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Monday, September 1, 2008

Old World Charm

Fine-art photographer Ben Ham merges the best of a film-based process with the best of a digital process to create the quiet beauty of his nature images

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old world charm
“Heading Up The Trail”
Ham: There’s something aesthetic and artistic about black-and-white that I don’t feel in color. One of the things I really like about it is that it requires you to think in a compositional way. When you strip away color, it comes down to composition. It’s amazing how people think of black-and-white in a more artistic manner. I’m represented by the Claggett/Rey Gallery in Vail. I’m surprised in a way that they carry my work because, except for my photography, the gallery carries only original oils and big sculptures. Bill Rey made the comment, “When I look at your work, I know it’s a photograph, but I don’t see photography.” A combination of elements goes into the end result he’s talking about. How the work is presented in large matted frames, the tonal range of the print and the paper it’s printed on all add a quality to that as well.

On the other hand, sunsets are great for color. I just sit there and take it in, as opposed to shooting it. I look for inclement weather. If it’s a drizzly, rainy day, great. Fog is a big thing for me; it creates such a great mood. I’m happy to see that a lot of people now are capturing color images in digital, then converting the images to black-and-white. It’s really nice to see that people don’t want to abandon that foundation of black-and-white.

Outdoor Photographer: Can you describe how you merge your film-based shooting with the digital side of your work? For example, do you filter the lens when you shoot, or do you shoot “straight” and apply filters and effects in Photoshop?

Ham: I definitely have my foot planted in both worlds—the traditional and the digital. When I shoot film, I still think of it exactly as I thought of it when I began my career in the 1970s. I’m filtering for whatever sky, light and foliage I might have. I’ll use the 25 dark red filter for darkening up a sky, or light yellows and oranges in locations, such as the Southwest, when I want to accentuate the rocks and the details out there. I’m using the Zone system, compression and expansion, those sorts of things—setting the exposure for shadow detail and developing for highlights. I use a spot meter. I’ve learned where I need to be to process the negative so it will scan well on my Epson 10000XL and give me all the information I need. I now make my negative a little less contrasty, which allows the scanner to capture as many tones as possible.

Outdoor Photographer: You work in very different parts of the country. You shoot in wine country, the desert Southwest and the South. We’ve noticed that your images in the South have a distinctive mood. Is there something about the South that you find particularly conducive to your approach to photography?

Ham: Actually, I find it harder to shoot in the coastal areas of the South, especially compared to the grandeur of the West, regardless of my working in black-and-white or color. That being said, I’m tied to the creeks and marshes of the Southern coast. When the fog rolls in, there’s nothing better. That mood is best captured in black-and-white. I live in the South, and our region of the coast is called the Low Country. I spent many days as a teenager exploring the creeks and marshes of this region. The ebbs and flows of the tides of its unique ecosystem flow in my very soul. As with most areas, rapid development has changed it, and still is changing it with increasing fervor. With my work, I’m trying to capture its spirit and convey the emotion I feel when I’m out in it. Hopefully, people will be touched by the images and will desire to preserve some of it.

old world charm
“Old Sheldon Church”
So much of photography is a slow pursuit of that incredibly fleeting moment. This is amplified with large format. So many things have to come together to form that perfect moment, even more so working in the coastal regions—a big tide happening at just the right time of day, the right light, the right conditions and, of course, no wind. So often it doesn’t happen. But I’m still out in it to experience the moment. The things I see during scouting, on the way to and from a particular location—seeing dolphins, osprey, a bald eagle catch a fish or a fawn at water’s edge—it’s all so magical even if I don’t expose a single sheet of film. This environment also is the reason for the sepia tone of my work. These special places are old and timeless, and this technique conveys that feeling.

I’m drawn to the coastal creeks, but it seems that it’s always toward the trees. They’re a reoccurring theme in my work. I think it goes back to my childhood of climbing and playing in trees. I can remember climbing big live oaks and sitting on limbs overhanging the water. I find trees and the forest to be very calming places for me.

To see more of Ben Ham’s photography, visit www.benhamimages.com.


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