Wide Angle Sounds by Ben Clark
Besides being my go-to photographer for Giant Robot, my friend Ben Clark has taken pictures for the likes of Paul Frank, Emerica, Vans, Transworld, and Yo Gabba Gabba! But before Ben used cameras for a living, he shot for fun. When I heard about his most recent project, Wide Angle Sounds, which entails printing up some of his old, favorite shots of bands like Fugazi, Unwound, The Make-Up, and Rocket From The Crypt and putting them online, I was stoked and wanted to find out more. Hence, this Q&A. Holiday shoppers take note: the hand-printed 5”x7” shots are affordable, easy to frame, and cooler than crap.
MW: How did you get into photography?
BC: My aunt was really into it and my dad was quite the hobby photographer, so I took a couple of classes in high school. I enjoyed the darkroom process but stopped taking pictures due to my interests in skateboarding, playing in bands that fell apart, etc. Then I revisited it during my third year in college when I got into going to shows. I wanted to be involved in what was happening musically without being in a band and started taking my camera to shows.
Quite a few people brought cameras to shows, so I tried to make my pictures a little different. I was really into Jim Jarmusch and felt that if you took any of his frames from Down By Law or Mystery Train, they would make great photographs. I think that’s why most of my shots are horizontal rather than vertical. I always tried to get everyone in a band in the frame, too.
MW: What do you like about shooting bands?
BC: Music reflects who you are as an individual. In his book The Psychic Soviet, Ian Svenonius says that music is like religion because we define ourselves with the style of music we listen to. I think he’s right. We get into heated debates about what music is good and bad, and if someone insults the style of music we’re listening to we tend to take it personally.
MW: How did you choose which ones to share via your site? Can you tell me about when and where they were shot?
BC: Well, I was at a weird spot with photography and had to rediscover what it was that I enjoyed about it. That led me back to my older photos. The ones I’ve chosen for Wide Angle Sounds are probably some of my favorite and best shots from the mid ’90s. I never get bored printing up those images because they’re some of my favorite bands. When I’m printing up Unwound, I love being in the dark and just blasting New Plastic Ideas through my headphones. Fugazi were great because they would never use a venue’s colored stage lights. Instead, they’d use regular white-balanced tungsten. I remember at one show they had a couple of Tota-lights at each end of the stage, which made for nice available light.
You’ll notice some of the same venues in the pics because those were the places I liked to see the bands. Each had just the right environment for me to shoot the way I like to. At Jabberjaw, for instance, I discovered that if I bounced the flash off the 20-foot ceiling, it would create a nice blanket of soft light. That wasn’t a technique I saw too many people doing back then. And because you’d have to compensate for opening up the f-stop to get a shallow depth of field, it would really show if you weren’t in focus. It was so dark at Jabberjaw, I usually had to guesstimate.
MW: You’re developing the prints by hand, right? What goes into each one?
BC: I am printing all my own pics at this point. I’m a stickler, and tend to go through a lot of paper before I get it to where I think something looks great. I also like to use a certain type of paper and have to do a test for each new emulsion I get. I tend to spend quite a bit of money and time per print, and it can easily take me from half to a whole day on a large print. Like the picture of Guy from Fugazi on the mic stand is a pretty contrasty neg, so I gotta go in and dodge and burn certain areas. My exposure will be like 30 seconds at f8 or 11, but I’ll have to burn in an extra 10-15 sec in different areas of the print that are a bit on the hot side. And sometimes I like to swap filters out of the enlarger to get different contrasts. As a result, there are minute details that differ with each print. It’s kind of a jazz-improv technique, but in the end I just try and make the prints look great.
MW: You were shooting digital exclusively for a while, but now you’re bringing an old Leica to shows. What’s that like?
BC: When I decided to start shooting film again I really wanted to get back to 35mm. Leicas have always interested me because a lot of my favorite photographers used that camera and the design hasn’t changed much since the ’40s. I got a great price on a used one, and it’s really a different way to shoot because it’s not the fastest camera. It’s not easy to load the film–especially in a dark room–and the film advance is kinda slow, but I enjoy its limitations. And I’ve always heard about how much sharper range finders are than SLRs, but I had no idea until I started shooting my Leica. It’s kinda revitalized picture taking for me.
But I’m no photo snob. Many of the pics I took at Jabberjaw were shot with a handed-down Minolta with a $150 dollar wide-angle Vivitar lens that I thought was super expensive. At the time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into…
More info on Wide Angle Sounds here.