Ben Cope: The World Through His Eyes
Writer: Madeline Rosene
This Wassily Kandinsky quote sums up photographer Ben Copes approach to art and photography. In fact, he has a slightly reworked version of it tattooed on his right arm. Ben sees a bigger picture than most and its full of people to dance and meet eyes with through the lens. It might sound cliche, but the world is Ben Copes canvas. Inside Ben Copes home and photography studio in Downtown Los Angeles you will find guitars and amplifiers, photo equipment, art books, sculptures, and just about anything else that requires a creative mind. “That is a photo of Kris Kidd and that is Sara Cummings. Ben pointed at the photos of his friends on the wall. I am interested in people’s emotions…I just want to grab the moments that you can’t ask for. That is my inspiration. I want to try to get a part of the person while I’m shooting.
MR: How did you get started as a photographer?
BC: I got into the fine arts department at Columbus State University in Georgia. My freshman year, I was just like, Fuck it. I am just going to take photography! even though everyone told me not to. I wound up taking a photography class every single semester of college. A lot of people say you should take all of your primary classes like drawing and painting but I just did not really care. Once I exhausted all of their things, I just started doing independent studies every semester. Photography has taken me a lot of cool places. I went to Edinborough to study alternative processes of printmaking and photography combined at the Edinborough printmaking workshop. I went to Normandy one summer. I went to Mexico one summer. I got to go out and travel and do fun stuff. I just continued to take whatever classes I could in photography and ceramics. That is how I got started. All I really wanted to do was move to New York and do something. I did not know what I wanted to do. I was ready to get out. I had done a lot of traveling. Photography can take you a lot of places. I somehow wound up on the west coast kind of by accident. I was just trying to get to New York. I applied to get my masters in New York. I wanted to go to Hunter College for their ceramics program but I did not get in. Randomly a friend of mine called me and said, Hey, I heard you are trying to move out. I am looking for a new roommate. $465. He was one of my classmates who I had done a lot of traveling with. He was living in Oakland. I said, Cool. I will see you in two weeks. I got in the car and drove across the country.
I have made my way down to LA. I went to Brooks Institute for Photography, which has since closed, for a second. I got a job down here as a lighting technician.
MR: So you did not set out to be a fashion and celebrity photographer in LA? Photographing celebrities was not your aspiration?
BC: I did not set out to do what I am doing. I just ended up here. I like forethought and planning but you have to go with what the world throws at you. I got a job as a lighting technician and dropped out of Brooks and moved to LA. That got me working with Mark Seliger, Steven Klein, and Mark Abrahams. I was assisting and flying all over the place for these big jobs. I thought, This is what I want to do. So I started shooting more and taking every opportunity to do something more.
MR: Is there a certain aesthetic or a certain kind of person you really enjoy shooting or that inspires you?
BC: I do not know. Greg Gormon: The guy I assisted for, for eight years, Kevin Lynch, he was Gregs first assistant for years. He would always joke around about Greg and how Greg would say, It is all about the face! It is all about the face! He talks kind of manly. I find that funny because Kevin would say, It is more than just the face. Personally, I find myself always wanting to get in tight. When I am shooting, all I do is watch peoples eyes through my viewfinder. That is all I pay attention to and I just dance with them and watch their eyes. When their eyes move, that is when I choose to move. For me it is all about the face. I am interested in peoples emotions and the way they move and I just want to grab the moments that you cannot ask for. That is my inspiration. I want to try to get a part of the person while I am shooting.
MR: Tell me about your tattoos.
BC: (Points to his arm) These guys are longitudes and latitudes of all of the places I lived or spent time in that I feel like have been somewhat influential to me.
Georgia, my hometown, Normandy, Edinborough, Mexico, and this is a poem I wrote back in New York in 2008 and this one is from a book that I found in a market in New York when I was walking in Union Square. There were tables of books and I saw this one cover. Sometimes that shit just speaks to you. It kind of finds you. This quote is the first thing I read from the book that I found. It says, Determined to fall whether exposed skeleton I cannot help the sore wind blowing through my heart. It was written by this 17th century Haiku artist I believe named Matsuo Basho. He was kind of a wanderer. It just kind of stuck with me. It is about going until you are dead. You go until you ca not go anymore and that is kind of the way I live I guess. I am just going to do whatever the fuck I want to do until I am dead. This one is kind of a bastardized quote from Kandinskys Concerning The Spiritual and Art. It says, The photographer has eyes, ears, and hands to create but refuses to aim at photography alone. This is kind of how I like to approach most things. Yes, I am a photographer by trade and that is what pays my bills but again, I am going to do whatever I want. I am going to create something. It doesn’t matter what medium. I do not like to limit myself to one specific thing.
MR: You have a very particular style. I can look at a bunch of photographers work and not be able to tell whose work is whose, but with your work, I somehow can figure out it is yours. Is it something you consciously developed?
BC: I would not say it is anything I’ve consciously developed. I think it is just my aesthetic and the way I see things. I am always over critiquing everything I do and I pretty much hate everything I shoot. I am my worst critic and I am super meticulous about the details. I do not know if it is a specific thing I am after or anything but the more you do something, the more it kind of morphs into what it is. For me, it is a dance. You dance with your subject and you end up with an image.
MR: How do you balance being a single father and a photographer? Ace, your son, is exposed to your work all of the time. What does he make of it all?
BC: He used to really want to be involved but now he just wants to flirt with the models and convince people to hang out with him. He is seven. He enjoys having the space. He always wants to help me when I am building stuff. He is like, Look, I can help you. I can hold the steel up! while I was welding something the other day. I do not think he realizes it is a weird world to be in. He is always been in it. His mom is a model and her boyfriend of a long time is also a photographer. He has a photo studio too so he is always been in it. We used to call him the dirty loft baby. He is grown up in a concrete warehouse. As far as managing it while working and sometimes having to be out of the country, it comes from the support of really good friends. My family is all back in Georgia and his moms family is all back in Chicago. We do not have family support here. My best friend Rowan, he helps out a lot. Kris Kidd, the guy in the video, his public persona is that he is a flaming dumpster fire whore, complete mess… but he is actually one of the sweetest people alive. He is really good with Ace. I had to go to Kosovo for four weeks. He made sure he did his homework, took him to castings… He was the perfect best friend. He was able to step in and take care of my son. I would not be able to do it if I did not have support from really good people.
MR: You are so busy producing content and writing music, how did you start writing music and directing videos?
BC: I always avoided video because I knew it would consume me. I do not know. It just kind of happened. I started fucking around with different things. My buddy Daniel Gomez, he is a brilliant director. I have always been his like, fixer. I guess. He is like, As long as Ben Copes on set with me, everything will be fine. I do not know what he thinks. When he was doing this short film for his thesis, I came in and I was like I will make all the artwork for the gallery scene. I will wire up this lighting thing. because I am kind of a jerk of all trades.
MR: You are a renaissance man!
BC: Being around him and working on those projects with him, I guess it kind of organically happened once I picked up a camera and I realized how much I liked it. I was with Daniel and I said I am going to buy a Red today. And he was like, Do not do it.
MR: That is a splurge!
BC: I just threw it on some credit cards. It is an older version. It was not too expensive. I thought, if I buy it, then we can always make content not matter what and we do not need a rental budget. And he was like, True! As soon as I did that, we both just started doing projects non-stop and working on things together. Let us pull some clothes from Holly and do this Billy video. Let us just fucking make something. That is what is driving my creativity and then my agent being able to put me on commercials really helps too. Since I moved into that and since I have had to have tracks written for different projects, I was like you know, why do not I go back to what I was doing in high school and start playing music again? I was in a punk band called Strength in Numbers. Yeah, we were just a bunch of idiots making noise.
MR: Were you paying for music before that?
BC: Yeah, but my buddy has written some tracks for me too for fun. It is another exercise in creativity. What can I figure out? It is like a math problem. I got a bass and my neighbor is a guitar tech. He gave me that electric guitar over there to play with. I started buying pedals and someone gave me this Music Man amp to play with. I have all of this shit. Why do not I do something with it? Plinkin around. It is like layers in Photoshop. You add one thing and put something on top of it. Start a drum track and throw some effects on there. Lay down the guitar and loop it. Layer it until you have something. One thing led to another. It was a natural progression.
MR: When did you sign with 7 Artist Management?
BC: I met Bob Dixon through a close friend of mine who worked at Elite Models. We were all hanging out at the International Modeling & Talent Association IMTA conventions and we were all drinking, having fun. I think Bob was at The Osbrink Agency then as a model agent. We just stayed in contact and then he was at Red Rock Entertainment as a talent booker. He took me on as his side project. We flirted with that for a bit. It fizzled out. He got a different job. When are we going to do this for real? I was like, Dude, quit your job, start an agency and rep me. One day he was like, Okay.
MR: Wow, so you really inspired him to create 7Artist Management…
BC: He loves photographers and he loves managing people. It was not a far cry for him to want to do that, but probably a big step for him to step away from a salaried position. He started it and it just grew and grew. I am really proud with what he has done. It just started out with us being super good friends. I have been with him since day one. He called me his first born the other day.
MR: What is a project you have worked on that really changed your career or perspective?
BC: My agent, Cory, being the beast that he is, got me booked to shoot the still campaign and commercial for a brand at Sephora called Formula X. It was a big job with a good budget. I rented a great camera set up for the motion side of it. It was a long ass day. We shot at five different locations at the Standard Downtown. It was a crazy long day but I have this camera and I want to do a personal project too if I can. My buddy Kris Kidd had been talking to me about doing a video to this Girl Pusher song. I was like Okay, well why dont we just piggy back one thing after the other. After a 17 hour day on set, I came back here, my buddy Daniel came over, I unloaded the camera van rebuilt the package, lit the studio. Kris came over and we had a few beers. We made that video and shot until 2 or 3am. Either it was lack of sleep and pure exhaustion but whatever we came up with worked really well. It is one of my favorite videos I think I have ever done. It is where I cut my teeth on doing fun editing shit. It is experimental and you have to teach yourself if you want to learn anything. It is probably one of my favorite things that Daniel and I have made.
MR: Does equipment make or break a photographer?
BC: No. If you give me something to take a picture with and I am going to take a fucking picture. It does not matter what it is. I am going to create regardless of what is in my hands. That said, if you walk on to set for an advertisement, shooting a movie poster with a 5D Mark 3 and the Art Director says, Oh, I just bought that for my son. You can not show up to the big leagues like that. Yeah, it is expensive but sometimes you have to buy the big boy shit if you want to play with the big boys. That is what led me to buying the Hasselblad. That is the best shit on the market and it is still three years old. I had to make the investment because I got started playing with the big kids. The creative directors want to see those bigger files. They want to see that medium format. It does not matter to some degree but you can usually tell if a photographer has a distinct eye.