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Focus: Benjamin Davis

In this edition of Focus, we talk with Benjamin Davis about New Orleans, shooting house shows, inspiration, and anxiety.

Photo: Benjamin Davis

In this edition of Focus, we talk with Benjamin Davis about New Orleans, shooting house shows, inspiration, and anxiety.

Where ya from and where ya live?

I grew up in St. Francisville, LA (a small town north of Baton Rouge). Then lived in New Orleans for 7 years. Moved to Oxford, MS last fall for graduate school.

So why’d you come to New Orleans and what did you take from your time here?

I think I came to New Orleans mainly because I really didn’t want to end up back in another small town. Plus, I had already spent so much time in Baton Rouge during high school that I needed something new. Also, I saw Tyler Scurlock’s old band Sun Hotel when I was in high school and loved it. So I found out about that whole crew of bands and felt like New Orleans would make sense for college because of that. Also, my sister lives in New Orleans, so I knew I would have family down there. So when I got a decent scholarship it seemed like the thing to do.

And outside of photography, what're you working on?

Currently trying to finish my masters in archaeology. I'm half way done as of last Friday!

You shoot mostly musicians and house shows. Is that what you’re most passionate about?

I grew up in a really small town with the closest city an hour away. I also didn't have internet at my childhood home until my senior year in high school. I've always loved music, but had trouble getting access to it when I was young. So I missed the entire Limewire/Napster thing that all of my friends experienced. I think I just ended up having to make a deliberate effort to find out about new music (going to the library after school, going to my parents' office to use their work computer/internet). So I think that relationship with music has just continued in the sense that I think I still put in a deliberate effort to a degree. It's definitely become something that I care a lot about that has provided me with a lot of joy and comfort. I've been lucky enough to meet so many great people and make a lot of lasting friendships through music.

Your photos exhibit some pretty loud and expressive moments, but generally feature out a single musician, and maybe some surrounding listeners, which brings into focus a more intimate and quiet scene. Is that purposeful?

I think initially it was just a result of shooting live shows on 35mm film without a flash (how I shot live music for probably the first 3 years). When you're not using a flash in a dimly lit venue you have to use a slow shutter speed and a wide open aperture. So I couldn't really capture the super active moments of a gig because they would just turn out in a blur. I also just didn't own any wide angle lenses. I didn't buy any camera gear for the first 4 years of shooting. My friend Zak Lanius' dad gave me my first Pentax K1000 and a 50mm lens, and that's pretty much all I had for a really long time. So at first I was just working with what I had. But I think I have kind of started to lean into it in a more purposeful way over the years. I think a lot of people have a very intimate and quiet relationship with the music they love most, so I think I've realized that showing those kinds of moments in live performances can be just as exciting and important as moments filled with energy. But I love awesome action packed live photos – my friend Emily Quirk is one of the best music photographers out there and always seems to capture the most exciting moments on a stage.

“I think a lot of people have a very intimate and quiet relationship with the music they love most, so I think I've realized that showing those kinds of moments in live performances can be just as exciting and important as moments filled with energy.”

What kind of music are you most drawn to and why? Can you share with us a few of your favorite acts/musicians right now?

I grew up listening to all of my parents favorite songwriters (Bob Dylan, John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, Loudon Wainwright III, etc) so if someone is handling those styles in a way that seems good, new, or interesting, then I'm a sucker for it. But honestly, it's hard to say what draws me to certain bands/acts. If they're doing something sincere and interesting then I'll probably be on board.

Favorite current acts: Hand Habits, Bonny Doon, Deem Spencer, Grimm Grimm, Orion Sun, Kevin Krauter, Forth Wanderers, Amber Arcades, MorMor, Omni.

Favorite current New Orleans acts: Matt Surfin', Allegra Weingarten, Hu$hpuppy, Lena Fjortoft, Delish Da Goddess, Lawn, Buncho, Fishplate (DJs: DJ Heelturn, DJ Asics), Sharks Teeth, Video Age.

Do you have any photographers or artists in other mediums that greatly inspire your work? What about any mentors?

I don't really have any formal training in art of any kind. So I don't pull much inspiration from visual artists too often. But like everybody else, I've always really loved Eggleston. Primarily, I think I'm most inspired by the relationships I've made with the people and places i've come into contact with. I know that sounds super vague, but "place" is super important to me and really seems to affect me in a lot of ways. It's probably why I decided to get into archaeology – because it focuses on places and the people that fill them. My mentors have definitely been the other photographers in my life. My older sister, Anna, is a professional photographer and she basically sat me down and showed me how to use that first Pentax K1000 that I was given. My close friend Julia Bee is a great photographer who has definitely inspired me to stick with it over the years.

What has photography taught you?

If you ask my close friends they'll probably tell you that I'm a bit of a stressed out person who's full of anxiety (which is true, haha). But photography tends to force me to relinquish a lot of that anxiety. With photography, you've got the settings on the camera, but unless you're in a studio with lighting gear, that's about all the control you have. So in that sense I think it's taught me a lot about letting go of trying to necessarily seek out a really specific outcome. I end up having to work within the conditions that have been provided a lot of the time, and I think it's helped me work towards more patience and contentment.

“But photography tends to force me to relinquish a lot of that anxiety. With photography, you've got the settings on the camera, but unless you're in a studio with lighting gear, that's about all the control you have.”
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