Creative Conversations: Caleb Bennett + Peter Yang
Creative Conversations is an ongoing series that highlights inspiring conversations between a Young Gun and someone they admire in the community. We’re looking forward to finding the next class of Young Guns - the YG11 call for entries opens May 1.
Peter Yang: So it has been a meteoric rise?
Caleb Bennett: Yeah I guess you can say that.
Peter: Congratulations on that.
Caleb: Thanks. You sort of have a similar experience?
Peter: It’s always crazy to me because I always feel like I’m just focusing on one project and then the next. Very infrequently will I sit down and say, that was kind of cool. People are always talking to me, who think I’m way cooler than I am and I’m really just a nerd trying my best not to be socially awkward in life. So you have been at the Times from 2010?
Caleb: Yeah, I have been here for two years, so I moved here specifically for this job.
Peter: I have been shooting for the Times for a few years now and it was always a dream of mine. There is definitely a hierarchy of magazines and when they hear it’s the Times Magazine, you can tell the publishers want it to be that good, because the readers expect it.
Caleb: It’s one of the great things about working here too. You can get a little complacent wherever you are, but I think I’m kind of constantly reminded of the fact that I work here, and am humbled by that. (…) Being a weekly, from a design stand point, it is a little more branded. You are still trying to present the information in the best way possible, but it’s happening much faster. Often, decisions are made at the very last minute. It is interesting because at a monthly there is a lot of down time, or there can be, and then it all sort of bottlenecks, and at a weekly it bottlenecks the entire time. So you are not able to work as far as head on stuff as you would like.
Peter: Cool, awesome, and where are you from in Texas?
Caleb: Well that’s one of the things that I wanted to talk to you about. I very distinctly remember that lakes cover that you shot. I’m actually from Dario and so Lake Amistad was sort of my back yard growing up. I remember seeing that cover and immediately knowing without even looking at the caption that it was Lake Amistad. So it’s just been one of those covers that has always stuck with me.
Peter: Yeah, that was interesting for me too, because I hit several lakes doing that trip. I was pretty stressed out about that shoot. While it wasn’t my first Texas Monthly cover, it was one of the early ones and I wasn’t a travel shooter. At that point I was still developing my style.
So is design condensed to you taking an image or illustration and just creating with it? I mean, is it very much like, you and your computer and it’s all in your head? Like, what do you do exactly?
Caleb: (…) Especially in a magazine or something that has a lot of context or meaning behind it, you really have to represent something visual or tell a story in a visual way. It’s about being able to find a composition that works on the page. I like to sort of challenge readers a little bit or do something which is unexpected and use photography or illustration in a way that really enhances the entire piece. (…) We’d had some meetings about ideas for that cover (What Happened to Air France Flight 447) and it came up that maybe we should do some sort of ocean shot. I took a photo of my own that had a very similar composition and mocked the cover up with that image, so that we could get a good sense of it. Obviously we wanted to find a more refined and a more composed photograph and that’s when Stacey Baker, the photo editor, came in and found this amazing photograph.
Peter: So is it basically that once the idea is there in your head you know what is going to be? Or do you go back and forth to that type and then you make it like a point bigger and a point smaller?
Caleb: Oh yeah, for sure. I have an entire stack of cover options of designs that I tried, including options with those images or the one that I had originally put in there with all the different types of type treatment. And then I have another batch of treatments that were purely designed, purely type, or sort of suggested things about water, the ocean and stuff like that. But even the image you see there went through rounds and rounds.
Peter: Is a lot of your job selling your idea? Or is it more like everyone recognizes what they like and don’t like?
“When you are presenting something in an early stage you have to be able to convince others of where it is going, so it’s crucial to be able to relay an idea without it being completely fined tuned.”
Caleb: In a way I think it is. There are times in the early stage when you have to present something to get an idea across that maybe you don’t have the proper photograph for yet, or your design isn’t as refined as you would like it to be and you can see where is going to go. You can see the end product but you know maybe the editor can’t. When you are presenting something like that in an early stage you have to be able to convince others of where it is going, so it’s crucial to be able to relay an idea without it being completely fined tuned.
Peter: If I ever really want to sell something I just got to do it, I just have to have someone do it and make it happen.
Caleb: And it depends who you are selling to.
Peter: Definitely some people have more of a vision of that than others. The more obvious for me the more a photo is the right photo, the more it should be picked. When I first started out, I would be dead set on just one or two pictures. Maybe it was a super young thing, but the majority of things I do now, I really trust editors to pick something that I don’t see or something that works with the story. Often times several images all work, it just depends on what you are going for. But once in a while I’ll shoot something and it has to be this one, and I’ll start defensively fighting for it before anyone even says ‘that’s not it.’
Caleb: It is interesting that you say that, because my perception was that for a lot of photographers it would be the opposite. When they are younger or just starting out they want to show everything or they want that feedback that this is working. As they get bigger, it’s more like these are my two images, you know deal with it.
Peter: Yeah it is quite the opposite, I definitely see that scenario, but my style has changed. I used to edit a lot in camera. I used to stop once I got it, but now when I’m sure I got it, that’s when I relax and then that’s when I really start shooting. I can’t tell you how many shots have been the last frame, or the second to last frame. Or conversely when it’s the first frame.
Caleb: You have shot so many people and different scenarios and it is actually kind of amazing. One thing I noticed is that everybody always looks comfortable. How do you get to that point?
“I like people and I like interacting with them and making them feel comfortable.”
Peter: It’s really weird to me, because I’m very handsome and I’m very imposing. I just think that men and women alike would be really intimidated, but they’re not. It is a few things, they’re the stars and I’m just a photographer. I recognize that. And if anything I probably didn’t come into this field with enough ego; I have just developed enough to get me through the hard times.
I do want them to look good and comfortable and I do want it to be a good experience for everyone. I like people and I like interacting with them and making them feel comfortable. I actually get a lot of jobs that are either reshoots or a difficult subject. I hear it all the time, ‘we know you are going to make people feel comfortable, we know you’re easy to work with.’ I think it is just a personality thing and it’s funny because half the time I’m freaking nervous.
Caleb: When you meet people, you can sort feel them out so I guess it is a testament to what you bring to the table.
Peter: Starting out I had this very clear idea of what I was trying to accomplish as a photographer and what my style was. I think now it is a lot more organic and I always bring a bunch of light to each shoot but these days half the time I’m not even using any of them, I shoot for whatever feels right for the situation.
Caleb: Is there anyone you are dying to shoot?
Peter: I have a lot of people who died who I am dying to shoot, so that’s not going to work.
Caleb: I guess dying is the wrong word then.
Peter: I always thought Kim Jong-il would have been really cool, because he’s just bat shit crazy looking and he’s a dictator so it’s the best combo. His son hasn’t quite aged to full crazy yet but you know I will take him like that.