Photographing U.S. Presidents, celebrities and business moguls with Ben Baker | Creator Sessions

Photographing U.S. Presidents, celebrities and business moguls with Ben Baker | Creator Sessions

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[Music] hi this is ben baker and this is my creator session today we're going to delve into the high pressure situation of photographing the world's most powerful and connected people how do you manage presidents in the oval office how do you make split-second decisions that will determine the success of a magazine that month how do you deal with personalities like warren buffett the richest man in the world and trade out a 2.85 root beer float for an extra 10 minutes how do you manage ron howard and get him to stand still in the middle of a swarming sea of new yorkers going on their commute for the day how do you take chances how do you succeed how do you fail and how do you get back up when you do make mistakes and how do you build a journey and a path that you're proud of [Music] happy new year friends we are kicking off this new year with a creator session that is absolutely without a doubt one of my all-time favorites this episode with photographer ben baker is filled with some of the best advice and lessons from one of the world's most successful photographers for ben traveling with his father when he was young to remote communities ignited this deep interest in documenting the richness of humanity through photography and after more than three decades he is still pursuing the life of a creator ben is well known for photographing quite literally the most powerful people in the world but he also photographs dogs with cones janitors single mothers his mother and really anything that inspires him his goal as encouraged by one of his mentors always find the truth he interned with annie leibowitz after finding his way to new york city and has been lucky enough to call other world-class photographers namely harry benson and the mary ellen mark mentors this is one of those sessions that you will want to save because you couldn't possibly digest all the goodness by only watching it once so my career path was a really interesting journey from adelaide australia where i was obsessed with printing in the darkroom at high school to getting rejected for community college i thought my life in photography was over at 17 but of course i got a job as a photo assistant in australia in different cities and then i had enough of working so i decided to go backpacking in south america for a year and then came off jungle time to new york and i'm very very very very lucky i got a job working for any labor with the vanity fair and i got put through the school of hard knocks and travel around america on very very tough photo shoots and advertising campaigns and i made a decision to start my own journey as a photographer i was always taking pictures but then to sort of say no to have assisting work and it was quite challenging but i built my way up and worked for magazine editors on small shoots and did my best to succeed at those and then i got more more shoots bigger shoots bigger opportunities bigger responsibilities um and then i sort of got known as photographing powerful people mostly in the political and business fields and then my career sort of took off and i was on you know covers of magazines and advertising campaigns before i knew it i had a studio and a team um and then like every business things go up and things come down and i sort of downsized and i'm now sort of on a path of working on a better balance of personal and commercial work i have images in my mind that through my career really inspired me on my journey as a creative photographer one of the images that always had inspired me was a portrait of a young abraham lincoln taken by matthew brady in new york just down the street from where my studio was and i was always inspired by that and also reminded me that it's now our turn and it was my turn to photograph the then leaders of our country um to be able to inspire the next generation so whilst we see images that are important in american history we are here now it's our turn to create images that can inspire people down the line one of my most cherished images and always is on my fridge wherever i live is a postcard of ansel adams in the process of photographing school kids and the headline is even ansel adams needs a day job and it's always reminding me to take great pride in commercial work that i do because there's great honor in commercial work as well as our personal projects we all search for our personal projects that give us the most creative joy but when you do take on a commercial assignment for an advertising company or a school pitcher that there's great pride in that you know the pride of earning income to put food on the table to help you along your journey as a creator so take care of both sides of the work you do [Music] when i think of images that i've taken that had the biggest impact on my career obviously we all like to talk about our successes but we also have failures i was assigned as a very young photographer to go to the toronto film festival and photograph a-list actors had to walk into rooms and direct the world's most famous actors and i was pretty intimidated i probably was a little young for the shoot and when i came back from toronto really sort of upset and scared and frightened that i had failed to direct these very powerful people and and didn't have the confidence in my own skills and i thought my career as a portrait photographer was over i had a choice do i stop being a portrait photographer do i find a way to succeed and a friend of mine who's an actor suggested i study improv comedy and i thought that was a silly idea at the start but i gave it a try i ended up finding that training gave me the ability and the confidence to take on powerful people to deal with actors and to be confident in your own skills because the golden rule of improv is yes and to be positive and to build on a problem you can you can take a problem as as a end of the road or you can find this opportunity maybe turn left or turn right or maybe change your perception so when i went back to being a photographer after that training i wasn't intimidated in rooms i got to manage to direct world famous actors or president of the united states and that training of staying positive and being open because what might seem as a closed door might be a a lame way or another open door for a you know journey to an unexpected place that might find happy moments and and unexpected joys that you wouldn't have chosen if you went in with a very you know focused point of view so let's look at a few images of mine that i can talk through the challenges and where i've succeeded to give the magazine the best image in the win column is the one that i took the most risk on that probably shouldn't have succeeded there was a portrait i took of ron howard in grand central station in new york and ron howe's you know obviously a very world famous busy director who actually does take the train as a normal fella from from connecticut he said he gave would give me five minutes and i wanted to capture the energy of new yorkers getting off trains in central station as you know new yorkers don't wait for anybody and as new yorkers get off trains they probably take about 15 seconds to disperse so here i am in grand central station with this gigantic long film lens at the time so the people in the station didn't know we were there and ron basically gave me two trains which basically gave me 15 and 15 seconds so i got about 30 seconds two attempts to get the perfect shot and i had to get ron frozen still i had get the crowd swarming around him and i had to get it all in one capture all in one frame it all sounds great in theory it's very very hard to accomplish in in real time and i had to time it right that the exposure would blur the people and keep ron frozen i had a photo assistant who jumped into the train holding a light with a radio transceiver the amount of things that should have and could have gone wrong in that portrait is astounding the fact that we succeeded in that um i'm so grateful for i guess the greatest takeaway from me is that you have to learn to risk um situations for great reward you know we could have played the safe option and just had a portrait of ron standing there with a train in the background we could have taken so many other options but we really chose to to roll the dice um if you went in there again every other day you might not succeed but but i'm really really proud of that image because it showed that you do have to take chances and that's where you'll find your biggest success [Music] the images that probably had the most profound effect on my career were my early images of barack obama why they were so powerful is it opened up many many doors and editors and clients who wouldn't have hired me before so i knew that on that shoot i had to succeed not only to make that shoot successful but then to give further opportunities down the line and i think the takeaway for creators in that is there are days in your career that are more important than others and that's not to put too much pressure on yourself but you must understand that there are certain shoots or projects that will have greater impact on your career and you must focus on those because you know the consequences one of the other images that i'm most proud of is warren buffett in omaha i was sent by fortune magazine one of the responsibilities as a magazine photographer is to shoot the cover and that doesn't get given to most people because it has a set of challenges that you must be able to figure out on the fly with a very important person not only are you trying to take the best picture you can you also have to keep in mind that you're part of a team that the magazine has a layout and there's words going all over it and it must capture this spontaneous image of of a powerful person or a famous person that's unexpected because we're also accustomed to seeing these very staid controlled images they probably expected a pretty traditional portrait in warren's office and they would have been happy with that but it's our job as creators to give a client more than that why did they ask you why they ask me to go to omaha nebraska they could have asked so many people so my job was to go in and find something unique and special so instead of just focusing on him in the studio or him in the office i was open to seeing what else could be there what other magic could we find and so we went to lunch in an omaha diner and i kept watching him drink his root beer floats and i immediately thought that's got to be the cover of the magazine but how do i make it happen so i got to get close to warren and say warren that's got to be the cover of the magazine it's the greatest idea i can think of i mean he turned around and said sure ben as long as you're paying for the 2.85 root beer float but the magic of that image is that it showed a slice of life but i also had to make sure that in shooting a what was a very spontaneous picture that i was keeping in my mind the layout the type the format of the magazine the eye contact to camera all these things that come on board when you're shooting a cover of a magazine that don't have to be thought of when you're contributing on the inside of a magazine i almost talk about it having multiple brains i've got one brain talking to warren as a human being i got one brain thinking about the environment and making sure i'm managing it and then the other brain is thinking about what's required of me from my client do you give me enough space to left can i have space here is always warren looking at the camera and all the same time i've also got to make sure the technical part of my process is working did i make the right choice with the lens did i make the right choice with the exposure is my light correct so that's the art that's the skill i guess of experience that eventually you can take all those challenges and juggling everything and you can find it into one frame i talk to filmmakers and i always think in many ways they have it a little easier than photographers because we've got to distill everything into one frame it doesn't speak it doesn't move you can't press play everything in a still photograph has to be told in one silent frame and that's that's the art and the craft of finding a great image one of the other images that we can look at and sort of break down was a portrait of president obama and first lady michelle obama in the map room at the white house and we succeeded in finding a really quiet moment with a couple who were very been together for 20 years and still very much in love but what you don't know is what's happening around this image i was given a situation where i didn't control the location the room the weather the light 10 minutes before this picture was taken i was meant to be in the rose garden then a storm came in and then i was told i couldn't use this room and i couldn't have this furniture all these things that were told to me that i couldn't have so i had to find a way to take away all these distractions and all these disadvantages or situations i didn't control and stay focused on them as people stay focused on them as a story and and succeed where there were so many reasons why it shouldn't have um so that's again the ability to slow down and focus on one piece at a time i'd always sing these songs to my assistant that the knee bones connected to the thigh bone that's connected to the you must break down a challenging process if i thought about the challenges on that shoot if i thought about the storm outside if i thought about the handler who's telling me to hurry up if i thought about the light that might not be working if i thought about all these different things that were happening at the time if i thought about all that at once you can't succeed so my advice to creators is when you're coming into a very challenging environment just just break it down it's very easy most things are very very easy when you just isolate one thing obviously you've got to move on very quickly does the light is a light right yes is the angle right is the camera focused have i spoken to them as human beings but then at some point you've got to step away and just let the magic happen and we managed to succeed you don't see the storm outside you don't see the room of handlers you don't see the clock ticking you don't see the possibilities of all the equipment that might fail but i had to maintain a positive focused outlook i had to almost pretend that if something goes wrong it'll go wrong but you got to keep smiling and the show's got to go on when i'm photographing very powerful or famous people i've just got to remember that just as human as you and i i don't put them on a pedestal of who they are i give them great respect to their job but i will treat anyone in any photograph the same way at the same time one of my heroes is irving penn but it wasn't his images that affected me as much as the stories about him there's these legendary stories of irving penn receiving thank you notes from famous people grateful of how he treated them as a photographer and as a creator and i take great pride in that in my work when i go into an environment how i manage and to treat other people because it not only is it gives me joy but also affects the ability for me to go on in my career and be welcomed back into these very powerful rooms i have this picture of the janitor who i photographed before i've heard of barack obama in a shoot and those pictures look the same because i gave both subjects the same level of respect and dignity so therefore what happens if you treat everyone with the same level of care and respect when someone comes in who might be higher up the order of our society i don't give them any more so therefore why should i change who i am to them so it helps me bring it back to being just been taken photograph of warren or ben taking photo of barack we're having a chat about life i even engage them in conversation that is a great leveler i don't ask a president about choices he made as a president i might talk about hot dogs i might talk about root beer floats or i might talk about sport or what things we find in life that are funny but also what i hope to do by having an honest connection about things we can all connect on is that the image will show that at the end of the day my my portrait of this person that when people see that image they feel that conversation that they realize they must have just had a conversation about the football team winning and it will be a more honest human connected portrait that people when people pick up a magazine they say i think i know that person just a little bit more so i think to engage people in a very human connected way or help you deal with high pressure situations to bring it back to a normal level of experience that we're all accustomed to i'm at a stage in my career where i'm really thinking about the personal projects that i do and how i balance those with my corporate and commercial work it's interesting when i started off as a photographer there were very clear road maps and there were there were guidelines and there were sort of rails you could hold on to a sort of in a way on the sides and way the media and the internet and the world has changed but all those road maps and those those paths forward have changed dramatically so it's really interesting as a photographer i've seen the industry be so structured and now it's wide open i think right now we're living in the most extraordinary times that we have the most incredible opportunities as creators but it's also maybe the most confusing and daunting because there isn't a road map there isn't a path forward when i started out as a photographer i had a set of pictures i had a powerful agent agent took it to four magazines that made a decision now people can succeed from coming out their creative careers in many different ways different platforms obviously with the intel has changed the universe so you can have a voice and you have to choose wisely about what paths you take there's a chance now that you know a a person sitting in in a in a school in bangladesh if they're doing incredible work could get noticed by an editor in new york city there's a great story of a young female photographer in brazil who's taking the most beautiful pictures on instagram and next minute the new york times editor hired her to take these pictures of the most powerful women of the world it's really important in korea to realize that you've got to keep evolving and if you don't keep involving you'll actually find that your industry or your world around you will make you do it i had points in my career that i got comfortable and i thought this is the kind of work i'll always keep doing and then it stopped and i got pretty upset i became very successful at photographing the most powerful people in the business world and then that work changed and i didn't know what to do and i then moved on to telling personal stories about women in new york and their lives and i was terrified working on these new shoots but i opened up new doors new opportunities that i'm very grateful that the industry stopped giving me the work that i was comfortable doing and forced me to look field i'm going through one of those stages now where i've moved countries the work i did in america isn't australia doesn't really have american presidents so i have to change i'm really excited really excited to work on these new projects and there's ways that i'm going to succeed there's ways i'm going to fail but you know there's a really great way of realizing that you know that's that stumble might open your eyes to new avenues and new doors and new experiences so it's really important that you keep evolving in your career to keep growing to be inspired never sit still never stop take a moment enjoy the times say good on you but keep moving even though it seemed daunting and challenging that there isn't a road map just keep reminding yourself if you keep doing great work keep the work personal keep it profoundly deeply personal if you keep doing the right work for the right reasons and you stick at it it will turn one project i'm working on right now is my understanding of australia i've a young australian i've spent 20 years of my life in new york and i'm not sure if i know what australia is or who australians are so this project is an interview and photographic series um trying to understand ask the powerful question who are we so we're here photographing vittorio who's an australian man who was an immigrant from italy from 1960 and he spent his life here ever since living in adelaide australia i'm passionate about this project because i spent my life telling stories about americans in america and i had a very thin understanding of who we are and hearing myself talk about australia in rooms around america i could hear this cardboard version or very sort of the veneer of the australian the version that hollywood likes to sell or we like to sell to ourselves i even once was talking to a very wealthy american and i came in and i almost did a little dance and a little a little performance about australians and who we are and and she she made a joke and called me out on it and said i said i think you're just pulling out the old examples i'm not sure if that's really your your and i couldn't answer that and she was right that i was really just using what i perceived as australians and who we are as my version of it to americans because i'm proud of australia being an australian but i couldn't really understand the depths of it i guess you get to a point in your career where you spend a lot of time devoted to projects and to work and then you start thinking about what am i going to leave behind what was the point of the project what's its worth and i think there can be no other statement of worth than leaving behind a document that might explain who we are now with a bit of a time capsule and to explain to others the same stories the advice i'd give to creators is that it is all possible it doesn't matter where you come from it doesn't matter the background you're in depends on how much you want something how much you're prepared to give for that success when i think of my heroes none of those people came from backgrounds of great wealth or prestige they weren't given a path forward to being great photographers they came from small towns they came from poorer families they came from countries that no one would expect them to move to new york one of the images that's always had an effect on me it's always inspired me to go on is one of my mentors harry benson's images as he's getting off the plane with the beatles at jfk what that means to me and what that shows to me is harry came from a you know relatively modest background in scotland to go on to have this incredible life photographing the rich and famous the most powerful travel the world and in my own way i've journeyed through most incredible places on on the planet i've been given experiences that no one can buy and that only was given to me because i had a camera and i had you know took on the world as a creator so what a joy that through the art of creating we get to have these life experiences that are untouchable in any other fields but be ready that they may be a high price that you may have to work incredibly hard for many many years before that success turns but it will turn it will come around for you if you keep fighting and you keep asking the right questions and putting great work out in the world so it is very very possible you can do it from anywhere but you've got to be prepared to sacrifice and that's the choice you need to make how much are you prepared to put in to get that back in your creative pursuits i feel pretty strongly there is nothing i can say to elevate ben's wisdom from this episode after all it's my job to find the most inspirational creators and hope that their lessons can have an impact on you and your career and i think we did that with this one but there is one thing i can add ben is right when he says there is no better time to be a creator and that being a creator can offer you life experiences doing deeply personal work that you love and unlike anything else i share that to remind you to chase your dreams and to always take your creative pursuits seriously as always i'm haley thank you for joining me on creator sessions make sure to leave a comment on what resonated with you most and most importantly go follow ben and his creative journey the best advice that was given to me was given to me by one of my mentors harry benson was an iconic photographer photographed everyone in the last 50 years and harry would always say to me even while we're joking around to maintain a very serious focus on our jobs we all have fun careers we sing or dance or take photographs or make films but you must always maintain a very serious focus on your work um you know other advice given to me one of my other heroes was mary ellen mark that always said the most important question that you must ask yourself while you're creating is to find the truth and i always was puzzled by that advice i thought it's quite cryptic but if you ask yourself on a daily basis is this the most truthful picture i could be taking today have i asked myself truthful questions am i asked that of people around me and it doesn't have to be in a negative way it's a very serious question but i i think if you maintain that central question of finding the truth in everything you do you'll succeed more than you fail and another piece of advice given to me was chris doherty who was a photo director at new york magazine and i was a young photographer i started working for him and i came to a pre-production meeting and i showed him all these different ways i could photograph this project and they were sort of references to other people's careers or work and chris said i why why are you showing me this i want you to show me how you photograph people because i hired you for you and i've never forgotten that line because it reminds me every day that you need to find your own path you can be inspired by other people you can emulate other people's careers but you must find your own way forward and that's to have pride and sort of strengthen your own creative choices that every little choice you make leads up to the output that is you and it's your story so own it and go forward with that you

2022-01-11 03:04

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