If he wasn't already an award-winning pianist, Ben Folds might have been a professional photographer. Taking pictures and making prints are some of the many talents possessed by the American singer song writer and this year he got to show them off on an international stage. Folds recently participated as a guest photo editor for National Geographic's Your Shot program, a recurring, themed photo assignment that NatGeo outsources to their online community of picture takers. Each month, a guest editor and NatGeo staffers develop a theme or concept to structure a photography story around, and then put out an open call out for submissions. From there, they select their favorite responses and publish them as a story both online and in National Geographic magazine.
Folds' theme was "Anachronisms." To help explain this concept, Folds gave the example of an image that captures an actor dressed as Napoleon Bonaparte texting from his smartphone between takes. "That has classic anachronistic absurdity," Folds writes on the assignment page of the National Geographic website. "An absurdity such as an anachronism can help illuminate who we've become, what has changed, and what has remained the same." Folds implored his participants to "make 'em silly if you like. Make 'em novel, sad, or even frightening. But let's not forget the possibility that we might, even by accident, tell a story." Throughout January, Your Shot members submitted their photos to the assignment for Folds to review and provide feedback. Together with NatGeo staff, Folds narrowed down a list of his favorites which were published in early February as part of this curated photo story.
Creators spoke with Folds over the phone to try and get a better idea of his process and what "Anachronisms" means to him.
Creators: First off, why pictures? What about photography do you find most attractive?
Ben Folds: Well it's a slippery slope. I've had this urge to make finished, lasting prints for as long as I can remember; and as I worked at this I found so many things along the way that are attractive. The way that [photography] makes you see. The challenge of it. Telling a story visually. I like cameras. I like where my head's at when I do it; and I like making the prints. It's sort of like one thing leads to another and a print is born. But I think it all comes from wanting to have a print that I can hold.
Producing a tangible thing.
Yeah. I think it's possible that quite a few of the photographers on the National Geographic thing I just did, don't really need, or their ultimate goal is not to have a print in their hand, but just to make the image regardless of where it shows up. And I think that's great, I just happened to really like prints.
How do feel anachronisms effect change over time? And why do you think that's an important thing to show right now?
Well I don't know about right now specifically, but photography is about time, because you've frozen a moment, which is not possible. Something in the frame is coming, and something in the frame is going. For example, you have a picture of a baby in a stroller in front of the Twin Towers in the year 2000. Well that baby is now a grown man, close, and obviously the towers aren't there: something was coming, something was going. As you exaggerate that dynamic in a photograph, you find yourself looking sometimes at photos where two things should not be in the same photograph. And that does happen sometimes there's always a slight of hand in some way, but it makes you think about what's changed. In this project in particular, there were a lot of people who photographed members of an ancient religion carrying cell phones. And while too many people did that for me to comment on, it still shows that people are fascinated with what technology has done and how that can sit side by side with an ancient religion. And it speaks to science versus religion. So thats definitely effective in finding a creative unique way to express that absurdity.
What was your correspondence like with the photographers?
Well the correspondence was great because I reluctantly stepped forward as an "expert" in the company of a lot of people who probably had every bit as much experience, maybe more sometimes, as I did with photography. And I've done a lot of photographing, and a lot of printing in my life, but some of these people were professional. So I thought it was a really great conversation. I was able to make suggestions, and in some cases people took that suggestion and resubmitted, and in other cases it showed me why they were right the first time. And I was happy with that. There was some criticism over how many favorites I picked on the first run, which was a lot. And I thought that was valid. We talked about that a little bit and it was nice. I think there aren't many forums that are that civil and honest or really inspiring, and it was that part that kept me going.
What was your process like when you were choosing the finalists?
My selection process was very messy. It had to be. There was something like 12,000 or 11,000 photographs. If you look at photograph number one, and you make a comment about it, by the time you get to photograph 9,000 and go back to it, you could be thinking something completely different, because now you kind of know what the curve is, and what the norms are, and what the cliches are, and who is unique, and what is still interesting after all this time. I had to go through the whole lot, twice, then I had to go through what I had chose as the semi-finalists multiple times after that. So it was a lot of looking at photographs. I wasn't always somewhere where I had good internet which made things very very painfully slow for me to try to go through everything and have to wait for a minute for a photograph to appear on my screen, so I was multitasking, and when I'd see the screen was full, or mostly full with the image, I would look at it. So that was tough.