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‘America is the ultimate outsider country.’
Gems in this
Ben Baker has photographed some of the most iconic people on the planet. Originally from Adelaide, Australia, he landed his first job as an assistant to Annie Leibovitz in New York, and his professional trajectory since then has been meteoric.
He assisted legendary photographers Mary Ellen Mark, Harry Benson and Mark Seliger before setting up his own studio, and has photographed four US presidents, Warren Buffett with Jay-Z, Michelle Obama, and LeBron James, for titles such as Forbes, Rolling Stone, Time and Life magazines, to name but a few. We spoke to Ben about creative life in New York, connecting with the city, and an unexpected project called Conedogs.
On your first break in New York
I had a mate in New York — it’s always a friend of a friend. Sebastian Thaw is a photographer and he knew Annie’s studio manager. They were looking for someone to help. Annie was starting a women’s book with Susan Sontag and they were looking for a small team, so I turned up to their studio for an interview — I was so naive. My portfolio was awful. But naivety can be one of your greatest qualities. Annie came out and asked, “What about this picture?” I was like, “That’s me shooting horses at the racetrack… and just the light floating around.” It was the dumbest thing I could say. “What are you doing tomorrow?” she asked. “There’s a Vanity Fair shoot… with Diane Lane.” It was funny, I was like, ‘Ahh, let me check my schedule…I could be busy.’ Yeah, right! Ha ha! I ended up working with Annie as an assistant for a year or so. I think we connected on a human level — we definitely didn’t connect because of my skills. They were nowhere near good enough.
On being an outsider
I think everybody in New York is an outsider. It’s the ultimate outsider town. New York is a town where you can show up, but people will find out very quick if there’s nothing behind the frontage, and if you’re empty, you’re gonna get pushed away pretty quick. Annie Leibovitz was a military kid who bounced around the world, and what a life she’s had and witnessed. Harry Benson was a poor kid from the wrong side of town, Mark Seliger from Rolling Stone was an orthodox Jewish kid outside of Houston, Texas. There was no clear path for these guys, but the forces of nature don’t come from the inside. The real ones, when we look back at history — Basquiat and generally the ones who get through — they’re outsiders. America is the ultimate outsider country.
On making a name in New York
I once told some students of mine, these French kids that were coming to the city, that New York does not give a fuck that you’re not here now. New York is not going to give a fuck when you’re here. And when you leave, New York is not gonna give a fuck that you ever left. Are you okay with that? And they were like, ‘What is he saying?’ But that’s what I think; it honestly doesn’t care.
Having said that, it can be the most incredibly caring city. It’s incredibly kind. It’s the most generous city that I’ve ever lived in, and I’ll be grateful forever. But at the same time, it’s brutal! There is nothing like a great day in New York, and also nothing worse than a terrible day in New York.
‘Annie was starting a women’s book with Susan Sontag and they were looking for a small team, so I turned up to their studio for an interview — I was so naive. My portfolio was awful. but naivety can be one of your greatest qualities.’
On creative inspiration in New York
I have a little studio down the road from where some of the most important historical photos were taken, including the photo Matthew Brady took of Abraham Lincoln when he came to New York in 1860 to speak at the Cooper Union Address. It was one of the most significant speeches in American history, and the fact that I would walk past where Brady’s studio was, daily, felt like I’m walking in the steps of these heroes, where these historical pictures were taken. Irving Penn’s stuff, Avedon’s stuff. History happens in that place over and over and over, and I have deep respect for it. Someone once said, anyone who is doing something interesting in the world will pass through New York at some point.
On connecting with high-profile people you photograph
When I photographed Obama, it was a stressful day because it was a big Fortune shoot. The first thing I said to Obama was to ask him about his time in Indonesia. I knew he’d spent a lot of time there as a kid — his Mum took him there — and I’d spent a bit of time in Indonesia as a kid also, because we were reasonably close in Darwin. So I said to Obama, ‘I was in Indonesia as a kid also,’ and there was an immediate human connection because he had been there too. So the question is, what do we connect on? You’re a billionaire and I’m not. You’re a president and I’m not. It doesn’t matter. Do you like cricket? He’s a huge basketball fan and I’d actually already photographed LeBron for the cover of Fortune, so I shared that and we got talking about basketball too.
‘It’s the most generous city that I've ever lived in, and I'll be grateful forever. But at the same time, it’s brutal! There is nothing like a great day in New York, and also nothing worse than a terrible day in New York.’
On what you enjoy most about photography
The purity of the process. The joy of being in the room with people, even people I despise; the human connection and the conversation. I try, and I don’t always succeed, because sometimes these are very serious people. But still, there’s always human connection. You have to understand that it’s human connection first, photograph second.
On generosity in America
I’ve always found the American spirit incredible. They’ve been challenged as people, and they have a challenged history, but there’s a spirit of fight and a spirit of belief. Americans can be stunning with their generosity. I’m a privileged white kid from Australia, and I’ve always felt conflicted that the handouts to me are unfair, and that’s obviously in relation to the dialogue that’s in the world right now. Finally.
On sacrifices you’ve made mastering your craft
I’ve sacrificed a lot and given up a lot of time with mates and family to focus on my work, but what it’s given back to me in return is incredible. You have to believe that you have the right to be in that room, and you have to be confident that you’ve done your homework. You've got to somehow go in and tell the story of that person, of our time, of this place, in one frame. And that’s really hard to do.
On a defining moment in your career
There’s a moment in your career when it’s like, ‘It’s fine, I’ve got this.’ And there were a couple of pivotal shoots for me that defined that. One was photographing Rupert Murdoch. He could sense that I was nervous and he basically said, ‘You’ve got this. Step it up kid, I’ll do anything you want to do. The better you are, the quicker I get outta here.’
‘There was no clear path for these guys, but the forces of nature don’t come from the inside. The real ones… Basquiat and generally the ones who get through, they’re outsiders. America is the ultimate outsider country.’
On a favorite photographer
What Harry Benson has done and seen — Martin Luther King, The Beatles, Ali, Bobby Kennedy — he’s just a legend. He’s the one that made me wear a suit and tie wherever I went. Harry’s one that told me that, as a photographer, it’s your room, and if you don’t own that room the second you walk in, you’re cooked.
On photographing Presidents in the White House
My Dad said to me once, ‘Just go and enjoy yourself, kid. Even if you fuck this up, can you at least enjoy yourself? At least you have a good story photographing these guys, and had fun.’ So at the least, you need to enjoy the process. I’m meticulous in the work that goes into planning a shoot — every piece of equipment, everything I’m going to say or do throughout the process — but then you have to be so open to just fucking up! Like things that go awry that are just out of your control. You just have to be prepared to work incredibly hard to get it right.
‘I started sailing down at Battery Park, and I've since realised, without that, I couldn't have survived... It's the most peaceful thing. That would give me my quiet, and a sense of community too because there are people there from all different backgrounds.’
On photographing Donald Trump
He is the show ’n’ tell con man. The snake oil salesmen. I see him in the film There Will Be Blood, he is that character. He’s the guy who shows up, sells you some dud stuff, then gets out of town. He’s the biggest hoax of all time.
Ahh, Conedogs… For a fun project it actually started off from a heavy place. I was with a woman who was a dog fanatic and we used to walk down the street in New York and laugh at dogs in cones. She passed away, but we were going to do the project together as a book because there hasn’t been a book published on cone dogs. It’s ridiculous! The project is not so much about the dogs as it’s about us — how we love these dogs and telling stories through the dogs. At least that’s my take on it.
On something hard to get used to in New York
Sometimes the unnecessary tension. There are just so many people pushing to get ahead. I had to really learn to chill, even if it was just going to get a sandwich. To me, the epitome of speed in New York is getting a sandwich at the deli, because there are ten people in line and if you’re like, ‘Do I want pickles…?’ People are like, ‘Just hurry the hell up!’’
On finding community in New York
I started sailing down at Battery Park, and I’ve since realised, without that, I couldn’t have survived. I’d just get onto one of the little twenty-six footers and sail out onto the Hudson in front of the Statue of Liberty. And it’s the most peaceful thing. That would give me my quiet, and a sense of community too, because there are people there from all different backgrounds. Sometimes people just forget that New York’s actually an island.
On one thing to do when visiting New York
I would definitely go to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, when museums are all re-opened, to walk in the footsteps of the people who have been here before you and understand why New York is the way it is. I would take people to Ellis Island to get the sense of the astonishing immigrant stories. Those two things mean the world to me in understanding New York.
On window seat or aisle
Always window. I still find the concept of flying in a plane astonishing. It’s easy to get jaded but it’s an astonishing concept to come out of this capsule at the other end and you’re in a faraway land. I’ve never lost the magic of that. The joy of it. Always window.
On sounds you like to travel with
Walking through cities, I don’t usually like to listen to music that much because I like to listen to people, to be connected to the people that you’re about to photograph or meet. But having said that, listening to the soundtrack to Hamilton is incredibly inspiring while walking through the streets of New York City. And I’m not even a musical person.
On New York in one word