Plum TV Interviews Ben and Trudie at Sconset Cafe
What drew you to photography?
At first, as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, all I knew was that the process suited me. I had an inspiring teacher, Harry Callahan, and he awakened in me an exciting vision of possibilities. I continued my studies at Yale and my involvement with the medium grew deeper.
It’s easier for me to see now, after many years of practice, that photography fits me so well because it gives me a way to express my personal vision. I believe there’s a unique energy that lives within each of us, which I call “spirit.” I devote myself to portrait photography because finding that spirit in people and giving it life in my photography has become my calling.
Can you tell us more about that? What actually makes your work different from other portrait photographers?
My goal isn’t to be different, but to be authentic, to be honest. There’s a well-established approach to portrait photography, a classical style you might call it, that is formal and posed. The photographer has a sense of how he wants the picture to come out and he uses his skill and talent and training to produce that specific result. “Okay everybody, look at me! Count to 3. Say ‘cheese,’” and so on. This classical approach is really about the photographer and his tools; it’s relatively independent of whomever happens to be sitting in front of the camera.
My work is not about my tools or about me. If my clients feel like they’re being photographed, I’m probably doing something wrong. My approach is based on letting go of expectations and assumptions about how people should look or behave. I want to go past formal poses and pretenses. I want to use the photographic experience as a way of finding truth and connection. I really want to make the camera go away, if you can imagine that, so that I’m performing effortlessly and my subjects are acting naturally, unselfconsciously, expressing their spirit and their love for one another.
The times when this happens I call Moments of Grace. It’s when two plus two equals five. A great and wonderful truth comes out of people about themselves and those closest to them. The images that capture these truths can have an amazing healing effect so I advise my clients to hang them where they’ll see them frequently. When you see people looking beautiful, getting along well, connecting well, then on those days when things aren’t going so well you look at that image and it takes you right back to a healthy place.
That sounds great. How do you actually make this happen?
I don’t “make it happen.” I just try to let it happen. And the way I do that is to get rid of the rules and let my clients be themselves. There’s nothing they’re supposed to wear. No place they’re supposed to stand. Trudie and I blend into the background for the most part. The time a family spends with Trudie and me is less about being photographed – ideally it’s not at all about being photographed – than about being together, enjoying a special time with one another. They sit, they play, the kids jump on the furniture, they kiss, they hug – when they want to, not when I tell them to.
Just think for a moment how you’d feel if you went to a photographer’s studio and followed her or his instructions and dressed a certain way and sat a certain way and smiled and looked into the camera and after all that, got no photograph. You’d feel that you’d wasted your time.
After one of our photo sessions, families usually feel they’ve had a terrific time being with one another, doing things they rarely get a chance to do – just sitting quietly on the stairs with the kids someplace else or kissing or hugging. The result is invariably that we get great photographs and our clients feel enriched and closer to one another as a result of the experience.
I know meditation is important to you. How does it fit in with your work?
I can tell you how I think of it, though I can’t guarantee it will have meaning for you. The connection between meditation and my work as a photographer is about effortlessness, about being, not trying. My vision of Moments of Grace, of 2+2=5, comes directly from meditation: it’s about something more than photography happening when I work. I’m a photographer of spirit, if you like: that’s what I find in my camera. But I myself must be in touch with spirit in order to recognize it in my subjects. This doesn’t mean I’m in a mystic trance. I’m intensely present, in fact: very much here even while a part of me is in a special place, looking for that special place in my clients.
How do you interact with your clients?
My idea of how to interact with my subjects is to be spontaneous. As I’ve said, I bring no expectation about what the subject should be doing or what should be happening. Instead I go with the flow.
During the course of a shoot, which typically takes two hours, I might take 2 to 3 thousand images. Most of these fit into a specific flow. For instance, a father plays with his three-year old daughter. There’s a joyful quality. I start with this idea and things are happening and at a certain point I know I got it. Each flow, 10, 20, 30 images – I shoot into it until I hit that moment when 2 plus 2 is five. These are the Moments of Grace I mentioned earlier. When I’m photographing, I’m not waiting for things to happen. Things are happening all the time on a variety of levels and if I’m not shooting, I’m going to miss them.
We know we’re going to get fantastic images in the end, and we have a process. But how it’s going to go, what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, we don’t know and that’s key to the practice of photography shoots, meditation and just a way of living our lives.
Is it true you shoot only in black and white?
In my personal photography, I allow myself one color photo a year!
In my portrait work, I only shoot black and white. I do this for a few reasons. Color is extremely seductive. A skilled photographer with the right lighting and good darkroom technique can create powerful magic in a color photograph. But the color becomes the focus and the subject of the photograph; it’s very difficult to make it go to the background and stay there. I prefer black and white because it forces you to get down to the essentials, the real truth of an image, whether it’s a family enjoying a laugh or an empty prairie at sunrise. I think a great black and white photograph has an enduring quality, too, that comes from its depth. With color, you’re on the surface; with black and white, you’re underneath.
What role does location play in your photography? Here in Nantucket, for instance, do you do a lot on the beach?
If our clients feel strongly about being photographed in a particular place, we’ll do our best to accommodate them. But we always tell them that our photography is about them, not about the scenery. Some of the families we’ve talked to here have been uncomfortable about being photographed in a house they’re renting or using for the summer – it’s not their real house. And we say it doesn’t matter because the images are about you and about what’s inside of you – not about what’s outside of you.
What brings you to Nantucket?
We came for the first time in 2007 because we were looking for a place to have a great, fun vacation. And we fell in love with the island. As we’ve gotten to know people here, that’s added to the attraction. It seems that the kind of people who come to Nantucket are just the kind of people who like our work. We’re hoping to build a future here, for ourselves and for our photography.
Trudie, what role do you play?
I joined Ben in the practice in 2003 after a 23 year corporate career. Working with Ben was a dream for me, and it has come true. Ben ran his own design practice for many years and was good at it but he needs to be able to focus on photography. So I look after the business side of things, which I love, and I’m the sales & marketing person in terms of staying in touch with existing clients, inviting new clients to join us and always looking for new opportunities to share the vision.
I also assist Ben on every shoot, brainstorming with him before and being at his side, reminding him of little details, helping to make our clients comfortable. We really feel that when we photograph a family or even an individual, it’s a journey of inspiration for all parties. Ben and I need to be well-connected and in tune in order help this happen.
One of our clients said recently that she was amazed at the pictures Ben was able to take of her normally camera-shy daughter. Since Ben and I were so calm, her daughter was also calm.
On a few occasions we’ve been driving to a shoot and a bit of discord has crept into the conversation and before you know it we’re a bit cross with one another. When that happens, we do not sweep the matter under the rug. We deal with it then and there and resolve it so that when we get to the client, we are in harmony again. We have to be clear when we’re doing the shoot.
How much does your photography cost?
It’s an investment. We put a lot of time and effort into every shoot, from the initial consultation at which we learn about our clients and share our visions about the photographs, to actually helping them frame and hang the photos in their homes at the other end of the process. This is art, the same kind of photos as the permanent collection of mine in museums. To those who see value in that, in having a record of their families, in having moments to treasure whenever they want, and forever, it’s more than a good investment.
So if someone wants to talk to you about a family portrait, what should they do and what will happen?
Visit our website (www.benlarrabee.com) or come see us at the Sconset Cafe in Nantucket.