Benedict Campbell is not an easy person to pigeon-hole. He’s a photographer who works across many genres of photography, including, advertising, car, fashion and reportage. He’s also a film maker, digital artist and designer, often incorporating these elements into his photography.
Benedict’s varied career is a result of accident and design, “It’s boring doing the same thing,” he says, “I’ve seen lots of big-name photographers, who become famous for one thing, and people only ever want them to do that one thing. When I find that happening to me, I subconsciously throw a spanner in the works and try and develop a different style or work on a different theme.”
Benedict was born in Oxford in 1966, and as a young boy, showed a talent for art and cycling. “I remember when I was about 14 being in a careers lesson and the teacher saying, ‘there are lots of interesting careers, like photography’ and I jumped up and said, ‘That’s it! Photography! Brilliant!’ I thought it was the perfect way to make a living as an artist. I wanted to be a professional photographer and a professional cyclist – I was very driven.”
Benedict’s parents were architects, and his father was migrating towards architectural photography, “He had a darkroom, which I hijacked. The first camera I borrowed was a Nikkormat and I would take cycling pictures continuously. I remember the first film I put through a camera – it was very exciting.”
But when Benedict was seventeen, he discovered motorbikes, and a near-fatal accident prompted him to reassess his life, “I was lying in a hospital bed and my career path seemed mapped out for me: study art at school and then do a photography degree. I was in hospital for four and a half months and I thought, ‘is there quicker way of achieving what I want?’”
After leaving hospital, Benedict got a job as an assistant in a photographic studio in Oxford during the school holidays – his leg was still in plaster. Benedict decided not to return to school and started work at another lab, “I worked for a year as a black and white hand printer, and it was one of the best things I ever did, because I learnt the true craft of black and white printing.”
When he was around nineteen, Benedict became a freelance photographic assistant, commuting to London to look for work, “I was banging on doors and getting work through word-of-mouth. A lot of photographers were shooting in 10x8 or 5x4, and I used to say, ‘You can do a lot more with medium format or 35mm’, and they’d say that the quality was rubbish. So, I used to educate these old pros on using smaller formats.”
The photographers were surprisingly receptive to advice from the young upstart, “When I look back, I shudder,” says Benedict, “I must have been the most annoying assistant in the world, because I never stopped asking questions. I was like an eight year-old – ‘why do you have to do this?’ ‘Why are you doing that?’ ‘Is there a better way to do this?’ I used to tell my work experience assistants that the trick is to ask lots of questions, because you won’t learn anything if you don’t ask.”
The 1980s were a hectic period, “When I moved to London, I worked for a lot of fashion photographers and I thought I would be a fashion photographer,” recalls Benedict, “a lot of my grounding was in fashion photography.” He also worked as an assistant in a major car studio, working his way up to first assistant.
Benedict’s artistic background led to another career path. “We used to build huge sets for the cars and I started designing some of the sets. I got frustrated with some of the scenic artists and started doing the scenic painting myself. Then I began getting commissions and became a scenic artist for photographers around the late 80s.”
Benedict became a freelance professional photographer in his early twenties, and his clients included Land Rover, Saab and Volvo. But after a while, he got that itch to branch out. “I was doing a lot of car sets, but I was missing photographing people,” he says. “So, I started combining set photography with people.” The technique he used, known as photographic Trompe-l'œil, involved painting a person in body paint or make-up to create the illusion that they formed part of a painting.
The striking results caught the attention of advertisers, who would hire Benedict to shoot adverts that needed a twist or unusual angle. “I always seemed to be in at the start of a new trend or wave,” he says, “and by fluke, I had built up this great skill set. If you can light a car, you can light anything. I had done some still photography in between fashion and car, and fashion photography is very good for learning how to handle people and clients, because it’s about 80 percent people skills.”
Benedict returned to the fashion world, where he shot ads and made films for cosmetics giant Coty Rimmel. It was while working as an art director in the early 1990s that he discovered computer-generated imagery or CGI, “I was sitting with artists who were using CGI to build basic sets and I thought, ‘This would be amazing for still photography! Why isn’t anyone using it?’ The answer of course, was that CGI was very expensive at the time.”
Over time, the technology became cheaper and Benedict began learning how to use CGI on his home computer. He became one of the pioneers of what is known as hyperreality, which combines CGI with photographic images, “With CGI, I could build sets that I could only imagine before. I started doing a lot of futuristic stuff and became well-known for designing robots - I became the go-to person for images of futuristic sets or robots. Many of my friends were writing articles on the future for magazines, and I would do a lot of the illustrations. I even spent two years in Tokyo, designing futuristic night club interiors.”
The work was relentless, but once again, Benedict needed to change. “I wanted to do something a bit more real, and so I started looking towards more reportage photography. I wanted real people, real stories, no effects, no CGI – it couldn’t be any further from the hyperreal world I was in.” Much of Benedict’s reportage photography is for the cycling magazine Rouleur, “I always try and do something I’m passionate about.”
The passion for two-wheel vehicles has seen Benedict shooting highly acclaimed films like The Wall of Death and For the love of Mud. The former was shot with a Canon 5D MKII. “After that, I started using professional video cameras, but discovered that a certain warmth and emotion was lost, and that is because a DSLR lets you get closer to a person. If you’ve got a big camera, big lens and a flash gun, it’s intimidating, so I try and use something small whenever I’m shooting people.”
When it comes to developments in photography, Benedict has no doubt that, “Digital is the third most exciting thing in photography: you had the invention of photography; the arrival of the 35mm camera and then digital.” Digital has made it easier for people to learn about photography and take good pictures, but he adds, “There are so many fantastic images, and we are so used to looking at thousands of images, that we can rush past them and miss the subtleties. Now, it’s about instant gratification and catching someone’s eye.”
Benedict loves black and white photography, “The colours don’t distract and you are looking purely at the subject. It’s a full-stop – it’s a moment in time.”
Today, Benedict mixes work for Harley-Davidson with reportage photography and documentary filmmaking. He acknowledges that his desire for change has been a two-edged sword, “In the past, agents have said they could get me more work if I specialised in one thing. But diversity has made life more interesting and kept me busy. It has made photography enjoyable – I still pick up a camera and get excited and can’t wait to take pictures.”www.benedict1.com