There’s like a world inside a painting, an interview with: Ben Rector

The musician talks about his pivot toward amueter photography

It’s been said that if it weren’t for the New York City blackout of 1977, during which enterprising DJs looted big box stores for equipment, hip-hop might never have taken off as a genre. Whether, down the line, a scene might emerge sporting spiffy new gear bought with the stimmy is tbd. For now, it can at least be said without any prognostication that it helped Ben Rector— who records as dust from 1000 yrs—expand his title beyond musician to musician-photographer

“When the pandemic started and we got stimulus checks (and then I started getting unemployment that was like actually more than what I made at my job), it was like “well, I should buy a camera.” 

He’s been frantically taking photos since: as many as 300 in two hour’s time. When I reached out to Ben in the first week of April, it was to ask if he’d speak about his music. (It came recommended from Johnny Steines, aka Blue Ray, who, in turn, came recommended from @, whose new album, Mind Palace Music, you ought to lend your ears. “what is consuming my mind and my time right now,” Ben wrote in his email, are pictures. 

I looked at the pictures. I liked the pictures. We had ourselves a chat. 

Me: Tell me about your photography practice

Ben: The way I do photography is an extension of how I’d spend my free time anyway: I’m just running around, going to different places, riding my bike and finding different parks, stuff like that. I’ve been in Boston for five years but it still feels new to me. It’s still exciting to just go downtown for no reason at all and just see downtown. I come from a pretty small town in Indiana so it’s a lot different to me. I do a lot of street photography because a lot of times I feel like going to the city, but sometimes I feel like going to the woods, so I try out landscape stuff. My practice is, whatever I’m wanting to do in life, I just try and also take pictures when I’m doing it. 

Me: I noticed that you don’t take too many photos of people or at least people aren’t your central object. Was that a particular choice you made not to photograph human subjects? 

Ben: I want to do more of that. What I really want to do is documentary photography. I try to do street photography and I try to get people involved. I’m a little bit of an introvert so it’s always been hard for me to talk to people out of the blue. And then with people wearing masks, it’s hard to make an easy connection that way. It’s been a pretty slow process of me challenging myself to get out of that shell and actually engage with people more and have my photography be more of a social thing. I run around a lot and I take a million pictures and I pick out what I see as the best pictures and I don’t exactly know what I’m going after all the time but it’s like I want it to have the same effect as my music; for it to make an emotional connection. I want my photography to be people-centered. It’s slowly evolving toward that, hopefully.

Me: Do you ever find that people in public get weirded out when a camera is pointed at them? 

Ben: It’s happened a couple of times. One thing I really like to do is catch the moment when somebody makes eye contact with me. No matter what’s going on, it could be a totally mundane scene, that makes for a great photograph because you still capture the candid street scene, but then you get a little bit of magic of a portrait of someone actually making direct eye contact. Usually, when that happens, people might be confused or sometimes they’re just amused by it. A lot of times, they recognize it for what it is. They’re like, “Oh, you’re a photographer doing photography” and it’s not a big deal 99 percent of the time.

Me: I went out with my friend a month ago and she was taking photos. She wanted to take a photo of these people and she was just gonna do it candidly, but I thought it was sort of voyeuristic. 

Ben: Yeah

Me: So I said, “Why don’t you go ask them if you can take their photo.” And then she did and they were nice and they were fine. It made me think about how because cameras are so ubiquitous these days, there’s something creepy about taking a photo of someone; whereas, if you were a photographer in the 1970s people would be like, “Oh my god, you took my photo? That’s so incredible. How can I get a copy of it?” 

Ben: It is a little bit voyeuristic. I think it depends on what your subject is and how you approach the situation. If I’m taking a picture of somebody without their permission, it’s usually more about the scene going on. It’s not about that particular person as an individual, as a subject, but more like the whole context of what they’re doing and the space that they’re in. I think the whole nature of street photography is voyeuristic because you are trying to capture a picture of something going on where you don’t want that thing to know there’s a camera involved. Like you want it to be a natural street scene where nobody’s posing, nobody’s affected by what you’re doing, and you’re just a removed observer, which is, by definition, voyeuristic. And I think what a person has to do in that situation is try not to be exploitative about it and try not to bother a person. If I ever feel like I'm bothering somebody, I back off

I don’t want someone to get upset by what I’m doing. Nothing’s worth making people upset so that’s like number 1. I’m just an amateur. I’m not trying to sell anything. I’m not trying to make any money off of anybody else’s image, basically. I don’t even know how I would. I’m trying to sell prints right now and it’s like all I can think that people would want to hang on their wall is pretty pictures. That’s fine. So the street photography thing is just a personal artistic thing that’s like a process that’s just for me. 

Me: Do you have influences? People whose work you admire? 

Ben: I wouldn’t say that there’s anything too strongly that influenced me, but when I first got a camera, I was looking a lot at some of the older photographers, like Robert Frank and Fan Ho and Ansel Adams, Garry Winogrand. A lot of people that are just really common. Like, the most famous photographers. I’ve been influenced more by painters throughout my life and I haven’t paid a whole lot of attention to photography. I’ve always loved going to art galleries and see people like David Hockney, van Gogh, and Rembrandt. I pretty much love all kinds of different things; all different kinds of styles. I’m influenced by a million different things, but nothing particular. I just turn it into a soup and do my own thing. 

Me: What about David Hockney makes you excited? 

Ben: The simplicity. The simplicity brings out the compositions more and the mood is really weird and intriguing to me. There’s not a whole lot going on, but in the emotional space it’s just dense as hell and it’s hard to explain why. It gives you weird feelings basically. I’m attracted to that sort of thing in art where it’s like it’s not easy to fit into any sort of category and the things that it brings out is harder to define

Me: Do you think that your work follows that same idea? Is it hard to define? 

Ben: I mean, I would like to go in that direction. I think the stuff that I’ve done that I like the best is stuff that breaks rules. 

Me: What would you say is the point of pictures? 

Ben: The point of art in general, to me, it’s just like your eyes want to see something different that looks cool. And that’s what art does. It’s as simple as your brain needs something other than the stupid, mundane things that you have to look at all day long. 

Me: I’m reading this book [What it Means to Write About Art]. It’s this guy [Jarrett Earnest] and he interviews art critics and one of them was saying that a painting has a presence. And it’s just an object; it’s no different from a chair. But it so clearly is different from a chair because when you walk into a room and you see a chair, even if it’s a nice chair, you don’t behold it the way that you do a painting. 

Ben: There’s like a world inside a painting. Something about another person making a world that you can peer into, to me, it’s like a supernatural experience. It’s something that’s beyond science and can’t be explained by psychics. It’s almost like a psychic thing. It’s like magic. Somebody could craft a chair, you could look at a chair from the 1500s or something that somebody hand-crafted and get the same thing as a painting. But a manufactured chair, nobody put their psychic energy into that for you to see. Like, normally, you can’t see somebody’s psychic energy, but then when they put it on a paintbrush, you can see it. 

Me: I definitely feel like Hockney is in his paintings

Ben: Yeah, yeah. It’s his world that he lives in. The nature of art is they’re showing you the world that they live in. You’re not seeing the room that he painted, you’re seeing the room that he sees with his eyes. 

Me: What type of camera do you use? You do digital, right?

Ben: I do digital. I use a Canon [EOS] Rebel T7. It’s the cheapest thing you can get. I’m pretty poor and I’m clumsy. I can’t spend too much on a camera or a lens because I’m going to break it. It’s just gonna happen. And also I can’t afford to care too much about the technical side of things. I did get a film camera and I’ve so far shot four rolls of film on it that I’ve just felt like I can't afford to develop. A digital camera’s good because I can go off the wall and take a picture of a sewer grate and take a picture of every pigeon that I see and it’s not a big deal. 

Me: So you find that having the unlimited ability to take as many photos can be fit onto one of those cards or whatever, that inspires you more than the constraints of having 24 photos that you can take? 

Ben: The digital camera’s good for me, right now, because I’m just figuring out how to take the best picture of the thing that I’m trying to take a picture of and hopefully at some point it’ll just be a natural thing in my head where I won’t even think about it. I’ll be like, “This is the scene, these are the settings” and at that point I can do film photography a majority of the time, once I get to that point, if I ever get to that point. 

Me: When you get home and you have all these photos, what is your editing process like? Do you delete a ton of the photos that just didn’t work for you? How do you organize it?

Ben: All of my editing is like two weeks behind basically and I’m starting to think that’s a good thing. It gives me a little time apart from the pictures that I took so I can forget the situation and just look at it from a neutral viewpoint. 

Me: Do you think it’s really a neutral viewpoint, though? 

Ben: If I forget a lot of the context, then the picture that I’m looking at I can find those questions that a random person would ask about a picture. Like, you have a picture of something and it gets them wondering what the picture’s about. A picture that tells a story or leaves you wanting more to the story. If I take pictures and I come home that same night and start looking through them, I won’t see all of the traction available in each picture. Anything that I’m like “I would never want to show anybody that” I just end up deleting it. I’m like, “I can’t learn anything from this obviously bad picture so I’m just going to delete it.” 

Me: How do you think music informs your photography? 

Ben: There’s almost zero technical analogue between the two, but there are things about editing photos that are really similar to editing music. Like applying EQs and effects to your songs in the recording process is really similar to putting filters on your photos.

In music, you want to try and get the best take that you can. You want to try and play as good as you can. That’s number 1. And then number 2 is you want to get the best recording that you can. And then, number 3 is the editing part where if you got the first two good the third one you do as little as possible. And in photos, it’s the same way. You want to be looking for the best photo to take. And then, number 2 is you want to have the right settings on your camera to get the best photo possible and you get those two right and the editing process, you do as little as possible. It doesn't always work out that way.

I’ve taken photos that are bad and then I’ll be like, “well, let’s turn this slider a little bit and see what happens” and then it’s like, “Oh, that looks kinda cool. It’s completely unnatural and doesn’t look anything like what I saw that day, but it looks cool.” And to me, that’s all that matters with art. It’s like, “Does your picture look cool?” Then that’s cool. That’s art.