Editor’s Note on Benedict Evans:
KitSplitter Benedict Evans has photographed luminaries like film director Martin Scorcese, transgender talkshow host and activist Janet Mock, and US Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, for a range of international publications including Esquire, New York Magazine, Fast Company, OUT, and more. He was a selected winner in the 2015 American Photography 31 awards, and the cover feature of the winter 2015 issue of PDN’s Emerging Photographer magazine. His portraits are compelling, intimate, and soulful. Below, we asked him a series of question about his practice.
KitSplit: Tell us a little about your work.
Benedict: Most of my work is commissioned editorial portraiture (for magazines such as Fast Company, The Guardian Weekend, and OUT), although I am generally working on self-assigned projects at the same time. Sometimes I attempt something completely different, too, that doesn’t really fit the portraiture label.
K: How would you describe your shooting style?
B: I tend to shoot in one of two ways: either in a studio environment with backdrops, lights, and a medium format camera, or out and about with a small camera, making what I think I can best describe as stylized reportage work with mostly available light.
K: What have you been working on lately?
B: As tends to be the case I’m spinning various plates at the moment, but a couple of larger projects I have done recently include a series of black and white images of an ‘ultra-marathon’ that took place in the Moroccan Sahara desert — that just ran as a portfolio in ESPN The Magazine (you can also see the entire series). I also just finished a week-long shoot making a series of portraits for Human Rights Watch which will be published later this year, and am currently working on a freelance project with Sarah Filippi from Fast Company, who’s been an amazing supporter of my work. Those pictures will also start to appear later this year.
K: What piece of yours are you most proud of?
B: I’m very proud of a project I did earlier this year for OUT Magazine — their wonderful director of photography, Greg Garry, commissioned me to make portraits of well-known gay couples and individuals for their annual Love portfolio, which ran across 24 pages in their February issue. Greg gave me great freedom to put the portfolio together using a mix of color studio portraits and black-and-white environmental pictures, and I remain very proud of it. It also gave me the chance to meet and photograph some very interesting people like Lee Daniels, Ruby Rose, Phoebe Dahl, and Nick Denton. You can see the series on my site.
K: Can you tell us a little about your process?
B: I try to create intimate environment in which to do portrait sittings, to allow me to focus on the person I’m working with and our interaction, and to make them feel comfortable – this means having only a small number of people on set, and shooting in a place that’s private and quiet if possible. I do use light very carefully in my portraits, but I always make sure that the technical things going on around me (lights, assistants, cameras, etc.) are secondary to the interaction I’m having with the person I’m photographing, who I’ve usually just met for the first time minutes before. As far as I’m concerned, you start making the portrait the moment you meet your subject. Everything that happens from that point on somehow affects the picture that you make together. If I don’t work hard to find a connection with that person, or I’m distracted by other things going on around me, or they are, then the pictures I make will very likely reveal that.
I plan each shoot very carefully: I read the article that my pictures will accompany if I can, and I research the person I’m photographing ahead of time. I think about how I will approach the pictures technically, and how I will build in anything that the magazine has expressed a particular interest in, and how I will light the pictures. But then I try and keep the sitting loose within that framework I’ve set up; let the unexpected happen, look for the moments between the moments, and be open to abandoning my whole plan if something more interesting happens.
K: Can you give us a general overview of your kit and the gear you typically use?
B: I generally use strobe lights with various modifiers, flags, and reflectors, a medium format digital camera, and paper backgrounds. I don’t have a particular allegiance to any brand when it comes to lighting, I’m still using a great set of White Lightning lights that I’ve had for years for a lot of my work (editorial budgets are not huge), although I also Profoto , and usually Elinchrom modifiers.
K: What is your most-used piece of gear?
B: Hmm, other than a camera, probably my Elinchrom Deep Octa, which has so many uses.
K: What’s your favorite piece of gear?
B: Probably the Pentax 645Z camera. Relatively recently introduced (a year or so ago I think) by Pentax/Ricoh, it’s a fantastic medium format camera that uses the same new sensor as its far, far more expensive alternatives by other companies, which I’ve also used, and is very quick, fully featured, and ergonomic. It is more versatile than any other medium format camera I’ve ever shot with, and basically gets in the way a lot less when I’m shooting, and is extremely capable both in the studio and on location (high ISO capability, weather sealing), and it produces beautiful files. Can’t recommend it enough.
K: Can you talk a little about what inspires you?
B: All kinds of things. I listen to a lot of jazz, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk in particular, and I’m very enthusiastic (although fairly ignorant) about modernist architecture and design, and I often find within both a kind of informed simplicity that I find hugely inspiring. I admire formalist photography, like that of Edward Weston or Herb Ritts, for the same reason: I love when an deceptively simple single note — or shape, or color — manages to evoke a complex range of powerful feelings. I’m not trying to record something when I take a picture, exactly, I’m more trying to evoke a feeling on the part of the viewer be presenting things in a certain way, or reducing what’s in front of me to something that resonates with me visually.
K: What’s the best piece of advice you got when starting out?
B: I think it probably came from a photographer I met through a mutual friend as I was contemplating quitting my job in England — which was unrelated to photography — and moving to New York to try and get into the game. He looked at the few (awful) photos I’d taken, which I’d be far too embarrassed to ever show anyone now, and said, ‘Do it.’ So I did. And I haven’t regretted it for a moment.
Also, someone once said to me, ‘You can’t publish an excuse’, which may not be advice, exactly, but it’s very true.
K: What advice would you offer to other folks just starting out?
B: Work as hard as you possibly can and be nice to people. It’s a small world!