A Whisper of Elements: Interview with Benjamin Sumner Franke [Soulcraft]
Exclusive Interview with Benjamin Sumner Franke [Soulcraft], 1st Prize Winner, Stocksy United Photography Award, 2019 Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize
Through the lens his photographic eye pierces his subject gently, and like a dance Benjamin Sumner Franke nourishes the creative voice of his masterful vision. Breathtaking locations and a sense of surrealism further the expression of each feminine form that glides in delicate movement, celebrating nature and captivating the viewer with tranquil, sensual, and emotive narratives.
Interview with Benjamin Sumner Franke [Soulcraft] by Angelique Joy
What do you believe it means to be an artist and how did your creative path begin?
It’s hard for me to put a finger on exactly what art is with so many opposing opinions and movements in our history. It’s something I regularly question. To me, an artist in any case is someone who practices a form of creative expression, braves years of focused study, and remains committed to sharpening their craft. This could be any specific art form. Beyond that, I believe it is possible to be an artist at heart, embodying this focus and creativity within everything one sets their focus on.
I believe all arts share a synthetic overlap, fundamentally the same, yet divided in subject and application. Cooking is an art of balancing various flavors and aesthetic qualities of ingredients to craft a well composed meal. Just as when painting, the colors and qualities of paint laid in a particular manner create a beautiful image. Music, a balance of rhythm and melody, imbuing sound with emotion and beauty. Imagine the visible spectrum, hues laid out like the scales of a piano, play the right combinations of color and you create beautiful visual harmonies. A song is a painting. A painting, a song. Each practice is a dance of senses that meet to create an experience. This crossroads is what I like to think of as art. All follow a set of fundamentals, tools, and techniques that allow a range of expression.
My creative path began as soon as I began to explore my senses; when I had a grasp on making noises, nobody could stop me. I invented languages, accents, songs, beats, and everything else I could imagine. In another life, or perhaps in the future, I’d absolutely pursue music. Early on, my mother introduced me to drawing, painting, and various crafts as soon as I could hold a pencil. There were so many fun way to express my ideas. I never stopped. When I discovered animation, bringing my visions to life in motion became a dream of mine.
My dad gave my brother and I a camcorder to play with and we made many ridiculous home movies together. He taught me how to record single frames if you double tapped the record button and I began creating stop motion animations. I made dozens of lego movies with full sets, fx, sounds, and music. Unfortunately, they were all lost years later when our computer’s hard drive failed. But it got me into practicing composition and telling stories in a visual form very early.
In seventh grade, a friend and I got really into action movies. We regularly studied the “behind the scenes” footage on the dvd’s of all our favorite films, building an understanding of the entertainment industry. The two of us began to write our own screenplay and storyboards based on what we learned. I began a concept art book of costumes, props, weapons, creatures, and vehicles that would exist in our story. Even after our little project fizzled out, I kept developing my own stories, full of concepts and channeled imagination. I dreamed of one day making these stories a reality.
After high school, I used my concept art and stories to apply to a school focused on visual design in the entertainment industry. There I studied the fundamentals of illustration and 3D modeling for animated films and games, later expanding to nearly every aspect of concept design. I spent many years learning anatomy, figure drawing and sculpting, painting in every medium, prop fabrication, and more, tying each focus back into the entertainment world. For example, human anatomy translates to inventing aliens and creatures for sci-fi and fantasy projects. Foreshadowing my current exploration, my mood boards and inspiration folders for my concepts and art were full of photos of nature, industrial design or architecture, and the feminine form. In 2016, I graduated with a BS in Entertainment Design from Art Center College of Design.
Since then I’ve been occasionally painting at transformational festivals, working in the entertainment world doing freelance, and running a techno-shamanism and festival-lifestyle inspired etsy shop. (@SolsticeSonDesign) For the most part, that loosely covers the last two and a half decades of art exploration, bridging into the murky waters of trying to make ends meet as an adult.
I intentionally don’t plan my photos the way I would a painting but my background shows through nonetheless. My influences lay in fantasy and sci-fi, the otherworldly and magical.
What is it about photographic image-making that drew you in and has kept you creating in this medium?
After graduating, I continued to meet many other students while renters transitioned in and out of my home. I became close friends with several photographers as they went through school. (@three60s, @saam_iaam, @keithoshiro, @youknowmatt, @mf_romasanta, @norirasmussen) I regularly helped with assignments, assisting them on studio shoots and jobs. All the while, I yearned to get behind the camera and took every opportunity to learn more from them. It occurred to me having spent so much time focused on my education, committed to the perfection of my trade, I had lost sight of everything beyond my bubble. Tunnel vision, out of touch with the outside world. Being around photographers was energizing. People on set were excited, there was life, adventure, real human interaction and connection. I had been inventing characters, fabricating worlds for almost two decades and trying to make them real. So had everyone I’d known in my career path. We lived in fantasy. This new perspective was a breath of fresh air, it was real and it offered a creative opportunity to get out there and explore.
It occurred to me that taking a photo was similar to painting the canvases I had spent years building images on, inventing believable lighting, plotting perspective, posing the subject, etc. But instead of building from scratch, photography is a process of controlling existing elements, seeking, and capturing. Yet, all of the lessons I’d learned about creating an image translated intuitively to that little viewfinder.
My new friends inspired me to start exploring photography. I ignored the urge for probably two more years until, after much soul searching, I concluded that exploring photography would help me grow and push me out of my comfort zone. After an intense job designing for a circus, I bought a professional camera and a ticket to Iceland, my grandmother’s homeland. I had never traveled that far on my own and decided to challenge myself with an adventure. During my two week stay, I traveled with several photographers and models, shooting for many hours a day and absorbing as much as I could. Before flying home, I decided to extend my stay another two weeks and travel the entire ring road with another model. Every step of our journey was another opportunity for self growth, challenges and rewards at every turn. Upon my return, I began booking more and more opportunities to travel and shoot. Each experience, another chance to grow, another set of challenges. Ultimately, I discovered that in many ways, the creative process and the magic I found through photography was deeply fulfilling. And therein, a name for the practice surfaced.
An activity that is nourishing to the soul; particularly fulfilling work or other activity. Something that shapes and modifies one’s soul or core being.
(my own addition: Both the vessel through which the soul expresses itself, and the act of doing so in a fully authentic manner.)
The figure is essentially an extraordinarily complex system of forms that can be subdivided into smaller and smaller forms. Each of these has a nearly infinite potential of variation but the fundamental structure is the same from body to body.
Your works are beautifully referential of the masters of fine art nude photography- how do you feel your works are unique from this tradition? How do you feel your works honour this tradition?
I appreciate that! Honestly I’m still learning of the noteworthy photographers of the past. Just recently, I went to the Unseen exhibit at the Getty and discovered the work of Anne Brigman. She was working with the same subjects in the early 1900’s and I find her work inspiring. I was also thrilled to see some of Alphonse Mucha’s photography, one of my favorite painters. In school, I studied concept artists, a relatively new breed of digital artists, and painters of the past. My favorites include, Sargent, Gerome, Bouguereau, Waterhouse, Mucha, and Leyendecker to name a few. I imagine my work differs as my focus in art for many years has been the flip side of photography. Strategically designing and mapping out composed images from a blank sheet as opposed to seeking them in real life. I intentionally don’t plan my photos the way I would a painting but my background shows through nonetheless. My influences lay in fantasy and sci-fi, the otherworldly and magical. My favorite images are those in which I capture these qualities as they exist within our world. My photos are captured on a digital camera, in many ways a completely different technical art than analog photography. The legends of the past didn’t have any of the technology we have today, but the practice was fundamentally the same. Capturing light in little slices of time to carry that moment far into the future. Be it their own controlled set or a fleeting moment in the flow of life, all of the photographers of the past were collectors of light, captors of time.
You exclusively shoot ‘female’ forms- why have you chosen not to shoot other body types?
My academic exploration of the nude figure began in life drawing and anatomy classes during school. As concept artists, some students knew exactly what they wanted to focus on during their career. For example, one student I knew was determined to only design weapons and props. His goal was to eventually be hired for this role on the creative side of the entertainment industry. He asked our life drawing instructor, “If I know what I want to do, why do I have to study the human form?” His answer stuck with me. Our instructor explained how artists for hundreds of years have focused on the figure not as a study of the human, but as a means to develop nearly every skill required in observational drawing. The figure is essentially an extraordinarily complex system of forms that can be subdivided into smaller and smaller forms. Each of these has a nearly infinite potential of variation but the fundamental structure is the same from body to body. Within each of these forms is another focus of observation and understanding. This practice teaches the artist to see the subtlety of proportions, foreshortening, and many other indications of form in a refined way and translate it to their art.
During my studies, I noted that the subtlety found in the feminine form was far more challenging to capture than the male. When drawing masculine forms, there are often many short lines and abrupt angle shifts. It’s bold and anatomy is often easy to reference, like a puzzle of muscle groups. With the feminine, these shifts are long, gradual, and gentle. These qualities of form occur to me as graceful, elegant. Within these shifts is clearer evidence of a mathematical beauty, geometry found nearly everywhere in nature, at every scale from tiny shells to galaxies. Whispers of the golden ratio.
Needless to say, my favorite subject to photograph is the fine nude, especially when juxtaposed or mimicking the shapes and textures of nature. These sweeping curves and delicate angles seem to whisper the silent names of the elements. The same subtleties are found in the intricate forms of nature, and likewise, emphasized by the dissonance of jagged and complex textures. When juxtaposed, these harmonies and contrasts celebrate the elegant beauty of the figure.
These harmonies are what I seek when capturing an image, either visibly as part of the environment or abstractly held in the emotion of a pose. Within flowing fibers of weathered wood, the same shapes hidden in a drifting breeze through her hair. A cracked lakebed, the same marks etch her thighs. Sandstone carved by water and wind, the same curves trace her hips, her collar bone, her spine. The feminine is nature and art in motion, alive and animated. Within the movements of the muse, a dance of mind and body in its most honest self expression, the alchemy of alignment, a glimpse of the soul.
When working with certain models I’ve experienced a transformative healing of sorts. The artistic nude is a symbol of peace, a celebration of humanity and nature, and a resistance against suppressed expression and somewhat vulgar media we’re bombarded with daily. So much of our world’s dogmas and judgement shape how we feel about our bodies, about others, and about being seen, appreciated, and accepted. The female body is often sexualized, objectified, and distorted, unfortunately some photographers bring this energy into their practice. The echoes of this toxic dynamic often surround male photographers, there is an understandably common lack of trust. These days, many people don’t know how they should experience nudity in a world clouded by shame and sexualized objectification. In the past few years I’ve witnessed the beginning of a shift surrounding this subject. There is an empowering celebration of self, a stand against wrongs of the past, a blooming of sorts, a metaphorical spreading of wings, and a new found freedom. It has become more and more clear that models, photographers, and artists are offering both men and women a chance to heal and re-evaluate their views of nudity, sexuality, and humanity in general. I’m happy to take part in and witness this metamorphosis.
Some locations are more difficult than others. It takes a brave model to do this kind of work and I often choose to work with those who understand outdoor work. It’s often cold, sharp, dangerous, and not necessarily legal.
Some of the locations look as if they may be challenging to shoot in- can you give us a rundown of what a shoot day is like for you and your team?
Some locations are more difficult than others. It takes a brave model to do this kind of work and I often choose to work with those who understand outdoor work. It’s often cold, sharp, dangerous, and not necessarily legal. But those who know and love this work are in it for the art and adventure, rain or shine. Depending on whether it’s a day shoot or a multiple day journey, we would head to the locations at times with the least amount of foot traffic. Iceland was both extremely difficult and at times surprisingly easy. I was there during the summer when the sun doesn’t set, so I would head out with a model at midnight or even later to the most crowded locations. Nobody would be out that late besides occasional photographers. When it wasn’t too windy or pouring icey rain (although we shot in those conditions anyways) we would get perfect golden sunset light for many hours. But sometimes, to get the shot during daylight hours, we would have to risk shooting between droves of tourists. This isn’t the norm though, we were intensely committed to getting incredible shots while we had the chance. It made me realize, I very much enjoy collaborations that share enthusiasm, have no time limit, and of which our sense of adventure is mutual. The kind of journey that can only be stopped by darkness, drained batteries, or the end of the film roll.
For any photography buffs- can you share what gear is in your kit? Camera? Lenses? Lights etc?
As for gear, I shoot with a Sony A7RII switching between 35mm Zeiss 2.8 and an adapted Canon 70-200 2.8 for shots in which I can’t get close enough. I’m hoping to eventually be able to afford more lenses for specific locations. I’ve recently been interested in wider lenses to explore more abstract angles and tight spaces like slot canyons. Last fall I started to shoot with analog cameras and experiment with different film stocks. Double exposure work is really fun and I have several rolls prepped to play with that technique. Last winter I was gifted a Mamiya 645 by @three60s and an RB67 my dad found in his closet. Both opened me up to the world of medium format and im excited to dig in. Apart from several Lomography toy cams, I absolutely love integral film. Polaroid and Fuji instant film is so fun to play with. I shoot with some old Polaroid 600 and Spectra bodies I bought on eBay. I just started to explore fuji’s film types and cameras and I’ve modded several Instax cams to attach to my RB67 to take advantage of it’s lens and longer shutter. Long exposure instant film night shots… epic. I’m planning to share some DIY tutorials to make these “FrankeNSTAX” film back mods on my Patreon. I might also sell pre-made backs as soon as I nail the process, keep an eye on my instagram if you like that stuff!
I found a screenshot from 2015 in my old reference folders of the mag’s Instagram, probably from the day I first discovered it. During my traditional art education I’d occasionally enjoy the mag in the school library, always inspired by all the creativity flowing through that channel. But I never created a cohesive set of work to submit. I was too interested in design and my major had me focused on inventing characters, costumes, environments, vehicles, props, and alien creatures. Although it has always been a dream of mine, the philosophies and subculture I was surrounded with during my education didn’t support art for art’s sake.
I was trained to be a problem solver, to invent and visually communicate original ideas in many different styles and genres for use in films and games. That path influenced something like an aesthetic and thematic attention deficit, always hopping from style to style, never having a solid voice. I once showed my portfolio to a prestigious illustrator, they said, “… where is your voice? This looks like a shotgun blast of a dozen different artists!” It’s true, industry demands versatility. Nonetheless, I was always in love with contemporary art, admired how some artists just know exactly what they want and march forward with stylistic cohesion.
I frequented local galleries over the years and regularly browsed the magazine shelves of the local bookstore. When I began assisting my photography friends, we would spend even more time at the bookstore studying fashion mags. But during one particular visit, I paid tribute to my roots and paged through the contemporary art mags. That’s where I discovered an ad for the Art Prize and was excited to see it was open to photography. I took a cell phone pic of the page and emailed to ask whether my work was appropriate. I tentatively sent a submission later that week.
What do you feel you have gained from this experience?
I gained a lot from this experience. For one, I learned not to doubt my work as much. I didn’t know what to expect and was so amazed by the acceptance and encouragement I received following my submission. With community guidelines and the Tumblr adult content crackdown, I’ve been concerned with whether this art would be accepted by others. Sometimes I get strange reactions from people who see my work and considering cultural norms, part of me understands. Just as well, part of me doesn’t. I’ve learned to share it anyways, every piece helps reshape judgement and redefine what is acceptable; a reminder of what is beautiful and honest beneath materialism.
The Art Prize also influenced my choice to explore parts of New York for the first time. The Haven Gallery exhibit curated by Beautiful Bizarre gave me an awesome reason to take on a city-wide Manhattan to Northport adventure. I visited galleries I’d heard of my entire life, enjoyed foods I’d never tried, and took some awesome photos along the way. At Haven, I made new friends and met so many amazing artists, who’s work I’d admired for years before. It was a great experience!
Would you recommend it and encourage others to enter? If so, why?
I would absolutely encourage others to enter, even just a single submission. As an artist, you may never know what others will think of your work. Everyone has a different perspective so all you can do is put your work out there and see what happens. This is a great opportunity to do just that. In the process of submitting, you’ll discover so many other inspirational artists. And visiting the gallery, winner or not, is an awesome chance to meet talented artists and see their beautiful work in person.
Along our creative path, as artists, while experimenting with different techniques and materials we each often tell and retell the same narrative- what do you feel is the overarching narrative you are telling with your work?
I think the overarching theme of my work is a bit abstract. As I said before, there is a dance between myself, the muse, and nature. Each of us plays a part, and when balanced, the best images leap forth. The dance is set in motion by the idea of presence. Depending on the location and style of posing that arrises, sometimes the models and images as a whole feel powerful, sometimes fragile. Various emotions arise but I most enjoy the gentle authenticity that radiates through when the muse truly connects with the space and herself.
I often ask the subject to connect with the space they find themselves in, open up to the senses stimulated by this place. To feel the core of this land, their place in it, their connection to it, and anything that occurs within that presence.
Observe each of the senses, what does this place say? Does the shape of this place dictate how they move? Do they seek balance on a precipice, are there cracks to explore, can it be climbed? What does it mean to be truly here and now? Within this presence is often some type of essence. It’s often very fleeting and hard to experience, but present in movement and what I capture visually. Beyond a gestalt, or essence, perhaps I dare to imagine that the land itself has a memory, a vibration that it holds within every particle. When we’re open to it, it speaks to us and through us. Some of my favorite shots come through when that presence occurs.
As with the model, I am also intuitively guided by the land, the arrangement of the land offers a range of movement and perspectives to explore. Do the rocks give me a vantage point, does this slope create a unique composition, are there canyon walls that limit my proximity to the model? Perhaps each land is like a song, the muse and I are set in motion through its peaks and valleys, its melody, rhythm, and harmony. What you see in my work is evidence of this dance, captured as a moment.