Amongst the Shadows: An Interview with Portrait Photographer Alex Benetel

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Portrait by Alex Benetel

Alex Benetel is an Australian photographer whose work is maybe not quite what you would expect from someone who lives in a country known for its hot and sunny climate. Her portraits are dark and edgy, and utilise the mood found in low light and shadows rather than the bright sun. Perhaps it’s a good example of how a photographer finding a way to utilise the environment to express her personal vision, rather than taking the obvious approach. Here’s the interview:

Alex Benetel interview

Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where do you live and where are you from? How long has photography been a hobby and career of yours and what motivated you to get started?

I’m a 20 year old student from Sydney, Australia, currently studying a Bachelor of Education (Primary). Photography started being a passion of mine during high school, when I took a Visual Design course that introduced me to pinhole photography. My pinhole photographs weren’t turning out so great when I first started, which frustrated me because I was so intrigued by the process of it all. I grew very determined and after a few lunch times in the darkroom, I ended up taking some of the best pinhole photographs the art department had seen. Later on in the term, my teacher introduced the class to a photo-sharing site called Flickr, which exposed me to a community of artists whose work inspired me greatly. Ever since then, I’ve never stopped creating photographs and sharing them online.

How would you describe yourself and your personality? This may be bit of a deep question, but how does your personality affect the way you take photos?

The first two words that came to mind were friendly and a little sarcastic. I decided to ask one of my close friends and this is what she came up with “bubbly, bright, friendly, enthusiastic, and passionate”. I’ve found that I’ve grown out of my shell since starting photography. I used to be quite shy and quiet and although I still can be at times, there’s definitely been a change. I mean I’ve met friends I’ve only spoken to online, some who live halfway across the world and clicked with them straight away. I used to hate the idea of meeting new people, but I guess having that common interest in photography shattered the fear that was in the back of my mind. In saying that, it usually takes doing something risky or completely hilarious to break the ice, like climbing under a fence that has a sign reading “danger” on it and making your new photo buddy stand on the edge of a cliff for a photograph. Sorry Ingrid.

When I watch shows or films or read a book, I get really invested and in life in general, feel things quite deeply. This can be good, when I’m out taking photographs because I can just go out and channel my mood. I tend to not verbally share what I’m feeling with others around me that much and ultimately find it easier to portray what I’m going through it in a photograph. I’m also a little bit of a perfectionist, so if a photo doesn’t turn out the way I want it to, or to the standard that I’ve created, then everyone will know about it and I’ll be pretty moody until I do get the right photograph.

Portrait by Alex Benetel

You use natural light in a lot of your photos. Why is that, what is the appeal of natural light for you?

I love being outdoors and exploring for new locations for a photograph. I think using natural lighting makes the photograph look more authentic. There’s this unique feeling you get when you’re out taking photographs, whether it be in cold or warm weather and suddenly you’ll look around and see this light enhancing the beauty around you. You feel alive. There’s nothing like it really.

How would you describe the quality of the natural light where you live? How does it change with the seasons, and how do you use this in your photos?

I live in a pretty hot place. In summer, we reach temperatures up to 40 degrees Celsius and will have really harsh sunny days. I for one love the heat, but am not a fan of the direct sunlight that comes with those sunny days. I wait for the late afternoon/evening period when the sun has just set and the light is diffused. On some days, it’s just too hot to go out.

I try to incorporate the seasons in my photographs, but as they say when you live in Australia, you experience four seasons in a day. Sometimes it’ll be cloudy and I’ll have the perfect idea, all ready to go and look out the window a few hours later and it’ll be too sunny. You’ve kind of got to be on your toes all the time, especially if I’m staying down the coast. It’ll be foggy for 20 minutes, sunny for the next and rainy until night. You just never know and have always got to be on the watch for that perfect moment.

There is a strong link between the landscape and the portrait in your work. How does the landscape and the light inspire you? What are the challenges and rewards of working outdoors?

It’s really important with my work, to not only create a story and portray emotion, but to capture the beauty around me. The location of a photograph is really important because it helps sculpt the story I want to tell. I recently took a trip down to Tasmania, our island state and literally had my face stuck to the car window because the landscape was just so beautiful. We visited some of the most beautiful national parks, where I would have spent a thousand days in, just taking photographs, but we were on a schedule. However, I used the time that we had as best as I could, because I knew the location was too good not to use.

One of the challenges I face and have faced over the years is shooting in public. I’ve grown to be more comfortable with it, but it can be a pain. I’m not really a fan of people looking at me while I’m taking a self-portrait because very quickly I begin to feel pressured and end up rushing the photo. If I’m in a group, then it’s okay.

I also tend to go bare feet in most of my photos and let me tell you, we have a lot of weird creatures wandering around so I always have that in the back of my mind. It’s usually okay, but long grass here is a big “hello there’s a snake in here and maybe a couple of deadly spiders” sign.

I’ve noticed that quite a few of your photos are taken in low light. What is the appeal of low light for you?

I find I can manipulate low light more in post processing. As I mentioned before, I wait for the time just after the sun has set to take most of my photographs. Some of my concepts can be dark and dreamy, so it’s important to create the right mood and look.

Portrait by Alex Benetel

Who inspires you? Who are your three favourite photographers, and why?

I love Tim Walker and Gregory Crewdson’s work. As I mentioned before, I love for my work to have that dark yet dreamy feel, along with that sense of reality. I find both of those elements in Walker and Crewdson’s work and the stuff that they create is absolutely insane (in a good way). It’s also important to mention that young artists I’ve found through Flickr also inspire me and I’m more often looking at their work than anyone else’s. My favourites from Flickr at the moment are Miss Aniela, Brooke Shaden and Logan Zillmer.

There is a conceptual side to your portrait photography. Where do you get your ideas from? What themes are you exploring in your work?

My ideas stem from my own personal experiences, as well as the experience of others. I like to incorporate that sense of reality in all of my concepts so that my audience can relate to the idea being portrayed. On most occasions, I’ll have a little detail pop in my head and then that leads to the development of a concept.

In terms of identifying the themes in my work, I like to leave that up to the viewer. When I was studying Shakespeare in high school, we’d always be asked to write various essays about the themes identified in the play. Before we began writing, my teacher would always open up a class discussion, which would purely focus on identifying the themes we thought were explored in the play. I think it’s much the same for photography. Personally, I don’t really think about themes before shooting a concept, it’s more about what I’m feeling at the time or the idea I’ve come up with rather than trying to represent a specific theme. I like it for my audience to interpret my work in their own way and identify their own themes.

How important is post-processing in the creation of your portraits? What work do you do on your photos to achieve the soft, pastel effect that so many of your portraits have?

Post processing is where my photographs come alive. It’s where the fictional world is created and where everything is ultimately enhanced. It’s probably my favourite part of the entire process because I get to see the transformation of my photo. I make sure not to change the photo too much, because I want to keep that sense of reality and believability. The main things that change are the colours really. In saying that, some pieces involve more post processing than others, it just depends on the look I’m going for and the story I’m trying to tell.

I just try new editing techniques all the time and I’m already finding my style is gradually changing. It does depend on my mood, but sometimes it just comes out of nowhere. For example, lately my photographs have been quite dark and I’m not really sure why. It’s all about experimentation really, trying new curve layers, adding new textures etc. Just have fun with the editing process.

Behind the photo

In this section Alex gives us a deeper look into the process behind the creation of two of her portraits:

Portrait by Alex Benetel

Crime of Despair

The idea for “Crime of Despair” came to me randomly on a hot summer’s day. I had seen some mason jars in my kitchen and at the time, really loved playing around with the idea of using flowers in my photographs. They acted as a symbol of hope and positivity in so many of my works and I loved having them as a little detail for my audience to notice.

I had asked my Mum if there was a dress I could wear in the pool for a photograph and she ended up finding her Year 10 Formal Dress. As soon as I saw it, I knew it’d be perfect. Everything just sort of came together. I wanted to tell the story of a woman who had lost her way in life. It was a concept that resembled Ophelia’s story in Hamlet but I wanted to make sure that I had my own twist on it and rather, use her story as an inspiration source. I ended up including a line that I wrote once I had finished editing the photograph just to enhance my character’s story even more, “Drowned by her weeping sorrow, she took with her, once symbol of hope.”

This photo was very difficult to take. Firstly, I had to set the tripod up right against the edge of the pool, which made me incredibly nervous. I’m very lucky to have a brother who is also a photographer. He’s my built in assistant. I consider this overall shoot to be a collaborative shoot because he made sure that I was in the shot and clicked the shutter for me. Using a remote wasn’t an option because I knew it’d die as soon as I got it in the water. I did however, make sure the settings were right every time and stepped in and out of the water continuously to adjust this and that so that the photograph would turn out the way I had envisioned. Being the model and the photographer is usually okay, but if you’re the model in the pool and the photographer, that’s when it gets tricky.

Portrait by Alex Benetel

Stage 1 Infatuation

This photograph was part of a collaboration series with my friend Marley Cumbee. We had planned on taking three to four photographs based on the stages of a relationship. Spending weeks talking about what the stages would actually be, we made sure not to share how we were going to represent them in our photographs. I had planned out about three photographs and initially wanted to use two models, a male and female. Due to time constraints and other commitments, I wasn’t able to do that and ended up taking the picture in my room. It turned out being incredibly raw and more honest than I was expecting and more metaphorical. I used an excess of vines to represent the stage of infatuation where everything is new and you’re completely consumed by the new person in your life. How they take over your mind.

Some of the problems I faced were obviously as previously mentioned, coming up with a plan B idea that I would be happy with and still be just as effective as my original idea. Secondly, framing the photo was a bit of a challenge because there wasn’t much room in the hallway for my tripod to fit. If I moved it slightly to the left or right, other details would be included in the frame that I didn’t want and did not want to get rid of in the editing process. Lastly, actually sharing this photograph was probably the biggest challenge just because I was representing myself in the photograph, not a fictional character.

Links

You can find Alex Benetel at her website, Flickr and her Facebook page.

Photo Gallery

Here are some more portraits by Alex Benetel:

Portrait by Alex Benetel

Portrait by Alex Benetel

Portrait by Alex Benetel

Portrait by Alex Benetel

Portrait by Alex Benetel

Portrait by Alex Benetel

Portrait by Alex Benetel

Portrait by Alex Benetel

Portrait by Alex Benetel

All photos Copyright © Alex Benetel. Please contact the photographer for permission to use in any way.

Further reading

How to Shoot a Model Test (featuring the work of Alba Soler)

More interviews with portrait photographers:

Light and Landscape: The Portrait Photography of Sarah Ann Wright

Winter in Italy: An Interview with Portrait Photographer Anna Karnutsch

Colour and Light: An Interview With Portrait Photographer Alessio Albi

Colour and Contrast: An Interview With Portrait Photographer Cristina Hoch

The Creative Portrait Photography of Tori Mercedes

An Interview with Miss Aniela

An Interview with Photography Patrick Wack

Click the link for a list of all my interviews with photographers.

The Natural Portrait

The Natural Portrait ebook coverThe Natural Portrait teaches you how to take beautiful portraits in natural light. This 240 page ebook, published by Craft & Vision, takes you through the entire process of natural light portrait photography through from finding a model, deciding where to shoot, working with natural light and post-processing your images. Click the link to learn more or buy.

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