Enduring Images

BY JASON A. ZWIKER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY BEN HAM

It can take years for Ben Ham to finally get the exact shot he wants. And he’s OK with that.

Working with a large format camera has taught him a great deal about patience. He’s up long before dawn, traveling to a location, setting his equipment in place. Finding his focus. Determining exposure. The light he seeks is as fleeting as it is sublime. It’s visible in that rare moment, early in the morning or late in the day, somewhere between the dark and the bright, when the entire world feels awash in a soft glow.

“Most of my exposures are measured in seconds,” he explains. “Up to ten minutes is not uncommon. So things must be very still. I always watch the weather and I scout tremendously prior to shooting.”

And if these things don’t come together, he simply has to pack his equipment and return another day—over and over, in fact, until his vision and the photograph align…even if this means years of patient scouting, planning and waiting. This is what it takes to achieve the kind of art that people love to have in their homes, to look at and dream about over and over again.

Ben Ham’s work is collected internationally. The scale of his work is grand and the subject matter breathtaking. The Lowcountry, with its marshes, live oaks, Spanish moss and timeworn brickwork, is a favorite place for him to wander with his folding wooden field camera, black and white sheet film and tripod. He also travels to the Rocky Mountains, the Southwest, and the Pacific Coast—really, wherever his inspiration guides him.

He’s long maintained a presence in the South Carolina Lowcountry with his studio in Hilton Head. The South is his home, after all, the place that always draws him back no matter how far he wanders. And now he has his own new gallery, directed by Katie Lindler, on King Street.

“Charleston is a city I have known, loved and been connected to in one form or another for 30 years,” he says. “I’ve wanted to open a gallery here for quite some time.” Over the last year and a half, he has been searching for exactly the right space and finally found it on King Street. “It’s a beautiful old Charleston-style store that was originally built around 1805. It started out as a butcher shop.” The old brick of the building provides a wonderful aesthetic, the perfect complement to his emotionally evocative landscapes.

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“I’m very excited to be part of the Upper King Street experience,” he says. “Many of my collectors have become close friends. It’s really about meeting so many interesting people. It’s all about relationships.”

Equally exciting for collectors is the fact that Ham is beginning a brand new fine art series in a location that is new to him as an artist.

He recently visited the Piemonte region of northern Italy and fell in love with the quality of light he found there. He saw an entire book of photographs begin to take shape in his mind as he wandered the small towns and hillsides.

“You have to become intimately familiar with a place to really be able to capture its true feel,” he says. Then, with a laugh, he adds: “So I’ll continue with the grueling process of having to spend a great deal of time in Italy.”

That process of discovery has not only resulted in a truly inspiring body of work, but also in providing him with a whole new way of seeing the world, whether behind the camera or not.

“One of the side benefits of being a photographer is that I have become acutely aware of the quality of light and how it changes. On the days when I’m not shooting, I like to sit quietly in my den with the lights off and watch the world wake up outside. That’s such a great way to start the day!”

Jason A. Zwiker is a freelance writer in Charleston.