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Ben Ham and the…Art of Seeing

“I’m trying to transport you, trying to create a window into a world that I see and to evoke an emotion,” he declares.

Story by Carolyn Males

Ben Ham leads us on adventures. He pulls us into a photograph, sending us meandering along a dirt road to a distant Italian hill town, winding through Lowcountry creeks, hiking canyons to ancient ruins, strolling along rocky Pacific shorelines. With each step a time-traveling trek unfolds through past, present, and future.

Road to Murisengo
“I was out scouting around Murisengo, Italy, and saw this dirt road. I couldn’t drive up it because it turns into a horse or walking path so I came back early the next morning. The farmer came over the rise behind me and I pulled off so he could pass me,” says Ham. “But then he comes up and starts saying all this stuff in Italian.” Ham listened politely unsure of the man’s meaning but in the end, he seemed okay with him being there so when the farmer left, Ben got to work. The sun, just starting to burn through, illuminated the grapes on the curved rows of vines, the pears in a tree, and the farmer’s rake and hoe. In the foreground, lacy white flowers and grasses along the dirt road lead toward the hill town with its towers and old buildings. In the end, Ham was so entranced by the little Piedmont town he even considered buying a property there.

Our gaze may come to rest on a gnarled live oak festooned with Spanish moss, a grand villa impossibly perched on a hillside, an open gate leading to a half-hidden building. But then Ham’s sharp focus, angle of view, and the interplay of soft light on a subject compels us to circle back, making discoveries along the way. That majestic old live oak reaches out with twisted limbs, beckoning us to come closer and explore the thick greenery of the hammock it stands watch over. That Italian vineyard, lush with table grapes, entices us to pluck one. We don’t see the farmer but we feel his presence, the sweat of his labors both completed and yet-to-come, in the rake and hoe propped against a tree.

Then there’s Old Sheldon Church in Yemassee, built in 1757 by William Bull, burned by the Redcoats, only to be reconstructed and then destroyed by Sherman’s troops on their March to the Sea. The broken beauty of its brick columns and its walls open to the sky have enticed many a photographer. But I’d never seen its soul captured until I stood before Ben Ham’s iconic black-and-white image. The mists blanketing the trees, the glow framing the interior arches, the dark branches arching toward the brick ruins all speak of long ago hopes and shattered dreams. Yet, as one woman told Ham, just looking at the print she could hear the crunch of leaves underfoot.

Old Sheldon Church
“This was a transformative piece for me. It took me years to get this shot.” Ham had been here dozens of times before but the atmospheric shot he was looking for had eluded him. He left the island at 4 a.m. on this particular foggy day, but by the time he arrived at the site, it was crystal clear. He was just about to leave when he looked up and saw the fog rolling back in. It was, “Oh, my gosh. This is the shot.”

To get these mesmerizing images, Ham likes to go it alone, rising long before dawn and heading out to a spot he’s been scouting. The tools of his trade––large format camera, black-and-white sheets of film, light meter, tripod, and other accessories––means he must cart a heavy load. Then he’ll hike, boat, or climb to get to that place and wait, wait, wait until the fog rolls in, the tide rises or falls, the light streams in at the right angle, the clouds drift into place before he clicks the shutter. Even so, he won’t even look through the viewfinder until he’s really studied the scene and composed it in his mind.

Vino Nobile
“I do this crazy thing where I imagine photographs and try to find them. And this is one that I always imagined.” He’d been in Tuscany for four weeks when he wandered down an alleyway and spotted a sign for a winery and stopped in. Here he got into a discussion about wine production with the owner who then led him down a long flight of stairs. And there it was — the photo Ham had always wanted to capture — a cellar lined with eight-to-ten-foot-tall barrels.

That patience extends as well to exposure which may range from multiple seconds to multiple minutes. For example, when making Vino Nobile, his photo of a dark winery cellar, he left the camera shutter open a full eighteen minutes.

After developing each image, he prints and mats only those that meet his exacting standards. The finished works, covered in archival museum glass, are encased in frames he’s cut from olive wood molding imported from Italy.

When you walk around Ben Ham’s Bluffton gallery amid his big sensual images of the Lowcountry, the American West, and Italy, you immediately realize what is often lost in our modern embrace of digital photography with its temptation to fire off dozens of quick shots. The sheer beauty of his carefully composed visions encourage us to slow down and see nature in a new way.

Ham was on his way to an early dentist appointment when he spied this bateau floating like a ghost in a thick fog. So much for clean teeth. He called the dentist’s office to cancel and they laughed. Mindful of the foggy conditions he liked to shoot in, they’d been taking bets he’d call. Cleaning rescheduled, he waded out into the water with his camera, hoping that the boat wouldn’t bob around which would blur the shot. He was in luck. It had gotten lodged in grass. So he shot it as a vertical with a big sky.

What’s more, getting lost in Ham’s world evokes one’s own memories, thus the image often becomes your story as well. Stephanie Tebrake, director of gallery operations, assures me that it’s not an unusual occurrence. For example, looking at that vineyard in Road to Murisengo conjures up my own stroll through a similar field in Dozza after a wine-soaked lunch years back. Another collector, recalled youthful memories of walking among birches with her husband in Vermont, as she gazed at Ham’s Snowy Aspens, a shot taken two thousand miles away in Vail, Colo. So vivid was the connection, the print found a place on her own walls.

On my most recent visit, I have the good fortune of being escorted around by Ben Ham himself. An exuberant storyteller, he recounts his quest for the perfect shot, his painstaking techniques, and his philosophy behind making a photograph.

Snowy Aspens
“I had this grand idea that I could photograph at Vail for about three weeks and get home for Thanksgiving. But lots of things weren’t lining up when I got there. My film didn’t show up. I had a vehicle with an expired tag and got a ticket.” And it wasn’t snowing. But one day while making soup, he glanced back toward the mountain and saw it was flurrying. Soon light snowfall turned to heavy. Hopeful of getting a good shot, he drove up to the pass but worried they’d close it off, he turned back. The next morning he woke up to three feet covering the ground so he went out exploring. Coming upon three aspens, he became entranced with how their trunks stood at jagged angles, their vertical forms juxtaposed with the abstract quality of soft snow on their branches. Timing to capture the shot was critical because it only takes a little bit of wind to blow the white powder off the limbs. His seven minute-exposure was so long that the camera didn’t read the snow falling around him. The resulting landscape whispers of a serene and silent world.

“I’m trying to transport you, trying to create a window into a world that I see and to evoke an emotion,” he declares. “And the wonderful thing for me about shooting with a large format camera is that each day when I’m producing work, it transports me back to that particular moment. Quite often I know the day. And I certainly know the time of year, the month, atmospheric conditions.”

So, come along as we take a tour of some Ben Ham images and get a glimpse of a master photographer at work.

(click on gallery thumbnails for larger photo)

Going Beyond Snapshots

“Photography is all about learning to see. I look upon the camera as a tool to capture your vision. It’s the same for all artists, whether a canvas, paints and brush, or paper and pencil.”

Scout out locations ahead of time. “If you stop and study each scene, you get little treats and see things that you might not discover on a passing glance.”

Always look for light and patterns. Pointing to a nearby row of buildings he says, “See the way they stack up against each other and how the shadows fall. If you’re constantly scanning for these design elements, you start seeing the world in a different way.”

Think about what you’re trying to convey with your photographs—ideas, mood, feelings––even if you’re just taking family vacation shots or photos of your kids having a good time.

Once you get to your pre-scouted spot, put your camera down and just look. “I figure out a scene even before the camera comes out. That really teaches you to see.” He encourages digital shooters to resist the urge to fire off exposure after exposure. Instead, know what triggers you to shoot a certain scene before looking through the viewfinder.

Create your own vision. “If you’re trying to do something beyond snapshots, strive to make something that’s your own vision and not just wow, I got that great shot that I saw in a book or a website. So many people look for trophy shots. They say ‘I want to get that shot Ansel [Adams] got.’”

Think about:

Creating depth by finding leading lines—roads, poles, rows of plants, curves, fences that will move you into and around an image.

Putting something strong in the foreground, something of interest in the middle ground and in the distance.

Composing on third lines. That is, dividing your composition vertically and horizontally in thirds (a grid of nine equal sections) and placing the focal points, important elements of your image, on those lines.

Remember, it’s okay to break these rules but know why you’re doing it.

Be patient. Once you’ve found what you want to shoot, wait for the right light and atmospheric conditions. For example, since Ham shoots long exposures, he keeps an eye on the wind. A breeze will throw grasses or other natural elements out of focus. In Oysters, he found himself on a creek at an oyster bed when the wind picked up. Given the conditions, he might have rejected shooting but then he studied the scene, planning for the image he wanted. His reward? Soft tufts of blowing grass fan enticing fingers toward the oyster bed.

Review the photograph. Does it say what you want it to say? Study it and understand why you chose that shot and what made it work. And if the image hasn’t turned out, that teaches you something as well.