How deep is your connection to your hometown? Do you see it only as a point of origin, or is there something that binds you stronger to it than you first thought? For Kent-based photographer and graphic designer Ben Wright, it turns out to be the latter with the discovery of his ancestry. This in turn, inspired him to explore and reinterpret his personal history through black and white film photography, in a series he dubbed Cornerland.
“After moving from London back to my home county in South East England I also found out through a DNA test that my ancestors had ventured very little outside of the area. This a visual exploration of my relationship to my surroundings and also with my personal history.”
In the quick interview below, we asked Ben to share more of his insights on creating Cornerland, film photography, and his intriguing visual style.
How did your film photography journey begin? What made you decide to focus on black and white film photography?
My first memories of film photography were in the mid 90s whilst on holiday in Turkey. I’d borrowed my father’s 35mm SLR whilst on a day trip to the ancient ruins of Ephesus. Looking through the viewfinder for the first time I was struck with the realisation of an exciting new way to view the world.
I briefly experienced the magic of the darkroom whilst studying at the London College of Communication but didn’t fully rekindle my film journey until around 2017. I started feeling like there was too much cross over with work and pleasure, so I sold my digital camera and picked up a tiny 35mm Leica CL from the 70s.
Black and white photography has always had a big personal appeal. With my background in graphic design it had a very relatable visual language. It allows for a detachment from reality, to create something more interpretive and interesting. It also gives complete control over image making from developing your own film to producing prints by hand.
I’m also colour blind so it makes things easier!
How did you gravitate towards and develop the kind of photography that you do?
I have always strived towards some degree of minimalism in all my work and actively seek this out. Looking through the viewfinder is an exercise in isolation and subtractive composition. I like the idea of creating fragmentary individual images which act like hieroglyphics to a larger whole of memory and perception.
Most of the time, I shoot with a normal 50mm lens and occasionally with a telephoto lens, as I like the compression of elements. For some people the film frame is sacrosanct, but I will quite often explore by cropping within an image ideas for the future or more directed images riffing off the further pronounced grain on offer.
What gave you the idea to explore your personal history through your Cornerland project? Why do you think the topic fits your visual style?
I think I had already been subconsciously working towards this project but it was only really consolidated by the nature of 2020. Being restricted to a small geographical area whilst also having time to reassess work from previous years of which I could build upon.
The series originally began in 2018 when I moved back to the southern English county of Kent where I grew up. I had left in my late teens, originally to Brighton on the south coast and then onto London. A common migration for the young.
Around the same time as I returned, I had been given a DNA ancestry test by my girlfriend. I didn’t know much of my personal origins beyond a few generations. Waiting for the results, I imagined ancestors from far flung corners and thought of the apocryphal tales of family histories passed down from previous generations at gatherings. To my initial amusement and surprise the results concluded my ancestors had almost 100% occupied the exact small area I departed from.
This project has allowed me to explore my identity of place, the relationship with my physical surroundings, and also with my own personal history. It was a way of reconnection through the preconceptions I had before returning and fragmented memories I had before I left.
Visual style isn’t something I really pre-plan but is often my natural response to the subject. I have quite vivid memories of the past but not much outside of them. The individual, strong graphic frame represents this to me.
What realizations or discoveries did you have while shooting Cornerland?
A lot of the places I photographed I had been to decades before. There were echos of the past but also a feeling of exploration upon returning. It wasn’t nostalgia but one of discovery. I enjoy the challenge of finding new ways to represent the reality of the familiar whilst unearthing new narratives within the commonplace. I found myself returning to many of these places frequently and through repetition I feel I gained greater connection and opportunity to express this creatively.
The events of 2020 played heavily into this. I started cycling a lot to escape the monotony of lockdowns and taking my camera with me. I’d find unexplored country roads on the map and see what I’d chance upon finding. Previously, I’d part subscribed to the common idea that you have to travel to find subject matter of interest but I quickly realised this wasn’t the case.
Lastly, what do you think makes a photo great? How do you make sure it shows in your work?
A good question, one of which I am still exploring with regards to my own work! It is a constant learning process. I am enjoying the journey and exploring the world through the viewfinder.