Behind the Image: Ben Morris on Progressive Photography and the Power of People

Behind the Image is an ongoing MODELS.com series taking a more personal look at both established and emerging creative talent.

image courtesy Ben Morris

Ben Morris, photographer

Hometown: London
Based: Sydney
Representation: M.A.P Management & Production (Sydney)

How would you describe your work?
I try and do something different with each job, or personal project I take on. I think it’s hard asking an artist to describe their own work, art is an interpretation for other people. I always think if you hang a photograph on a wall and 100 people walk past it and take a look at it then you’d have 100 different opinions, I guess I think of my work like that. I think if you are stuck in one motion with any art form it can define you, but progression is really about adaptation. Photography has always been for me a progressive thing, do you ever really finish your portfolio? Every shoot you do is in some way more exciting than the last, and you wait for that shoot to be published and then push yourself on the next shoot. I love energy, happiness and fun. Fashion is aspirational for sure, but I like telling stories and making pictures that (I hope) are different.

With everything I do I try and incorporate my background in art into photography, and each project you take on is different, but I always have the same vision in mind as an end goal. I think after a while it becomes a natural process. I don’t know, but I would hope that people would ask me to take pictures for them to get something a little different and exciting.

What’s your trademark?
Humility, be kind, be appreciative and grateful. With regard to my work, it’s not really for me to say!

How did you get into your chosen career?
It’s pretty cliche but I actually wanted to be a photographer since my mum and dad gave me a camera for my 13th Birthday, an Olympus OM 10. When I left school and went to art college I really immersed myself in studying and learning about photography, the history of photography, and its relationship with the art world. After art college, I was 18 and desperate to be in London, I set my sights on wanting to study Fashion Photography at the London Institute and worked as hard as I could for a year to get into that course. I spray mounted a sign with the name of the course above my bed, so I saw it every morning when I woke up as a reminder to get up and do something that day towards that goal.

I used to shoot documentary photography, after I left university I wasn’t certain that I wanted to work in fashion. I met Juergen Teller whilst studying and he told me to drop out of university and just take pictures, which I did. I always had a camera on me, I still do, it was nice to just be in London, to walk around, take pictures of observations, of people, of places, just moments.

Through my friends from University, we all hung out together and shooting fashion became more of a natural process that happened as a result of that. My first commission was for The Face Magazine, and from there I just worked really really hard. I think that’s the secret to anything really if you really want to do something to work for it. Photography is a really difficult industry, the elations and the rejections, when I was starting out I always used to think of the promotional poster for Lars Von Triers film “Dancer in the Dark’ – in which he had a 5-star review on the right-hand side of the poster, and a 1-star review on the left-hand side of the poster. That idea that a good piece of work divides people, always kept me going.

What other jobs have you had?
Well after leaving university all I ever did was Photography, it was pretty financially difficult for the first few years, to be honest, editorials were really what kept me going creatively and as those progressed I managed to start getting enough money jobs as well to get by, to pay the rent and to feed myself!

When I was studying at the London Institute I worked in Browns the fashion store on South Molton Street. I was terrible but they were very sweet, Joan Burstein probably should have fired me for being so rubbish at selling clothes, I just wasn’t a salesman, but I really loved talking with her and she taught me a lot about womenswear, about the fit of clothes, the elegance of fabrics, she really opened up a world of fashion understanding that was even more than what I was learning in college.

Before studying I literally had every job going, my first job when I was 14 was a dishwasher in my local pub, then scores of jobs as a barman, a commis chef, strawberry picker, painter and decorator and even a cleaner at MFI kitchen warehouse. Anything really to get me through art college.

What have you watched/heard/read lately that has inspired you?
With it being 2020 – a lot. Having lived in America for a decade and then coming back to Europe I have done a lot of self-educating this year. What’s inspired me the most is the power of people. Throughout lockdown, I was in London from March until July, it wasn’t easy, it was a tough period for everybody. Men don’t really talk so much about their mental health, but I found it inspiring talking to my male friends both in the creative industry and not, fathers like me, and people who were single. Inspiring doesn’t really cut it enough when it comes to the internal strength that comes from the loneliness of isolation, then on top of that finally the biggest progressive movement in my lifetime is happening right now, being able to stand shoulder to shoulder with people of all generations for the same cause which really we shouldn’t even have to be fighting for right now, but we are is inspiring. Teaching my boys about why we are is inspiring. 2020 is not an easy year, but maybe it was time that it had to happen.

I’m currently reading ‘Consolations of Philosophy’ by Alain de Botton, a must-read seriously, I’m a big fan of his books, I really enjoyed his book ‘A Week at the Airport’, which felt compellingly relatable.

I have watched a lot of shows and films of late, a lot to educate myself further and I think a lot to escape the mind. The ‘13th Amendment’ is crucially important, for a bit of escapism I have watched the ‘Great Beauty’ and ‘I am Love’ more often than I should have done, I’ve rewatched ‘The Lobster’ quite a few times of late, I really enjoy films that don’t follow the narrative of a beginning, middle and an end, films which are just a story.

What do you love about what you do?
I mean what don’t I love about being a photographer. Maybe the main one is meeting people. Travel is great, certainly, I wouldn’t have been to a quarter of the places I’ve been lucky enough to go to if I didn’t do this, but meeting people for me is always the biggest satisfaction, whether being able to photograph people or just spend time with new people, I don’t know many things you could do with your life with so much adventure as this.

Going back to gratitude as mentioned before, every day that you get to take pictures and be around other creative people is a real blessing. I don’t think whatever stage you get to – in your career, you should ever denote how lucky you are to be able to do that.

What have been the biggest challenges you have faced professionally?
Well, a lot, with any kind of artistic drive comes a lot of internal questioning. Working across the spectrums of fine art, fashion, and commercial you fundamentally work in 3 different worlds, all with their own accomplishments but also their losses. I think for any creative person in any industry it’s hard to be held in high regard for a shoot for one minute, and the next everyone moves onto the next set of images. Social media certainly makes artists more hypercritical of their personal work, what used to be published in a magazine a few months after you shot it is now on display within days or weeks on so many different platforms, sometimes it’s hard to keep your artistic integrity working to that kind of timeline and pressure.

What’s one thing outside of your work that you would like people to know about you?
That I wake up at 6 am every single morning to be up and around to spend time with my boys, and that I always whatever I am doing make sure I am there to put them to bed. That you can be a creative person and a father and that the two things work so wonderfully together.

Who do you think is one to watch?
I’ve been back and forth with this, and whether to do a list of people but given that I have the opportunity to give someone a shout out it would have to be Ross Thomas. A close friend, but an honest answer, I’ve known and worked with Ross for many years, and not only is he one of the best people I have in my life, his talent, honesty and drive to push himself and his work is second to none.

Selected Works

image courtesy Ben Morris

Hockney in Melbourne, New Years Day, 2016
I spent years playing with double, then multiple exposures on film, using a single negative. I still enjoy doing it to this day, it’s like creating an in-camera collage. To master the process is hard, to bracket the exposure, to think in multiple compositions and framing and to have no idea if it will work or not until you get the film back is a process and an adventure. This is my son, Hockney, on a trampoline in Australia six exposures on one negative on 645 film.

image courtesy Ben Morris

Arizona Muse for British Vogue, Clerkenwell, London, 2012
I remember having moved to New York and then to get my first commission for British Vogue, flying back to London and having a majority of locations planned out around where I lived in East London for the 5 years running up to my moving to New York. This was my favorite greasy spoon cafe in Spitalfields Market, maybe £3.00 for a giant full English breakfast. It wasn’t on the location list of the tech scout but we walked past the cafe and I popped in to say hello and ended up taking this shot and having a fry up. It was a nice memory of how you can have a fun normal ten minutes of laughing in the middle of a job.

image courtesy Ben Morris

Akiima for So It Goes Magazine, 2019
This was actually an outtake, I really loved the whole look and for some reason had an old roll of Kodak Portra 400 UC, which they had stopped making a fair few years ago in my bag. Once I’d got the shot, I wanted to give the UC a whirl and see if it was any good. I preferred the whole composition and energy of the picture, but as you can see the film had a red tint to it and I didn’t want to play around with it too much in photoshop and liked it how it was. I have a giant print of this image at home.

image courtesy Ben Morris

Josh O’Connor for The Last Magazine, 2019
I had really fun memories of this shoot, Josh is such a good actor and I had a lot to shoot in very little time really as I had to go straight from set to the airport (actually I went to Newark and was flying from JFK which taught me a big lesson about checking tickets carefully). Josh was a really good laugh and game for anything. We ended up shooting next to and around my first apartment in New York on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal street, got a kebab, chatted about football and had a few pints afterward. I somehow ended up making the flight despite going to the wrong airport.

image courtesy Ben Morris

Callum Turner, London, 2015
Everything kind of made sense about this shoot, it was my first time working with the stylist Mitchell Belk, who really does get menswear more than so many other stylists, it’s a real art form watching him work. We shot this in a pottery studio in De Beauvoir; Callum was actually making pottery as I shot, the final images were a wonderful collection of handprints I made in the darkroom then scanned that I still have to this day.

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