Authenticity & Production | An Interview with Michael Benjamin Blank
MICHAEL BENJAMIN BLANK. We cannot stop saying enough great things about this young and determined photographer/film director. When first speaking to him on the phone prior to this interview, his comedic and spirited personality not only ensured that working with him would be a pleasure, but would be inexplicably inspiring. He has done work for CALVIN KLEIN, BURBERRY, DAVID GUETTA, VOGUE, GQ and COSMO and yet stays down-to-earth about his success and his craft. Blank has recently released his first coffee table book of his photography and is currently working on his first feature-lengthed film which has been heavily influenced by the great Quintin Tarantino. While being interviewed by SAPERE's Editor-in-Chief, Angela Butkus, he opens up about how important authenticity is in creating images in the fashion industry and how he prepares for each shoot by keeping in mind the integrity of beauty in each image he is capturing.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to fulfill a career in fashion photography and video directing?
Yes! I’m just a young man in my late 20’s. Kind of average. Kind of handsome-- at least that’s what I’m told whenever I look in the mirror. Ok, just kidding. The reason I got into fashion photography and video is because I’ve always been interested in movies. One of my ultimate career goals is to write and direct feature films, like P.T. Anderson, Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, etc. I have always loved seeing how big film actors intertwined with the editorials of the fashion world. So fashion photography seemed like a practical first step into the world of directing. I’ve been able to produce many art films to accompany my photography, and I’ve been connected to many facets of the film world. So it seems to be the perfect route so far.
The work you’ve been shooting recently have been collaborative with some pretty heavy-weight fashion lines. What is it like to be working with such a range of styles, models and designers? What do you do to prepare?
Every job is very different, but most of the time I just meditate and pray. It’s easy to get caught up in superficiality and it distracts me from my internal creativity. I try to clear all that noise from my mind and remember why I love the craft. I try to remind myself that I have something unique to bring to each project. I try to focus on my love of creating something wonderful. I focus on the beauty I find in each person, product, [and] team I work with. I’ve found that to be the most important preparation.
One of our favorite ad campaigns you’ve directed was with Lucky Smith for Calvin Klein. Can you tell us about this shoot and how it came about?
I always knew Lucky was bound to blow up in this industry. He’s super down-to-Earth and friendly. He’s got that look! I knew Lucky and his agency because I had worked with his sister, Daisy. So when Calvin Klein asked him to shoot, his agency reached out to me and set it all up. It was such a great experience. They left us completely to our own devices-- full creative control! It was so easy and casual. We just filmed around his house. That little puppy in the video is their family dog. I like when things are real like that-- authentic and genuine.
How much equipment do you typically bring to a shoot?
If I can get away with as little as possible, I do. I totally prefer natural light. For photos, I typically have my base equipment of a 3 lenses, a bounce, and a flash for nighttime. For video I like a nice tripod and/or steady-cam of some sort. If it’s a bigger production with a budget then by all means, I wouldn’t mind a bunch of gigantic light set ups, drones, a crane, and a full team of awesome efficient grips and assistants.
Which photographers/directors from the past or present have influenced you the most?
This list should get everyone thinking for sure:
Photographers: Herb Ritts, Helmet Newton, David Bellemere, Tim Walker, Steven Klein, Annie Leibovitz, Guy Aroch, Bruce Weber, Camilla Akrans, Cameron Hammond, Alessio Bolzoni, Mario Sorrenti, Karl Lagerfeld, Steven Meisel, Grant Yoshino.
Directors: Scorsese, Speilberg, PT Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Kubrick, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, James Cameron, Woody Allen, Ridley Scott, Akira Kurosawa, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Park Chan-wook, Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, Michael Mann, Polanski, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Robert Zemeckis, Oliver Stone, Hayao Miyazaki, Alfonso Cuaron, Luc Besson…
As a modern photographer, how do you incorporate technical elements from the past to make them fresh to consumers’ eyes?
As an observer, I’ve looked at many different styles from artists I admire. I took a little bit from each style and soaked it into my consciousness like a sponge. Then, I forgot everything and just started to capture the world as I see it instinctually. Sometimes I see things that are so damn beautiful, it’s like that scene in “American Beauty” when that dude is filming a plastic bag and he starts crying. I don’t really care much for pollution floating in the wind, but I do feel an immense amount of beauty in certain moments, and I try to translate those moments into a format that I can share with my audience. I have a philosophy of timelessness. In general I like to aim for iconic imagery that could transcend generations. I try my best to stay aligned with infinity. I’ll let you’re readers interpret that as they like.
What do you suspect to be the most important element in capturing an image whether still or moving and why?
Authenticity. That something the viewer can connect with on a visceral level. It fulfills the yearning we all have. As a viewer, I want to visit that place I am seeing. I want to experience what they are experiencing, live vicariously through the imagery. Without authenticity it feels flat and dead.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career thus far and what did it teach you about the industry and about yourself?
Quentin Tarantino said that if you want to be a film-maker, then go start making films. You will learn all the mistakes at first. Trust me. However, nothing can teach you more than experiencing what it takes to actually accomplish it. I have also learned that all those stories about Machiavellian types in the business place is true. There are certain wolves disguised in sheep clothing that try to sabotage you, steal your credit, cheat you out of payment, etc. I’ve learned to always prepare and protect myself. You don’t have to be a tight-wad, just be super clear with your communication from the get go. Stand your ground, and have everything in writing. It will come in handy when you have to suddenly defend yourself from certain, less-than-friendly types. I like Roosevelt’s quote. “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Let them be rude and sneaky. You can appear clueless and feeble if you like, but then at just the right moment, you drop those records on them and watch them try to weasel their way out of it. Never play their game. Just let them destroy themselves while you stay honest and true.
What exciting projects are you working on now?
I just did a fun shoot with the jewelry brand, Jacquie Aiche. I love working with them and I really admire their jewelry. You can see the new video playing in SoHo House, Hollywood. The next project I am excited about working on is a feature film. I’m shooting the on-set stills, behind the scenes, promotional material etc. I’m super excited to be on more feature film sets! As I mentioned before, the photography route has been perfect for connecting me with cinema.
Would you ever go into screenwriting yourself?
Absolutely and I already am. I've co-written a short film or two and I'm currently working on my own short about a James-Bond-type, in a predicament with a couple of stunningly gorgeous ladies at a restaurant. The audience has to decide which of the three characters, they believe is telling the truth. I'm also writing a feature based on the American justice system. It's filled with corruption, conspiracies, and vigilantism, oh my! I've always loved the idea of making a movie filled with "I wish I would have done that" moments. You know when you're in a situation that you look back on and think, "Dang, if I had said this, it would have shut them down so perfectly!" or, "If only I had stepped back an inch, their punch would have missed me and they would have fallen write in that pile of dog shit." Well, life doesn't work out so perfectly most of the time, so I've decided to create that catharsis in my films. It's very similar to Quentin's Inglourious Basterds. Everybody wishes their was a secret team of Nazi assassins that single-handedly ended the war by blowing up Hitler and all his fascist successors at the same time. Everybody wishes governments worked for the citizens they represent rather than using their platforms as business opportunities. Well, in my movie, there might be a scene where a crooked judge grants immunity to Joe-Shmoe, as long as Joe gives the judge a suitcase full of Benjamins. Then after Joe gets immunized, he beats the shit out of the judge and takes back the suitcase! Mmmmm sweet sweet catharsis.
Out of all the visions you’ve helped create, which one is your favorite so far and tell us what was special about it.
At this moment, my favorite vision has been my Hawaii coffee-table book. It’s been long time dream of mine to explore and capture Hawaii on camera. My friend Jade invited me to stay with her and her family last Summer, and she showed me some of the best experiences of my life. I was able to live out one of my life long dreams, and I have it all documented. You can see the video I made for it here.
Do you extend your visionary to everyone? Would you be able to do personal or couple photoshoots or shoot for another artists film?
Absolutely, when it comes to collaborating with other artists, I am very open. I often shoot video along side different photographers. I've also always loved shooting onset stills for movies. I like to include the setting behind the scenes, to give a sense of contrast between this dream world and the reality it takes to manufacture that dream. Everything about it is so surreal to me. As far as shooting personal shoots for people and couples, I am definitely open to it. I feel like a pretty humble dude, so If people want to hire me to shoot their wedding in my style, I am definitely open to it... as long as the price is right of course hahaha. Hey, capturing those once in a lifetime moments are hard! That's way more stressful to me than an organized fashion shoot.
If you could define beauty, how would you do so?
I know it’s cliché, but I truly believe that beauty comes from inside. It is who we are within that manifests externally. Our physical appearance does not define beauty in its entirety. I’ve met plenty of super attractive people, who have revealed how ugly they truly are. You go to a restaurant with them and see how they treat their server. You know they have been eating boogers and, who knows what, in their food after treating their servers so poorly. No matter how hot they were initially, now you know they are full of nasty stuff inside, literally. On the other hand, I have met people who I was not drawn to, initially, but the more I learned about who they were as an individual, the more beautiful they became to me. If you are not following this, just go watch “Shallow Hal.” You can cover yourself with makeup and get plastic surgery and all that, but you are only masking who you are inside (literally).
I think it’s so important to find satisfaction with each of our unique dispositions. It is very common with all these influences in our media, to compare and contrast ourselves to others. If you do this, you are setting yourself up for disaster. Every one of the images we see in our media is distorted. Just look up Photoshop tutorials on Youtube and educate yourselves. Every celebrity and model has been made “perfect,” to a point that even the actual person cannot live up to their own image. It is all a ploy by very intelligent people, to sell us things we do not need. They set impossible standards and tell you that their products will fulfill them. They say it will make you cool and beautiful, and cover up your flaws, and get you laid, and it is all bullshit. True beauty is intelligence and how you can use what you have to make this world a better place. Don’t be a mindless consumer. Start being a producer.