07 September 2022
At the Intersection of People and Place with Ben Thomas
Having previously worked in video and animation in Adelaide, it was a move to Melbourne in 2005 that set Ben Thomas on the pathway to pursue photography professionally.
Armed with a camera to capture his new city and surrounds, Ben’s career quickly started to gather momentum with the advent of his Cityshrinker project in 2007.
Applying what was at the time a rather novel concept in tilt shift, the project gained Ben plenty of exposure, before ultimately leading to a reassessment about the kind of work he wanted to produce.
The interest in tilt shift techniques came about after viewing an Olivo Barbieri tilt shift image at NGV. “It completely blew my mind,” Ben explains. “I had no idea how to produce an image like that and walked away contemplating how I might incorporate a technique like that into my own work.”
Months of experimentation with tilt shift imaging and colour treatments followed, before Ben settled on the template that would form the basis of Cityshrinker. The impact the project had was almost instantaneous and the following half a dozen years proved incredibly fruitful for the series.
Yet, despite the recognition that the project received, as fashions of the day inevitably strayed from tilt shift photography, it also resulted in the pigeonholing of Ben’s work. “It was a crazy period of time starting with a process and picture style that was relatively unique to a completely oversaturated market where every phone had a tilt shift filter and worse, I was referred to almost exclusively as ‘that tilt shift guy’.”
The period left Ben feeling burnt out and upon wrapping up Cityshrinker, he decided to take some time away from photography. This period would become pivotal in setting up the next chapter of Ben’s career and the next story in his life’s work.
By the end of that residency, I had the foundations set for my next chapter of work to begin.”
“During the time away from the camera I had the opportunity to think about what I wanted to do next. I spent time looking at art and reading more about some of my favourite artists such as Smart, Hockney, Gursky and Eggleston,” Ben recounts. “I had the great fortune of having a two-month residency at the Villa Lena Foundation in Tuscany where for the first time I could completely dedicate myself to my work and started the process of experimentation.”
That experimentation consisted of traversing across Europe, talking to people in each city about why they loved the cities they lived in and developing a project from the ground up that felt distinctively authentic to Ben. In his own words, “by the end of that residency, I had the foundations set for my next chapter of work to begin."
That next project, Chroma, encapsulates all that is celebrated amongst his work. As Ben himself understands, at its core his photography is the concept of better understanding the intersection of people and place. Responding to abstract concepts, such as what people’s surroundings mean to them, challenges perceptions about what photography can say in the discussion of the evolution of our built communities; a discussion that Ben’s work sits at the forefront of.
As Ben himself understands, his work is at its core the concept of better understanding the intersection of people and place.
Pragmatically, part of Ben’s approach has consisted of shifting to medium format cameras such as Hasselblad. As he suggests, “having more megapixels is great but the increased dynamic range has allowed me to push my practice beyond what I had anticipated, translating to much higher quality print production at the end of the process.”
Ben’s work has taken him all over the world and presented opportunities many photographers could only dream of. He suggests capturing the artwork for a New Yorker Magazine short story some years back was his most memorable shoot, and when prompted about what is on the horizon, Ben mentions a small body of work shot in Lisbon, but can’t elaborate further at this time.
What is clear, however, is that the sensitive capture of people and architecture will always be central to the work that Ben Thomas publishes the world over.