PictureTalks: Ben Munch

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This week our photography editor Ania Juszczyk sat down with photographer and printmaker Ben Munch to discuss his work, focusing on his experiences with analog photography.

What’s the first picture you remember taking?

I think my mom gave me one of these little disposable film cameras to take with me to summer camp. Most of the photos were bad because I was trying to take pictures of fire or something like that and you actually have to know what you’re doing. But the one time it worked, I don’t know why but I can still picture the photograph perfectly in my head. I don’t remember anything about it. It was just two kids, I guess one of them fell over and was just lying on the ground, and I took a photo of them with a point-and-shoot camera.

Later on, how did you become interested in taking pictures?

That’s such a tough question because I have distinct memories of shooting a lot. Obviously for my dad to buy me my first DSLR I would have had to already be interested in photography. So I don’t know… I guess the time I got more interested in it was 10th grade and then I dropped it off again to later pick it back up at university. And I’ve been shooting ever since.

How does that tie into your printmaking practice? Did printmaking come first?

Not at all. I’m sure you remember when in high school you were trying to make that print of the Shining girls: that was my first exposure to printmaking at all! I think I even wrote about that in applications, just messing around, setting the pressure, inking without knowing what I was doing. Later at uni I took an intaglio class, so etching in metal, which was ok but I think I did work exclusively from photographs in that class. In that case it was digital because that’s what I was shooting at the time. Later I was told lithography would be more appealing to me. I feel you can see more individual marks in lithography than etching. For me, it’s always been a natural process of turning my photographs into prints.

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You said you used to shoot digital but now you only shoot film: why’s that?

Big question. I do still shoot digital, for example on my phone or when I’m photographing my work. Digital photography is so much better in these aspects of documentation because of that instant feedback that you get and the power you have to edit the photograph. What that means is that analog photography, not having these things, to me is more true to the moment. A digital camera has a little computer, a machine that gets hit with light and decides “this is what I think is there”, with analog the light hits a physical object and transforms it into a photograph. In that way I feel it’s much closer to physical memory than a digital document is.

Do you not edit your pictures at all?

I need to get into the RE4 which is the process for printing color because when you scan a negative it’s the exact same process I talked about with digital photography. It’s an actual computer deciding what it sees and transforms this physical memory into a digital facsimile. This in our day and age is kind of essential if you want to show your work to people.

How does the way you scan the photo influence it?

Well, because it’s just a computer! Like with Photoshop you can tweak everything: the colors, white balance, all that because it’s just all sliders. And even with prints I suppose there is an element of editing.

How would you describe the type of photography that interests you?

There are the full-frame, textural photographs where the focus is on composition, and there’s another kind being the little people, big world ‘genre’, where it’s typically a landscape or architecture and the ‘little people’ who are not the subjects but elements of the composition. I find myself taking a lot of photos like that.

These do remind me of paintings a little bit!

Which I obviously take as a great insult as a printmaker! But some photos do feel too ‘Friedrichian’, it seems like with the one I’m working on right now I’m just copying “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog”.

But I guess maybe it’s a good thing when instead of doing typical landscape photography, you photograph landscape and then make it much more personal. Also, you draw your photos a lot - why’s that?

These are for a class called “Myth, Mystery and Meaning”. You choose a thing and then you reinterpret it and talk about the process. I chose the poems of Ossian, very influential in the eighteenth century. And I think I do like Friedrich and the idea of the ‘sublime’ that nature holds. The kind of beauty that humanity just can’t even get close to, and that it’s beautiful because of how powerful it is. And that’s what I’ve been trying to deal with in my prints.

According to you what makes a “good” photograph?

That’s a tough question. Because obviously I try to do my best to take a good photograph at the time, so when it gets developed it’s something I can be proud of.

So there’s a long thought process preceding taking it?

It’s not even a long thought process, more an instantaneous feeling that this is a moment that needs to be captured. In that regard every photo I get is something special because it captures a certain moment in my own experience that is striking to me and needs to be remembered.

I feel like with digital photography you often end up taking more photos than you should.

And that’s fine. I don’t want to dismiss your own practice but when you’re trying to take photos of a model, doing it on film is difficult because they always want to make sure that they look good and with film you can’t guarantee it. I’m a bit of a snob when I say that’s not real photography but I think it shouldn’t devalue it at all, I just think it’s valuable for different reasons.

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To what extent do you feel that your work is influenced by other photographers?

Not for inspiration, I look at them more of jealousy. All I’m exposed to now are people on instagram, and I think a lot of people feel this way deep down. Sometimes you look at people’s work who in some genuinely inexplicable way are more popular, and that evokes an insecurity. Obviously I go to art school and I always wonder if my work is good enough.  

I do feel like sometimes it evokes frustration rather than inspiration.

With some exceptions though! Check out George Byrne on instagram, he’s really good and I feel like single-handedly launched an aesthetic that is very popular now. Ultimately in my own practice though I’m not striving to take photos that other people will like, I’m trying to capture moments that are striking to myself. At the same time though, everything I see I’m absorbing. Also, Ian Howorth is really good, I can’t even put my finger on what it is. Everything he does is so good, I can’t even be angry at him: just really, really good.

How do you feel about being photographed yourself? I do hate it and I have a feeling you don’t like it either.

Obviously, people put themselves behind the camera for a reason. I can’t even take a selfie of myself. Not that you should be suspicious of people who do self-portraits but I guess photographically it just takes a different kind of person to do so.

Do you know what you want to focus on in the future?

Yeah, I think I touched on that more on less. Basically just to use my photography as means of gathering and then making prints. I’ve been getting more into color film processing, which is way harder to get hold of in Canada. Maybe after I graduate I will slowly acquire darkroom stuff so I can actually just shoot all the time and not have to pay ten dollars every time for someone else to do it for me. I’ve kind of got into my groove of image gathering and lithographic interpretation and as long as I have agency I will continue doing that. Reinserting myself repeatedly in the printmaking process, which is what you do with traditional printmaking, is important to my practice because it forces me to reinterpret the image constantly and think about what elements make it compelling. I think I’m on the right track, but I also think it’s important for other people to decide whether it’s an important track to be on.

Ben Munch is a fourth-year Fine Arts student from NSCAD University in Halifax, Canada, on an exchange at DJCAD in Dundee. His practice focuses on photography as a means of image-gathering, and producing large-scale lithographic prints therefrom. He’s been delving into the process of waterless lithography during his time at DJCAD, as well as doing his best to experience the sublime landscapes that Scotland has to offer.

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