the mad heiress interview: ben davidson
it's reprinted here by permission.
fs: where are you from? where have you been?
bd: i was born in edinburgh, scotland. i lived there and in jamaica for a few years before moving to north carolina with my folks. i now live in raleigh, nc. i’ve also lived in boston, maui, lndon, akron, and tucson.
fs: what’s your favorite place in the world?
bd: probably kula, maui. i lived there for a few years and it’s lovely. it’s “upcountry” maui, close to haleakala crater. farther away from the tourists, closer to the paniolo. i have no photos, other than mental ones.
fs: what’s on your “bucket list” of ideas to create?
bd: a medusa shoot inside a cave, lit by torches. still working on putting that together.
fs: how would you describe your visual style?
bd: that’s tough to answer. i know my influences (horror, art house, surrealism, gothic) and hope that those are expressed in my style. maybe a bit movie-like, like film noir?
fs: tell us the significance behind the name, mad heiress.
bd: i thought i made it up, but it turns out it’s a novel by horatio alger, which i’ve not read. so much for originality!
for me, the name evokes insanity and entitlement, two qualities in america that i see reflected in abundance each day through tv and social media. to any sane thinking person, so much of what’s reflected back at us in the media just seems bat-shit crazy.
so maybe the name is a kind of critique, although the content on the site doesn’t editorialize in an overt way. it’s more satirical and absurd. i hope the site sidesteps a clear narrative or intent of any kind, i hope that people find the writing funny and provocative; the photos, art and film beautiful; and the music enjoyable and cool. so the term is not political, in that sense.
i originally didn’t even want site credits, so that the site would kind of exist without stated purpose or ownership, but a friend pointed out that i’d have difficulty attracting talented contributing artists if i made the site that enigmatic.
there’s now music, writing, film, and non-photographic visual art by a number of other talented contributors. i am very grateful to everyone who has contributed their talents to the site.
mad heiress also speaks to a kind of distressed, worn, gone-to-seed aristocracy, a la miss havisham from great expectations or the maysles brothers’ grey gardens documentary about the edith beales. For reasons I don’t understand, this type of thing appeals to me.
fs: how do you find your inspiration?
bd: my imagination, mostly. it’s always going.
i like early art movies like german expressionism, so there’s a bit of that mixed in. and of course american gothic. the environment…old buildings, cool natural locations, how the light behaves in places i know well. sometimes, the look or posing ability of the model helps inspire ideas. i also like to brainstorm ideas with models and other creatives.
sometimes from music, too. the john dowland song “come heavy sleep” as performed by guitarist julian bream inspired the another green world gallery. big lazy’s music definitely shaped my editing approach to the crime jazz shoot.
fs: in addition to photography, you’re also a musician and writer – tell us about those aspects of your career.
bd: i studied english and classical guitar in college. i’ve made my living as a writer for most of my adult life, and i studied guitar seriously for about four years. with any luck, i’ll continue to do both of them for as long as i live.
one of my goals in creating mad heiress was to combine writing, music, and photography. ideally, like in crime jazz, the elements all come together to reinforce one another
fs: tell us about your career. how did you get into it?
bd: i’m currently the writer for alien skin software, makers of the most excellent photo editing/organizing app exposure, among others. i use exposure in most of my edits.
i moved to raleigh about five years ago and began shooting as a way of exploring my surroundings and collaborating with others, since guitar and writing are solo endeavors. i grew up watching tons of art movies, so i think that was also a factor: wanting to tell visual stories.
fs: what types of photography do you do?
bd: arty (sometimes gothic, surrealist, ethereal, natural) portraits, vintage, glamour, and nudes. i enjoy them all. i like projects that involve shooting in an interesting location, with great natural light, and with the help of an mua and stylist, and on-site assistants.
fs: what was the moment you decided to become a photographer?
bd: when i bought a canon 5d mark iiiI. that wasn’t a casual purchase for me. i had a good run with it before it was stolen.
fs: what has been your biggest setback as a photographer?
bd: not so much a setback as a challenge – finding the right personality/creative mix for collaborators. there are some ideas i cannot yet shoot for lack of a team. i don’t have clients commissioning my shoots, so the majority of my shoots these days are tfp.
also, upping my game. improving the prep work on shoots, so there’s more of a balance between the on-shoot “let’s try this” and a clearly defined, storyboarded plan. and getting better at the fundamentals of the craft.
fs: photography is competitive. how do you stand out?
bd: i don’t think i can answer that. the best i can hope to be is myself. and there a lot of really talented people creating photos these days, which is awesome. it’s my hope that all talented artists can be appreciated for the work they contribute.
popularity is of course awesome, but the main thing that matters to me is the work, and the value of that is in the eye of the viewer. though i am pretty sure that all art is not subjective, as there are objective standards of craftsmanship and technique that are either present or not in varying degrees in any work.
like many artists, i think my attitude towards self-promotion is ambivalent. there aren’t enough hours in the week to write, play guitar, shoot, edit, work a job, exercise, have a social life, and promote myself. so for self-promotion, i pretty much stick to posting work to a few social media channels and to madheiress, trying to make it as interesting as i can.
fs: what’s the best advice you can think of for someone just starting in photography?
bd: learn to see. to really see. that’s something i’m still working on.
take a course in fine art appreciation. surround yourself with constructive, talented people and learn from them.
don’t become a gear head.
fs: what is the best thing a model can do to make the most of a photoshoot?
bd: be collaborative (if the photographer is open to that, and they should be!), and think of yourself as an active co-creator, instead of an object to be posed. that’s just my preference, however. some projects may call for the opposite. also, pinterest is a great tool to build up ideas, and i recommend that if lots of in-person meeting isn’t practical. and it goes without saying, be professional. show up on time, communicate well, etc.
fs: what was your most memorable photoshoot?
bd: there have been a few great ones. but probably the crime jazz shoot since it was an early shoot, one where i had no idea if any part of it would work. there were so many firsts in that shoot. but it came together, and it taught me a lot, from the planning, to the shoot, through the final edits. gave me a lot of confidence, too. and it demonstrated the value of working with a good team.
fs: what’s the funniest story you have from being a photographer?
bd: do you really want to hear about not being able to stop farting loudly during a shoot? of course you do!
fs: if you could photograph anywhere in the world, where would it be?
bd: i’d prefer to shoot off-world, if it’s all the same to you. 🙂 maybe a surrealist fashion shoot on the off-world noalithean ice mining colony on io?
fs: who was the most unforgettable model you’ve ever met?
bd: i can’t remember.
fs: who do you want to give a shoutout to?
bd: Everyone. i’m really grateful to them all. my favorite folks to work with are those who are really and truly in it for the art.
FS: What’s your philosophy when it comes to being a great photographer?
BD: To be brave enough to remain a dreamer and an idealist, and not have the fear of failure stop me from trying an idea.
fs: what’s a deal breaker for you when deciding to do a shoot?
bd: If i’m likely to get arrested for being somewhere i shouldn’t. the communication skills, attitude, and portfolio quality of those i’ll be working with. if i think i don’t have a reasonably good chance of getting a look that someone is interested in. i’d rather turn down a shoot than botch it.
fs: how do you bring out your model’s personality in a shoot?
bd: i like to collaborate, so i ask for ideas ahead of time, use pinterest, and i talk a lot with them during the shoot. i think i’m a pretty affable person, and a good conversationalist, and have an inquisitive mind. so i’m interested in who they are as people, beyond just how they can help me achieve a certain look. all of this helps, i hope.
fs: what do you think is the biggest thing holding you back in your photography?
bd: me. i could make it my life, but i am also invested in guitar and writing. and sleeping. did i mention i’m a gifted sleeper? and gaming sometimes. oh, the witcher 3… i need to clone myself.
it would also be nice to live in a bigger, more sophisticated city with a larger, more ambitious talent pool, but overall i enjoy raleigh, and i really like my job. and living in a busy city would have its own downsides. maybe one day i’ll resume living in a big city. or move to new zealand and shoot landscapes. it’s a toss up.
fs: how do you express yourself through your photography?
bd: at my best, i think I sometimes make still movies, or images that could be movie stills. i really like the post-work editing process, and find that with creative tools (shameless plug for alien skin exposure here), i can bring a range of different emotions to an image. and in some cases, take something so-so and make it striking. at least, i hope that’s the case.
fs: what photography advice do you wish you had when you were first starting out?
bd: skip the whole gwx thing.
don’t use wix to build a site. i did and, though it’s totally my fault for being a noob, the mobile and responsive web design is just terrible.
fs: what are 3 tips you have for aspiring photographers?
bd: vary your shoot locations and situations (don’t just shoot in a studio against a backdrop), don’t focus on gear, study study study. think of yourself as an artist, even if you feel that you’re not there yet. be okay with sucking for a time, in the sense that that is part of the process. that was more than three.
fs: what are 3 tips you have for aspiring models?
bd: be reliable/professional, practice posing, and learn to see critically. think of yourself as an artist. pay your dues and shoot for free if you love somebody’s work. when you have the experience and portfolio quality, then it’s reasonable to expect money.
fs: what kind of gear do you have? what’s your favorite?
bd: sony a7rii. sony 85mm 1.4 lens. sony/zeiss 35mm 1.4 lens. probably the 85mm lens, because of how great it looks shooting wide open or close to it.
fs: what’s one lighting tip you’d like to share with other photographers?
bd: small led bike lights can work great in spooky indoor locations. start paying attention to the behavior of light in your everyday life, so you can better understand it. shoot early, or around sunset. get that flash off of the camera. bring an assistant and a reflector.
fs: what’s one post-processing tip you’d like to share with other photographers?
bd: try out as many editing tools as you can. not necessarily on every photo, but to be able to incorporate them into your overall workflow. think of them all as different tools in your arsenal, some do things better than others, and some offer unique possibilities. even if you use just a few go-to apps, it’s really helpful to know what special effects other ones can provide, for those times an image might benefit from one.
fs: do you have any projects you’d like to show off?
bd: the whole site www.madheiress.com, as the meta-project.
fs: what is your most life-changing event?
bd: attending oberlin college, and especially studying post-modernist art and music in london with randolph coleman, professor of composition.
fs: what has photography done for you as a person? how has it changed you?
bd: it’s made me more sociable and collaborative, and less analytical about creativity. it’s also helped me become more of a risk-taker, in the creative sense. i don’t try to control everything. and it’s refined my eye and awareness of aesthetics, so that now i’m even more of an opinionated pain in the ass about art than i ever was.
fs: what’s something no one knows about you that you’d like to share?
bd: that i’m actually kind of an optimist?
fs: who’s your biggest hero in your life?
bd: maybe leo kottke, a brilliant guitarist. though when david bowie died, i cried about it for days, much to my surprise, since i’m not a weepy guy. so, maybe him. i admire my parents a lot, too.
fs: what will you be doing five years from now?
bd: shooting and editing photos. writing. playing guitar. continuing to develop mad heiress. collaborating with a kick-ass creative team. maybe living in a major city.
fs: what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
bd: that’s probably a tie between skydiving and dressing in a carrot outfit for a job. my friend dressed as a tomato, and instead of handing out souper salad flyers like we were supposed to, we ran around newbury street in boston doing all kinds of performance art. i gave cher the finger while dressed as a carrot.
fs: what’s something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t?
bd: release an album of professionally recorded solo guitar music.