Benjamin Goss: The Familiar Unfamiliar
A revealing insight into the creative approach of Benjamin Goss is that he takes “thousands of images a day without the help of a camera. Faces, situations and moments weave together in my subconscious, then eventually form themselves as negatives when I am out shooting.” This helps account for the deeply personal slant that informs his portraiture and off-kilter urban documentary work. By internalizing the imagery he sees every day, Goss allows it the time and space it needs to germinate and eventually blossom into something dark and wonderful. Atmosphere is predominant in all of his series—mysterious, dramatic and slightly surreal. Instances of puckish, disorienting humor often crop up to balance the darker overtones. Goss also succeeds in evoking a timeless, poetic quality, abetted by a sure command of darkroom craft and a taste for pushing his visuals just slightly beyond.
I understand you got a late start in photography.
I began taking photographs at the age of 21. I happened upon the medium haphazardly, although I have always been a visual person. After years of experimentation photography developed into a valid form of communication for me.
Where do you come from?
I was born in Houston, Texas, but grew up in New Jersey and worked in Manhattan. After living for two years in Barcelona I moved to Karlstad, Sweden, where I have now been for the past few years.
What formal training have you had?
For the most part I am self-taught, although I have had some influences along the way. In 2004 I completed a three-semester fine art photography program at Broby Grafiska [a cross-media college] here in Sweden. Up until that point photography was something I did on my own, and the only feedback and inspiration I got was from myself. It was here that I came into contact with others speaking my language. I have also had a great deal influence from Mary Ellen Mark. I have participated in many of her workshops, and worked as one of her assistants for a brief period.
Does your work bear the imprint of your formative environments?
I’m quite sure they have had an effect on me. I grew up in a city setting, and at an early age developed a distaste for urban sprawl and overwhelming metropolises. Later I came to appreciate the energy and pulse of people who live in large cities. These contrasts show in my work.
New York City is obviously very inspirational to you. What aspects of the city resonate most strongly?
The question I like to ask New Yorkers is “Why do you live here?” I get many different and engaging answers, but never a “I don’t know.” The people in New York resonate and vibrate on a different frequency that’s addictive.
Have you been influenced by anyone in particular?
Many photographers have had an influence on me, and it changes as I grow and develop as a photographer. I admire Diane Arbus for her uninhibited bravery. She challenged herself by taking risks that most other photographers would have been embarrassed or afraid to attempt. I admire the gift that Richard Avedon had in unmasking and revealing his subjects’ true selves. And Mary Ellen Mark for her technique and undying work ethic, and for her extreme intuition and sensitivity towards her subjects.
Can you explain your statement there is no right or wrong when it comes to photography? Are you talking about content? Style? Technique?
In a sense, all three. Everyone expresses himself or herself differently. Photography is just one medium of expression. There are many styles of photography, and one is not necessarily better than the other. Art is in the eye of the beholder, but the most important beholder is you.
How did you arrive at this perspective?
By believing in my work and myself.
Do you make your living through photography?
Yes, I work as a commercial photographer in Sweden.
The Intuition series seems very much about the uneasy relationship between people and the urban environment. They don’t seem to embrace it as much as put up with it.
Photographers can shape things to fit a certain personal perspective, whether we do it intentionally or not. This was most likely my subconscious intention based on my uneasy perspective on urban surroundings.
You have a knack for revealing ominous urban spaces that seem to trap your subjects, as in the image “Closing Time,” in which all we see is a pair of disembodied feet about to completely disappear behind a metal shutter.
No matter how much I love the vibe and energy of the urban atmosphere, it also gives me the chills.
Man in a box
Your framing choices often reinforce this effect, as when you cut your subjects off in pictures like “Man in a Box” and “What?”
I am always looking for a bit of uneasiness or tension in my images. I like this choice of framing because it doesn’t give away the whole story. It leaves room for the imagination to make up the rest. Then the viewer becomes involved.
The visual contrast adds a lot to the work’s impact. In fact, some of these images might not really work without it. Have you always used high contrast as an aesthetic tool?
This style came to me over many years spent in the darkroom. By printing a bit harder and controlling the image with dodging and burning I can increase the drama of the image.
The people you photograph often seem drawn from the margins of society, yet you don’t exploit that to make overt statements. You simply present them as possessing the complexities, strengths and weaknesses common to us all. Where did this perspective come from?
I think it’s always been with me, even before I turned to photography. I have always rooted for the underdog. I can identify something in everyone with myself. We are all humans going through the same thing called life.
You often play with unusual juxtapositions—a young boy holding a pair of antlers in the series Breathe; a young man with fox furs draped over his shoulder from your more recent work. I like that you don’t insist on literal interpretations of these odd and unsettling tableaux.
Yes! I want viewers to be fully engaged by challenging them to translate any feelings that they might recognize in themselves. For the image to succeed, it must inspire a kind of unspoken communication with the viewer.
All of your work evokes a certain Alice in Wonderland strangeness. And your portraits betray a dark intensity both visually and emotionally. Are you by nature optimistic or pessimistic?
I have my moments of pessimism and doubts like everyone else. For the most part I am a cup-half-full person. I believe in humankind, even though we are strange.
(Please visit www.benjamingossphotography.com to see more of his unusual and compelling work.)