Ben Altman - "The Empty Centre"
Ben Altman's work was selected for the Houston Center for Photography’s 2015 Fellowship, the 2015 Critical Mass Top 50 and other recent awards and grants. He has exhibited at galleries, museums, and festivals in London, UK, Poland, China, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, North Carolina, Indiana, Rhode Island, Texas, many in New York state, and more. His work is available from Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles, CA.
Visit Ben's website to see more of his wonderful work
How did you choose photography as a medium, career and art form?
It chose me, but I took a long time to understand and accept that. I studied Physics as an undergrad in 1970’s London, then worked as an electronics technician in the offshore oil industry and in sailboat instrumentation. I moved to the U.S. in my late twenties and, starting from an amateur interest, found my way into commercial photography - and eventually out of it again. I worked seasonally at a large boatyard in Chicago for a number of years, which allowed me to make long backpacking trips. I’d been burned out by the commercial photography but started to have fun again with landscapes. After I retired from competitive sailing (which took up a lot of my time), an art practice gradually evolved and now includes performance, 3-D work indoors and outdoors, video, installation, and interactive pieces. The work always seems to have some kind of photography component though, and is sometimes, as with this project, straight photography.
You take these images at night, can you tell us a little about that process, do you walk alone? what do you look for? how is it to create this project
The Empty Center is a new project that I didn’t plan to do. Earlier this year my wife had a research leave in England that allowed us to spend several months in the part of South Devon where I lived as a teenager. Visiting the nearby city of Plymouth, which was heavily bombed in WWII and then quickly redeveloped with blocks of charmless retail, I started to think about what all that had meant for the city and its residents. A lot of my work explores the challenges and burdens imposed by history and what they mean for us now, so these questions resonated with me, along with curiosity about what had been happening to my country of origin that had resulted in the Brexit disaster.
I had a month free after my wife went home and before going to Les Rencontres d’Arles photo festival, so I decided, somewhat spontaneously, to visit other cities that had been bombed and heavily redeveloped. Night seemed an appropriate time to photograph the empty, stale, pretentious glitz of these places that have essentially no residents. I did a couple of test trips to Plymouth to figure out my approach. I decided not to work in London because its economy and development are quite different from other British cities.
I enjoy traveling alone and with the extra attentiveness that photography encourages. In the summer the evenings in England are quite long, so I developed a rhythm of taking a late dinner and then working from around 10:00 p.m. until about 2:00 a.m. I spent a couple of nights in each location, staying in very cheap hotels, sleeping late, and traveling by train between cities in the middle of every other day. I’ve visited many cities around the world and I think I’m reasonably street smart, so I’m okay with being out late at night. The U.K. is generally safe but I keep the camera strap around my neck, even when I’m using the tripod, and my bag on my back. I try to be aware of what’s around me.
In each city, I tried to figure out from online accounts where the bomb damage had been. It was not always easy but I could usually get some idea. That would give me a starting point for my wanderings, although I did not stay strictly to bombed areas. I tried to keep an open mind rather than having fixed ideas about what to photograph, to be receptive to what I found. I did have a few themes, such as juxtaposing postwar or more recent buildings with older structures, and looking for interesting texts in signage. I’m always looking to create satisfying compositions that expand on the questions I have in mind. Overall, I was happy to keep a light footprint - minimal research and first impressions - for a project that is very much concerned with surface appearances.
The projects that I find work best for me are ones in which the work teaches me. In this case I was visiting cities in my native country after decades away, during which their economies and demographics had undergone huge changes. Many I had never visited. So it was a trip into the unfamiliar familiar, an education in something I knew but wanted to understand better. After I got home I came across a new book, Welcome To Your World by Sarah Williams Goldhagen, that talks about how embodied psychology relates to the built environment - how our urban spaces form who we are - that seemed very much in line with what I’d been thinking about in Britain. This is what I like, a process where a thought becomes a set of questions that become a project that becomes an education that feeds me and shapes the project.
One of the things I noticed is that many of these city centres (I’m using the British spelling) have busy night-club scenes, with lots of young and often quite drunk customers. So they, along with bouncers and police, are the main folks around at night, particularly on weekends. That’s apart from a quite large population of homeless. This latter group has, I understand, expanded considerably with the austerity policies of the current and recent Tory governments. So I’m thinking about including these aspects of British life in the project. There are more cities to visit, too.
Which is your favorite photo from this body of work and why?
Hard to say, partly because it’s a new and evolving project - when I sent you this work I went back to the image folders and picked out several that I had not really looked at before and added them to the edit. One I like, though, is Paradise Square, Sheffield. It’s a balanced but dynamic composition and tells a layered story. Sheffield is a city with its identity divided between its immigrant population, its large university, and its industrial past. The photo shows a historic pub squeezed between a Brutalist-style block of flats and some brick terraced houses that have become professional offices, but with a for-rent sign. The name of the square is an irony bonus. Many of the titles come from texts that are in the photographs but some are are only legible when the images are printed large.
What would you consider your biggest failure? and what have you learned from it?
I failed Oxford entrance - twice - and went instead to University College London, which had a well-respected Physics department but treated undergraduates poorly. I flunked my freshman year and took a year away before completing a very mediocre degree. That probably saved me from a dull career of some sort and set me on a long and winding road to what I do now, in which rejection is a constant and failures are part of the process. I wasn’t a great commercial photographer either, but I came away from it with a bag of tricks that I still draw on. So I guess I’ve learned that failure is a symptom of incompatibility between one’s intentions and one’s nature.
What do you consider a successful photograph? How do you edit your work down to the 'best of the best' ?
I consider successful photographs to be rare! It’s complicated, because photographs often do not stand alone; they are most frequently either part of a body of work that provides a cumulative meaning or part of a story of some kind. So I guess the objective in those contexts is for each image to be powerful and to contribute to the overall. I find that certain images get consistently strong responses and that can be helpful. Writing and re-writing and re-re-writing my artist statements clarifies things for me. I sometimes find myself writing in my head as I work. Making submissions and putting exhibitions together forces these processes along. I find it hard to edit ruthlessly enough. In general I hope to make work that is in some combination visceral, thoughtful, metaphorical, confrontational, layered, elegant, seductive, has wit, and is not precious. That gives me plenty of room for failure!
Who is your biggest inspiration ?
I don’t think there’s any one name that is more important than all others. I draw inspiration from many sources, artistic and other. A few names: writers, W. G. Sebald, Wisława Szymborska, Elizabeth Bishop J.M. Coetzee; artists and arts traditions, Anselm Kiefer, David Hockney, Ai Wei-wei, Doris Salcedo, Richard Long, medieval tombs, South Asian textiles; photographers, Dieter Appelt, Ana Mendieta, David Hilliard, LaToya Ruby Frazier, my friends Susan S. Bank and Debi Cornwall - her commitment and integrity are certainly an inspiration.
What tools do you use as an artist and photographer that are crucial in your bag (physically or metaphorically) ?
I think working as an artist and photographer is a tool, the best I’ve found for trying to grapple with the delicious and absurd situation of being alive. But to your question…. Metaphorically, engagement with and openness to whatever is meaningful to me is key, along with curiosity, being observant and alert, and seeing the world as contingent rather than given. Literally, I use everything from 8x10 to Holgas, from cameras made before I was born to digital, whatever feels right. This project was my first fully digital one; I used a medium-format Pentax 645Z, but agonized until the last minute over abandoning my comfort zone of 4x5. It worked out well, allowing me to move more quickly, review each night’s images the next day, and not have to process, scan, and dust-bust negatives. But I missed the large format experience - the big ground glass, the perspective tools, and the deliberate rhythm.
What is the best advice you can give a fellow photographer?
Have some other source of income and/or a supportive partner.
All photographs (c) 2017 Ben Altman