I was thrilled when I got to participate as a gas-mask-wearing model for Ben Mancino’s photography project, Fears, Nightmares, and Dreams Collide. Now I am thrilled to present an interview with Ben Mancino! You won’t find this anywhere else, and you might just learn a thing or two about your new favorite photographer.
Joe: Tell me a little bit about your philosophy as an artist.
Ben: I believe that your fans should be able to afford your work, plain and simple. They are the ones who turn your dream into a success. I treat customers the way that I would like to be treated by my favorite artists. My philosophy is to create art for myself and then share it for the world to see. I have always been my own favorite artist and I am a firm believer that there is nothing wrong with being your own favorite artist.
My friends constantly quote me saying “I don’t know… I thought it looked cool.” If I could drill one thing into people’s heads it is that you can capture an amazing picture with no underlying meaning, intent, or hidden message and it can still be AMAZING!
Joe: I agree that many have the drive to become an artist of one sort or another because they indeed are one of their own favorite artists. No one gets to the top thinking they suck. But what would you say to someone who thinks you are cocky or full of yourself when you say you are your favorite artist?
Ben: Well, I have only encountered this problem once in my life and it with one of my college professors. He had us introduce ourselves one by one and share with the class who our favorite artist was. When it was my turn I introduced myself shared that I was my own favorite artist. He told me that it was an unacceptable answer and that I had to choose a different artist. I saw two problems with this. One, my professor wasn’t an artist so how could he understand the emotion and vision that goes into the artwork? Two, he should be encouraging students to become their favorite artist by helping them hone their talents and skills to create artwork that they believe should exist in this world. If Van Gogh has the right to be his own favorite artist, than I have every right to be my favorite artist. The same applies to every medium in the arts; in the music industry Beyonce has every right to be her favorite singer and performer because she controls every detail that goes into her work which is all a part of her artistic vision. I just compared myself to Beyonce and Van Gogh but I think that you get my point?
Don’t get me wrong, I definitely have favorite artists whose work I love and respect (Martin Stranka, Martin Stavars, Alex Creo) I’m just my own #1 fan. I love to let my images speak for themselves but I am working on striking the balance between advocating my talent and avoiding overstepping my boundaries and appearing like a pompous prick. I think that my pricing philosophy speaks wonders about who I am as an artist. I cannot afford my favorite artists photography because their work is sold in limited quantities at a hefty price. I like to treat my fans how I wish to be treated which is why I create affordable options (treat others how you would like to be treated, thanks Mom & Dad). I also allow my fans to customize orders so if they want a specific photo on a t-shirt or greeting card, I can do that for them. It makes my job fun and it makes my clients satisfied.
Whenever I meet new people I typically ask, “what is your name and who is your favorite photographer?” The answer almost 99% of the time is, “I don’t have one” and the remaining 1% says, “Ansel Adams.” To which I then respond, “It is nice to meet you. My name is Ben Mancino, your new favorite photographer.” It works just about every time.
In my opinion it has been way overdue since we have had an iconic photographer that is widely recognized by the general public. I would like to earn that spot. You do not need to be considered the “best” in order to be the favorite. My slogan is, “If I am not already your favorite photographer, you have not seen enough of my pictures yet” which always gets a reaction out of people.
Joe: Can you expand on your “It looked cool” philosophy?
Ben: I sell my art to everyday folks instead of only focusing on elite art collectors because I am a no-bullshit kind of guy when it comes to art. If I cannot look at a piece of art and enjoy it for aesthetic purposes, then I am not going to buy it regardless of the story behind it. If there is a good story behind the art; good job, you’re a story teller, not a fine artist.
My high school had an art and literary magazine called, “The Labyrinth” which held annual meetings where student members would critique and vote on anonymous artwork/poetry to be selected for the publication. One year I submitted a photo of my cat that I casually thought looked “cool.” As the students surrounding me tried to dig deep into the photograph one of the students said, “The artist was going for the Mona Lisa in cat form.”
That was the moment that I realized that nobody in the world (not even an art historian) can interpret a piece of art from the thoughts of the artist. Since it was anonymous, I couldn’t just speak up and say, “Well actually, I thought that it was just a cool picture of my cat.” I felt like I was the deceased artist and the student was the art historian formulating her own interpretation which was then adopted by everyone else in the room. Despite the interpretation being completely off, I now call the photograph, “Mona Lisa Cat.”
Joe: I was lucky enough to appear in your last series, “Fears, Nightmares, & Dreams Collide” which included a gas mask, red balloons, and levitation. It seems to have provoked quite a response, what made you choose to do this series?
Ben: Where to begin? I was always fascinated by photography involving balloons, levitation, and gas masks. I came up with the idea for the series one day when there was a power outage. I closed my eyes and let inspiration from the past create visual scenes using all three themes. I sketched out about eighteen ideas that I wanted to re-create in photographic form. I ordered an air soft gas mask that day and made a status on my facebook asking if anyone would like to model for a new series that I was planning. I received over 11 responses within a few hours which was amazing.
A few times my friends and I had to climb a mountain, including the shot where one of my models (little brother), Greg Garvey, is “levitating” with a plane in the background that looked like a shooting star. He said the funniest thing to me one time, “I always thought that photography was really planned out, with fancy lights, and models, and not like, “GO GO GO, GET IN THE CAR! WE NEED TO CHASE THE SUNSET,” give a few instructions, and manage to capture the perfect shot with a plane in the background on the third try. And yes, I did really get the shot on the third try, it was incredible.
Joe: Why the red balloon?
Ben: People always ask why the red balloon? So here I am to clear that up for all of those curious folks out there. Imagine the series with any other color balloon… I don’t think that the “fear” factor would be present. Sometimes I even get freaked out a little by the pictures and it makes me extremely proud to know that I can provoke that reaction within myself by looking at my artwork. So the red balloon decision was based on artistic aesthetics rather than a deeper psychological message which may make a few people sleep a bit easier tonight.
Joe: It makes me think of the song 99 Red Balloons, which I believe had something to do with panic starting a nuclear war. The red balloon had nothing to do with that song?
Ben: Nope, not at all.
Joe: What is one of your pet peeves?
Ben: There is something about idolizing an artist whose work you will never be able to afford due to their pricing that leaves you feeling unsatisfied. I never want people who appreciate my art to feel that way. The way I see it, the Mona Lisa has thousands if not millions of replications in the form of postcards, t-shirts, posters, etc. If anything, the Mona Lisa has increased in value. I like to think of my photographs in the same way. The photograph is a masterpiece in itself, and therefore it should be made accessible to anyone who appreciates it enough to purchase it.
Joe: How do you go about pricing your prints?
Ben: Whenever I ask my friends how much they think a product of mine costs, they usually begin with, “I don’t really buy art so I have no idea where to start”. My friend unintentionally nailed the problem on the head. It isn’t rare for someone not to know the price of art. It is sold everywhere, by different artists, at different prices, and how can you really keep track of all the various factors that add up to the total price?
Typically fine artists believe that lower prices reduces the value of their work. I believe that low prices will mean that more fans can enjoy my work.
Joe: You talk a lot about individual “consumption” of your art, but I know that you have also been featured in magazines, and won at least one photo contest. Do you have a vision for how your art might be distributed in terms of more commercial methods, for instance to be used in advertisements, or magazines? Would this fit with your idea of offering affordable art work, or would you feel like you were “selling out” in some ways?
Ben: I personally don’t see making commercial negotiations as “selling out.” I just tried to imagine what “selling out” would look like and I imagined my prints being sold at WalMart. I wouldn’t mind selling my books there… but fine art prints being sold at WalMart isn’t my style. I want people to come to my shop to get an exclusive product that they can’t find anywhere else.
If Nikon asked me to use one of my photos for an advertisement, you can bet that I would say yes under the right agreements; meaning that I would retain full ownership of my photograph. Since I shoot with a Nikon and love the brand, that deal would align with my values. If Olympus asked me to use a photo, no offense to them, but I wouldn’t let them use a photo that I took with a Nikon camera, it just wouldn’t make sense. As long as I negotiate offers that align with my values, I will be able to sleep at night. Since I am trying to reach new fans and build a wider audience, I think that increasing the use of my photography in advertisements and magazines would be extremely beneficial towards my goals.
Joe: Photography seems to be ever more competitive as practically everyone has a camera everywhere they go. How do you try to differentiate from your competition?
Ben: To be honest, I do not view the photography industry as competition. I have been taking pictures since I was in seventh grade which equates to over a decade now. I have always picked the camera up for myself, so regardless of the industry trends; I will still be here taking pictures. I see the world in terms of photographs waiting to be captured and that is what drew me into photography in the first place. I remember browsing on Getty Images, PhotoBucket, and Myspace searching for photographic inspiration in my early teens. I finally reached a point where I decided, “I want to be able to take a picture of anything I want, and have it look exactly the way I want it.” I ended up getting my first camera, a Kodak Z740 on December 25th, 2004 A.D. and the journey began from there.
Joe: Have you ever had a vision that you wanted to create through photography, but simply could not get right? In other words, can you talk a bit about coming up short when you were not able to capture something to your standards, or the way you envisioned it in your head?
Ben: Yes, of course! There are always limitations to each idea; the fun part is working around these limitations and letting the idea evolve. For example, one of the images that I had envisioned from my last series involves the mask emerging from the water with fog in the foreground. Every time I waited for the local lake to produce steam, it wasn’t enough to create the effect that I was looking to capture. I looked into buying dry ice for the shoot but I want to make the photo look as authentic as possible. Whenever I cannot re-create a vision I store the ideas away for a later time in my career when I will have the flexibility and resources to create them. So in a way, I deal with it by extending the deadline for certain visions and in the meantime I come up with new projects and ideas so that I’m not stuck on the same idea for too long.