Bristol, VA Native Takes Art World by Storm
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Photographer or muralist?
Five-time Smithsonian exhibitor
Two-time Natural History Museum of London exhibitor
Six international awards
$350,000+ raised for charity/conservation
Raised $90,000 For Jane Goodall Institute
Benjamin travels around the world to capture images for museums, galleries, & private collectors
Owns and operates Walls about Luxury Travel
One of the things that help drive conservation is recreation
My time with Benjamin over various meetings was undoubtedly enjoyable. Not only because of Benjamin's undeniable talent and passion for his work, but also our shared education in recreation and love of the outdoors in all of its forms. The conversation soon focuses on the outdoors. Dating back to the beginnings of the national park service, Horace Albright and Steven Mather set out on a nationwide campaign to popularize the national parks because they very well understood the inside politics of it all. Albright and Mather knew the land was likely not to be set aside, and if it were, it wouldn't be permanently preserved unless people enjoyed it. "That's one of the big things right now in developing countries where we need to find a way to inspire conservation. Not just to create areas for the animals, which is required, but natural spaces for human beings. To be perfectly frank, we're selfish people who begin to think 'Hey, I need that space to go fly-fishing, climbing, hiking, etcetera which in turn creates the demand. Over time people fall in love with the place and the animals through recreational pursuits. Now they're emotionally connected. The pressure on our wild and open spaces is enormous. We need as much as possible." - Benjamin Walls
A mother's story (Karen Walls)
Benjamin was just a little boy, probably five years old, when he got his first camera. He saved cereal box tops he collected and sent in. Immediately, Benjamin started taking pictures, and you know, you had to take the film out of the camera and take it somewhere to be developed. Benjamin decided he wanted to enter a contest at school at the age of eight. He climbed way up to the top of a tree beside our house and took a picture of a momma dove sitting on her nest. In the photo, you could see the tiny baby doves sticking their heads out. We took the film to be developed, of course. To be in the contest, the participants had to mat and shrink-wrap the image (Mom shared the picture - see below). Benjamin did not win; instead, he received an honorable mention. But there's a catch! The judges did not believe Benjamin had taken a photograph, thinking one of the parents took the image. He was not deterred, maybe the first indication he was gifted, a natural. So, Benjamin kept getting better cameras, better lenses, and teaching himself how they might be used, for example, the use of light.
Benjamin already adored being outside from the time he could walk. Mr. Walls had his son in the woods hunting and fishing from a very early age. "He was tiny, says Mrs. Walls. "I just found out a couple of years ago that he put Benjamin in a tree stand when he was only five years old and left him there. Again I just found this out, and I said to him if I had known that you would have been fatherless Benjamin! I would have killed your daddy deader than four O'clock. His father says that he always had his son in a direct line of sight." Add his father's passion for hunting and fishing, and you understand why Benjamin Walls has an innate love and reverence for nature and all of its inhabitants.
I was curious and asked Mrs. Walls if she has a favorite image? Besides his very first photo, her favorite is Original Blues, photographed in New Zealand soon after Benjamin told her he now knew what he wanted to do with his life - take photographs. Original Blues hangs in her home.
WHAT SENT YOU INTO PARKS/RECREATION/TOURISM AS A MAJOR AT ASU?
"Big picture, is an innate fascination with the outdoors, from a little kid. My mom tells the story of my preschool days. Before she left work, she had to use the restroom because she knew I wouldn't go into the house until it was dark. For me, the world happens out there, not inside. That translated very well with a father who took me out fishing, hiking, and hunting - he was a big hunter. I'm not a hunter today, but that did get me outside, nurturing a love for the outdoors. Once I was old enough to drive, my focus became hiking/camping with my buddies." (Based in Bristol, VA where he grew up)
Benjamin chose Appalachian State University, mainly due to his love of the outdoors. At ASU, he enjoyed an academic scholarship, a school boasting one of the highest elevations east of the Mississippi, the Great Smoky Mountains, Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah nearby. Most weeks, he went hiking in WNC and Boone, in particular with his buddies.
"I actually made the baseball team, of all things, pretty big into athletics in high school." Once at App. Benjamin, having fallen in love with the natural world, started backpacking in Linville Gorge. And on a Friday night with buddies, he would be up at the crack of dawn, sometimes before to hike all the way out. Get in the car and drive back to campus for baseball practice. Then, of course, go hiking again that evening. After a while, the two passions were at odds with Benjamin's love for the outdoors winning, so he said goodbye to the baseball team.
THE TRIP THAT UNEQUIVOCALLY CHANGED HIS LIFE:
"When I attended Appalachian State University there were fourteen thousand students, and one scholarship position to UN Exchange and Study Abroad. All I had to do was pay my fees at the University. The only thing I had to pay was my plane ticket, and I switched places with a student in Australia for that one spot on Exchange in the whole school. I was on scholarship as you recall, so effectively, all I had to do was pay for my plane ticket. I knew about the space before I enrolled at the school and thought to myself, I'm going to get that space.
It was that trip that changed my life. I grew up in a humble family, in a humble part of the united states. It was that age that I came to realize as an average American, I was one of the wealthiest people to have ever existed on the planet. Suddenly I understood the significance of the opportunity to travel around the world - so much opportunity."
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
"The other thing that happened when I went to Australia is I took an elective class (photography ) In Enlargement & Processing. At that time I was taking pictures and turning them into posters by enlarging them, taking them into Kinkos, putting it into a color scanner, get copies made and put them on my dorm room wall & then sell them to people who wanted to buy it.
How this ties into Australia, is I wanted to make ten foot wide enlargements. So I got into the darkroom in Australia and created. So many people were buying the prints off of my wall and telling me how great I was, but the critic in my own head said precisely the opposite. "I'm terrible at this." I wanted to create enormous images so it would translate to the natural world very powerfully.
Many artists use scale as one element in their art. Example. When I sit down and look at a Jackson Pollock piece in a magazine or an art catalog, well it's pretty cool, BUT you see one in person, and it smacks you. You see Monet's Waterlilies which may be feet wide, it's incredible."
SCALE & THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE
"I've always wanted to create art. I think of myself as an artist with a camera and not a photographer. It sounds nuance, but that approach is essential."
Ansel Adams, the environmentalist and landscape photographer, was hired by Harold Ickes, the politician who served as the Secretary of the Interior for 13 years, from 1933 to 1946. To date, the longest tenure for the office. On Ansel Adam's paycheck, it said, "Muralist," it did not say "Photographer." It was Adams' and Ickes' idea to create large pieces in the natural world because their motivation was to influence Congress at the time to convince them to set aside more wilderness areas, national parks, and more natural areas. One of the first people creating photographs as art of natural subjects.
Benjamin expounds on Scale:
"For an oil painter, scaling up means more painting and more time. There is no limit to the Scale. In photography, you have the knowledge, skillset, etc. that have to pour into the capture. There is an equal amount of work on the front end of the enlargement, which are two technically intensive processes that have to happen for that to be fully translated in what you see today" (in Benjamin's work.)
From the beginning, Benjamin has followed his unique path in developing a process that is unique to the way he creates his works. The process is ultimately only a means to an end, but there is a lot of craftsmanship. The many methods Benjamin uses to create his stunning murals could be equated to the closely guarded secret recipe for Coke. Every ingredient is commonly available to everyone, but it's how you put it together - the recipe, where some works require different recipes. The process is always being tweaked. He has ideas of how he wants to make changes in the future, "taking it to the next level."
Benjamin Walls Gallery (Bristol, VA & Asheville, NC) / WALLSabout Luxury travel
Benjamin tells me, the people who have traveled with him and his staff on safari are ten times, maybe a thousand times - "I don't know what the multiplying factor would be, but those numbers represent the likelihood they will make a donation to a conservation organization." The most significant contributions to date for the Rhino cause came from previous travelers, with Wallsabout. Out of everybody, the thousand-plus people. The ones who wrote the most significant checks were those who have gone on one of the previous trips OR have collected a piece of Benjamin's work on Africa. They become emotionally invested in what’s going on, and they connect with it.
WALLSabout Luxury Travel's catchphrase is - We don't SEND you on a safari, we TAKE you on safari.
"I was studying tourism at college. In fact, my senior project was to create a travel company, very much what Walls about is today. Click here for images & info on Walls about. The project encapsulated my entire senior year. But it was my Aussie friends, my camp friends, and my college friends who convinced me to work on my craft."
What I would like people to know :
"Starting right out of college, I took a stab at it, working a couple of jobs. It was really tough. Often people see me now and think I've got it made. I feel like I've always had it made, but that's just my attitude. There was a solid seven-year period where I didn't know how I was going to pay the bills for more than a month or two, usually not more than a couple of weeks. I stayed with friends, and I ate beans and Ramen Noodles to save money for film. It was really, really tough! Nurturing the dream that there was a dream was a real thing for me for a long time.
No magic, no snapping a few shots, and here comes the success. It was a day in and day out persistence, telling myself I love this, and I'm going to do it and share it.
Right out of college, I took a job on a cruise ship because I didn't have any money to travel. That placed Benjamin in a different port in the Caribbean consistently where he could take photos. Then I took a job teaching snowboarding in Colorado so that I could take photos in the Rockies. From there, I traveled, sleeping on friends' couches, and camped."
Written by Scott Haire, October 3, 2019