TPF presents an interview with Eleanor Leonne Bennett, a young award-winning British photographer, editor and writer , whose work has been heavily used as cover art for books. So, without further ado…
Q. You’re 19 years old and there’s no doubting that you have ‘hit’ photography hard in a short space of time? Where do you want to take your photography in the next 5 years?
A. I certainly want to leave a mark in critiquing the work of others. I hold three editorial positions for different publishing outlets. I also want to make it more obviously known how often my work is shown in many exhibitions around the United Kingdom. I am contributing much of my recent work to be shown at venues run by charity The Photographic Angle. This involves helping to beautify a lot of public spaces free of charge to the public. Dates can be found on their website and new ones are added often. I have a lot of work displayed specifically in the themes “A Splash of Colour”, “Light in the Lens” and “My Country”. I also want to see my work winning more accolades for grouped sets of images as well as the standalone pieces that it is more obvious I am known for.
Q. Your work is diverse – frenetic even – but as a body of images, clearly distinctive. It is largely locally shot and I am assuming, also very personal. Where is home and what are the forces behind your creativity?
A. Home for almost all of the images explores Derbyshire and Cheshire. I do enjoy representing Northern England on such a global stage with how widely my work is published. I tend to be inspired by far older photos of the likes of Bill Brandt. I try to explore something lost in quite a few of my images. Industry, grime, smoke and smog of another age that to a generation who worked then was all that they knew. I like to explore many themes but that involves an interplay of shadows that I really enjoy capturing, it feels like second nature.
Q. How do you go about shooting? How deliberate are you and can you talk us through the making of a few of your favourite images?
A. Often I do vary between being very deliberate and then letting the shots come to me based on just trying to do my best of capture “something else”. Whilst I am shooting I am sometimes unsure of how exactly it will turn out but I just have a feeling that it will turn out better than I expect. One prime example of that was “The Happy Hour” (shown below).
It ended up winning 1st Prize in the young photographer category with the ESRC in 2012 and received praise from Professional Photographer of the Year judge Mick Cookson in 2013.
Whilst shooting this it was in quite bright and glaring light. The type of setting that reveals all. I was slightly blinded whilst taking the shot. I had no idea in post processing where the doll like image that is in one of the windows came from.
One award winning image I planned exactly was “Nowhere Fast”.
It came from a very humble commission and ended up winning the CIWEM EPOTY 2013. When I was given the theme from a publishing house about shooting an image of a car at night I was a bit disobedient with the remit because I knew I wasn’t going to be compensated anyway.
The person in the car is my Mother, the car was left to rot in a deal my Dad and Uncle could never be bothered to sell out of idleness and now it has appeared on front covers around the world and I have just sold the image again recently to a new client for his book.
Q. What would you do if photography were no longer possible?
A. Probably put a lot more time and effort into writing and channelling the other ideas I have written into other genres. There isn’t anything in the question saying I couldn’t explore directing.
Q. A lot of your work has adorned various book covers. Is this something that developed over time, by happenstance, or was it a deliberate effort on your part?
A. I think the magazine covers came first and the first few were accidents that just came from submitting my work generally. A few years ago I did decide to really concentrate on book covers. Looking at the catalog of work I have done it is very clear that I have worked with more poets than fiction writers. That was also accidental. I have sent applications to provide work to many fiction publishers as well as the poetry ones.
Q. Is there a separation between your personal work and that which has commercial application i.e. book covers? How would you describe the difference or are the two very closely related?
A. I can certainly apply myself to commissions that would require a piece unlike the rest of my body of work. I would take them on willingly to expand the types of clients I work with. Personally my favourite covers required minimal to no editing. I have written before about making bad book covers. One of my favourite book covers is the one I did for “Lethal Profit”. It was very widely distributed on the shelves of many W H Smith and Waterstones stores. I felt with that cover in particular it blended perfectly the line between a professional cover and letting a creative image do all the work without giving it too much of a meddling. Not everything needs to be obvious to the point of being crude to become your book cover.
Q. When viewed as a set, your work has a distinctive style. How would you describe it and at what point did you notice it emerge?
A. For me shooting I really felt as though it was emerging as early as 2009 (age 12/13). I was drawn to trying to make ordinary subjects otherworldly. I always tried to attain images far beyond the reach of the equipment I used. The first camera I used had an awfully short battery life and cost under £60. I felt that I was most allowed to develop my “true” style when I started to use Panasonic equipment. I also own two Nikons that I use on special occasions.
Q. How would you describe your approach to post-processing?
A. Irfanview and Gimp really take care of everything I need to know with regards to printing in journals and large scale exhibitions. Windows Photo Gallery is my main editing software. If I had an image that didn’t work naturally I wouldn’t start taking away and adding elements to make a composite. Not only because photographers get in trouble for that but because I really have worked on training myself to use almost zero cropping in a lot of my shoots these days. Whilst I may have a style that prevails in my work that image alone needs to be able to work before I increase contrast, convert to B&W and influence exposure for myself to know I am practising the correct techniques organically.
Q. You have won recognition in numerous competitions and awards. Some photographers are wary and even critical of competitions. What is your opinion of competitions (and their usefulness) and what advice can you give photographers considering the bewildering array of awards out there?
A. The main reason I knew I needed to win awards was because I was so young starting out that I had to give people something blatant, a reason to notice me. I have never felt from other photographers that I necessarily needed to win anything. To win awards didn’t necessarily improve my work. The same pieces would have been created because I was putting what I wanted on the page anyway. My opinion of the usefulness of competitions is that to cement your appeal to a lot of laypeople, who may also be your client base, is that competitions are almost essential in such a competitive marketplace. Photographers do need to make a mental list of long established awards that they want to see themselves winning within ten years. If the organisations are still going then, then you are looking at prestige that will also allow you to stand the test of time.
Q. Much of your work features living organisms. What is your connection with the natural world and how does it drive your curiosity?
A. Mainly that is due to me growing up in the countryside. I felt that when I was first starting out that I needed to practise shooting subjects that moved to challenge myself. I did feel that more contemporary subjects outside of wildlife photography became easier to shoot from honing my skills to the aforementioned genre.
Q. Would I be right in identifying a darkness, or even malevolence in some of your work? If so, is this a product of commercial requirements or is it a reflection of your own explorations and interests?
A. Those pieces speak more of me than commercial requirements. They have sold and become published all the same but are more closely linked to instances in my life (e.g illness of my Mother, death of a family friend, personal injuries).
Q. Which historical photographers have inspired you the most and which living photographers are you watching now?
A. If I had to pick just three photographers from the past as sources of inspiration I would probably choose Bill Brandt, Cindy Sherman (earliest work) and Alexander Rodchenko. I am certainly watching Sara Naomi Lewkowicz to say the least. Robert Cohen undoubtedly took one of the most important images of 2014 in my eyes.
Q. I understand you have not travelled extensively. Where in the world would you most like to go and how might you approach photography there?
A. I would probably want to explore America the most. It would be interesting to explore the differences as well as parallels between cultures in Britain. I’ve always had friends in the States. It was also one of the most common locations where my work was featured, sometimes more so than my home country at different points in my career.
Q. Your work touches upon documentary. Is this an area that interests you?
A. It is. I would never want to force myself upon a subject that is alien to me to just try and catch upon a trend. If I envision myself using my work to make a statement it would only be in subjects that I am well versed on. I would hate to see myself stumble into conflicts of which I know little to try and make an attempt to add to my repertoire of images.
Q. Have you formally studied photography and what is your opinion on the need (or lack of need) of doing so?
A. I am completely self-taught. The closest I have came to study were my own attempts to study art history. I admire many paintings of which the influences probably show very little of themselves of in my work. I find the animation of Jan Švankmajer very captivating also. I think that photography is at a stage today where the story matters more so than ever. The image alone often does not stand as such when judged in a contemporary space and many of the largest awards. I would never discourage anyone from formal study, but before I became a photographer I had already won two competitions for mixed media art. I am a published writer and poet and now hold editorial positions on an international scale. The most important elements I learnt to run my business were due to SEO and networking well with others like myself. PR has often been a deciding factor in what the clients see when I am put in a line-up of the people they want to see themselves working with.
Q. If you could pick five signature images, which would they be?
A. The following images:
Q. Where are you and what are you doing in 20 years?
A. I hope to hold regular solo exhibitions and to have the resources to publish my ideas for photo books. I see myself having a larger role in the publishing industry and maybe even a role as an artistic director. I would also enjoy witnessing how the world of photography has changed in those twenty years. I am on the edge of my seat to see what technology will bring to our industry.
I’d like to thank Eleanor for the interview and of course encourage you to shoot with any questions you may have!