Last Saturday afternoon, award-winning street photographer Yana Benjamin and Art Animal went on an “artscapade” on the streets of Ann Arbor, Mich. This experimental project was overlaid with the theme, Ubiquity of Urbanity.
While walking the streets and stopping to snap pictures here and there, Benjamin and I discussed her childhood hobbies, artistic influences and favorite photographers.
Benjamin has always had an aptitude for creating art. When Benjamin was younger, she grew up in Slovakia playing with her first camera, an old Russian Zorki, and making jars and other practical things with mud clay. Photojournalist and war photographer James Nachtwey was one of her favorite photographers (when asked about him further, Benjamin retorted, “That guy’s nuts.”). Robert Frank, best known for documenting American society in the 1950s, also caught Benjamin’s attention at an early age for his fresh and skeptical outsider’s perspective.
Now a professional photographer, Benjamin’s art clearly builds off of her childhood idols, juxtaposing reality against a reflection of reality and capturing an irreversible, visually complex moment without the aid of computer graphics.
“When I capture the moment,” Benjamin said, “it takes on a life of its own, the relationships of objects and juxtapositions taking on different denotations and importance. So the real becomes something else on a two dimensional plane. It becomes my reality.”
I explore the abstract qualities the complicated layers create, and this is not an easy image to look at with its multiple layers – the reflection of a building, woman, spider web, and mask. It was done in one shot, with no manipulations.
After studying photography in school, Benjamin worked as a street photographer in San Francisco. She was a winner of the Manfrotto Imagine More Contest in 2011 for the untitled picture of a woman next to a spider web, which competed against more than 7,000 photos. After moving to Ann Arbor, Benjamin did not invest as much time in her beloved street photography since the main reason for relocation was to start a portrait and wedding photography business.
“Here I have to create time for street photography,” Benjamin said. “In San Francisco it was created by itself.”
When asked to capture the urban scene of Ann Arbor, Benjamin confessed that she was intrigued but worried that she would not get any interesting pictures. In San Francisco she was able to capture a scene just down the street of her residence, while Ann Arbor has proven to be more difficult. Street photographers usually work in larger cities, where they are able to blend in with the crowd and shoot anonymously. Working in San Francisco, Benjamin was used to this way of working and could hardly imagine photographing Ann Arbor the way that she did in San Francisco or New York. However, though she admitted concerns prior to the shooting, Benjamin, adventurous in nature, was game for the challenge.
We started out into the streets. Benjamin was dressed in a comfortable dark-gray knit cardigan, flared jeans and crocodile print flats, perfect for catching the last bit of the Michigan summer. I quickly deduced that Benjamin has been blessed with one of those personalities that makes people instantly feel at ease around her, a useful skill for a photographer who works to document people’s lives. She is also highly in tune with what her subjects are thinking or feeling, wanting to capture them in an honest moment.
“I want to take pictures but they’re looking at me,” whispered Benjamin timidly, turning away from people behind the display window of the butchery in Kerrytown, Ann Arbor. “I try to take pictures without people knowing it.”
“And I never ask for permission,” she added, turning to capture a few candid shots of people buying and serving fish.
Given Benjamin’s surreal style of street photography, which is focused on capturing reflections through glass windows, her attitude makes sense. It is only when people are unaware of being caught on camera that she is able to capture their natural, unposed movements. As a result, her photos rarely display subjects’ faces.
Of course, wedding photography is an entirely different genre that hones in on faces, so Benjamin has had to adjust her artistic style. The truth is, she sees a big difference between the two: while street photography is about creating the moment, wedding photography is about capturing the moment.
“Street photography is about seeing the unseen and creating visually interesting comparisons, often pretty bizarre images that can never be duplicated,” Benjamin said. “In wedding, and, generally speaking, event photography, the scene is already there. You are the observer, not the creator. You just have to click at the right moment to capture it.”
However, she added that it is just as important to feel artistically inspired in wedding photography as it is on the street.
“My father told me once, ‘there is always a subject to photograph no matter where you are,’” Benjamin said. “It is upon you to successfully tell a story.”
As it turns out, Benjamin told me, her father was right. Though she had her doubts, Benjamin confirmed that the “artscapade” with Art Animal was a great inspiration to her personal work, resulting in nine photographs that beautifully capture the people and architecture of Ann Arbor. In the near future, Benjamin plans to photograph the streets of Detroit.
“[If you look for it,] you can find an urban scene anywhere,” Benjamin said.
To learn more about Benjamin’s other works, visit www.yanabenjamin.com
This article was originally published in Art Animal.