Interview: Surreal Portraits Playfully Explore the Real World

Playing on themes of isolation and balance, Ben Zank transforms our perspective with beautiful displays of whimsical parallels and mysterious symmetry that leaves his audience questioning the truths of reality. Often using himself as a model to translate his stories, there is a simplicity in Ben's work. He focuses on creating a portfolio based on his unique perspective filled with curiosity, humor, and the unknown. You can't help but marvel at his attention to detail (in the real world) that he then translates into surreal portraits that bring you on a journey to a world beyond our perceptions.

We were grateful to catch up with Ben for a Behind The Lens look into his creative process.

Can you tell us a bit about your journey into photography?

I picked up the camera at 18–my grandma's Pentax ME Super. Didn't really take myself seriously until I did the 365, taking one photo a day for an entire year, which really propelled me into photography. And right now it's still a journey. A bit slower than I thought, but I'm living in New Zealand right now and I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for photography.

What are some of your interests?

Besides the obvious? Riding my bike, splurging on cookies, sitting in the woods with expensive coffee, and watching live music on youtube. Most recently I've been going on long walks which usually end with me buying more coffee.

Where do you call home?

New York City is and will always be my home. As much as I talk trash about it, I still love that place. Eventually I'd like to live in a house somewhere in Upstate New York. I want the city and I want the forest. I don't think I can live without both.

You incorporate such unique ideas into your work, what keeps you inspired?

The great thing about inspiration is that it tends to hit you like a ten ton sack of lentils. You see something and a lightbulb goes on in your head. I try to take a little bit from every piece of art I like and turn it into something that I like a little more, and I try to listen to at least one new band every day. It helps my mind change thinking patterns.

How much planning goes into a shoot?

I've always been kind of spontaneous. I have a very impulsive thought process that usually inhibits me from thinking too much on an image before trying to execute it. I get to a location and then the problems arise: I can't fly, and I'm not a world-class parkour champion. Things like that usually get in the way of my plans. With that being said, I've spent weeks planning a photo and I've spent minutes, but nothing can prepare you for what nature and society's laws have planned for you when you're on location.

A lot of your portfolio consists of self portraits, can you tell us a bit about how you get the perfect shot?

A lot of trial and error. Out of seven bad days you get one good one where everything just works in your favor. The more I work, the luckier I get. I don't believe in a perfect shot, but I do believe in the pursuit of it.

How do you light your photos? Do you use artificial or natural light?

I shoot exclusively with natural light or light sources from street lights and other random contraptions.

How would you define your style?

It's hard to categorize all of one's images into one paradigm. I call my work surreal, but I think I put out a lot of images that aren't quite to that level and are more symbolic if anything.

What message do you want your photographs to convey?

They convey my emotions. I don't really think about the mood I'm going for in an image, it just tends to come through naturally based on how I'm feeling at the time. Numbness, isolation, and a hint of humour are some of the themes that I feel get used often.

What challenges have you faced while creating?

All of them? Haha, the challenge is what makes it so fun (sometimes). On some days, everything is perfect except for the sun being too bright. Or, I'm about the get the shot and I see a police van rolling up and I'm in a “no trespassers” location. Stuff like that happens a lot. It's also quite a challenge to be the photographer, stylist, and model at the same time as I'm sure many people know what I'm talking about when I say that.

What's a must have in your gear bag?

A Wacom tablet for editing in Photoshop and a plug-in remote interval timer. You can set it to take up to 99 photos with increments from 1 second to 99 hours. Such an awesome tool to beat the 10 and 30 second self-timers on a DSLR. I actually left my remote outside for a week and now it's broken so I've been dealing with the 10 second timer.

How much post processing goes into a completed photo?

I try to keep every image looking as real and untouched as possible, but most of my editing consists of a little bit of compositing, removing distracting objects, and curves. I'm colorblind (I think I'm getting even more colorblind lately) so I try to stay away from any crazy color-grading.

What are your plans for the future? Do you have any upcoming projects?

I'm in the process of planning my third solo exhibition which will be here in New Zealand. I'm also going to be reaching out to some parkourists in the area for a gravity-defying idea I have. The rest is an open book. I change my mind on things every day, so who knows what could happen.

Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Try not to compare yourself to the work of others. There will always be someone cooler than you. That's not the point. The point is that you are creating based on your unique view of the world, and that is what will eventually be your strong point. You can't be everyone. You can only be you.

Thank you so much Ben! If you would like to see more of this talented photographer's work, check out his website and Facebook Page!

Are you a photographer? Would you like to be interviewed for the Behind The Len series? Leave your links in the comment's below!

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