way to channel this phenomenon.
What has surprised you most when working with digital moving images?
I am amazed by just how powerful they can be, just in the form of the glowing box of the screen or computer screen. I have also been surprised by how much I love what sound and music can do to transform the visual work. It has been really wonderful to find a place where music fits into the work again.
The possibility of being able to post to the internet is also very exciting. It has become so easy to share and screen films.
What do you think is the most exciting development in how new films can be financed, promoted, and distributed? I’m referring to venture-capital backed films, or community mechanisms such as Kickstarter, etc.?
I think Kickstarter is great, though I haven’t myself used it yet. I have friends who have financed projects that way, and I think it is really wonderful as a way to take fundraising into a new arena of potential funding. It makes things easier for large numbers of people to contribute small amounts of money for a project they believe in and help it to be produced. It is a very democratic mechanism. The internet is an incredible force for matching up art with it’s audience.
When someone watches your work, what do you hope that carry away (if any)?
I hope that people are moved in some way to see their world and themselves as more alive. I always hope that my work can either give people a place or a moment to rest and dream, or to wake them up…
Who are your heros?
Werner Herzog, for making “Fitzcaraldo” and Alejandro Jodorowski for “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” I find them to be such inspiring characters. They have created magic and new worlds for me with their films by pursuing their vision in such a heroic and fearless way. When I think of them I feel more free to dream!