Photographer Ben Ham has the easy confidence of a traveling adventurer and the accessibility of a generous friend.
But about halfway through a humor-laced survival tale about virtual dehydration after shooting his celebrated "Great Gallery Number 1" in the ancient canyons of the Southwest, I looked around his new 2200-square-foot gallery space on King Street and saw the real stories in his photos. Ham's intensity and passion for the American landscape can be felt through the images he's captured.
Charleston's newest Upper King Street resident promises to take locals and visitors alike on an artistic journey that's about as far away from an Instagram feed as you can get.
"I want to motivate people to get out," Ham says of his diverse, large-format landscapes. "There's a lot to see in this country."
Ham doesn't just reproduce an image when he photographs it. He feels it. In a world where iPhones and camera filters allow anyone to pretend to be the next Ansel Adams, Ham truly practices the 19th-century form.
The Murrells Island native taught himself large-format photography at the age of 14, with Adams' three-part instructional photography series. "I was a child of the outdoors, like most kids during that time, but when I saw Ansel's work, something changed in me," he remembers. "I wanted to see these places and do what he did. This type of photography allows me to see the world in a unique way."
Ham convinced his father to let him turn the backyard storage space into a darkroom, and the teenager became captivated. As an adult, Ham's photography became a hobby, until he donated a photo of Beaufort County's Old Sheldon Church to a charitable event in 2005.
With three patrons in a silent auction bidding war over Ham's piece, this "epiphany image" became his artistic debut. "Photography found me," he says. "It's been a real surprise. I put a few pieces out to test the waters, and the response was instantaneous."
Lowcountry images of majestic oak trees and expansive marshscapes were soon followed by the higher altitudes of the rugged Rocky Mountains, the ancient lands of the Southwest, and the fertile plots of the Pacific Coast. Relationships with his collectors drive not only his success but his choice of subject matter.
"I strive to make a personal connection with the people who buy my work," Ham explains. "Many collectors become really good friends, and with these relationships has come opportunity."
Through his collectors, Ham has traveled to California's Napa Valley as well as Italy's Tuscan countryside. "It's all about relationships. I don't take a photograph with money on my mind," he says. "I go to places I enjoy and shoot what I like because I want to. If you like it and you buy it, that's wonderful. But if you don't, that's fine too."
He's as much a storyteller, activist, advocate, and tour guide as he is a photographer. "I like to get off the beaten path and immerse myself in the area when I travel," he says. "I'm not an authority, but I'm encouraging people to get out and explore, leave the TV and air conditioning behind and get out there.
"You have to intimately experience an area in order to photograph in the right way," he continues. "Around here, if you've stood in the plough mud, you can convey what's going on out there."
Adams' environmental activism has stayed with Ham as well. "I don't want to beat you over the head with it, but I hope to subtly incite change and awareness with my photography," he says. "It's a challenge to find balance. My work might inspire people to come and see and experience places, but I also hope that they are mindful. You can't stop growth, but you can be smart about it."
This desire to share his experiences with others is part of why Ham sought to open a gallery in Charleston. "I want to take people on a journey to see some of the spots that I have," he says. "In general, people want it easy, but I hope that my images show why the hike is worth it."
His creative process and choice of tools invite viewers to experience his work differently than they would other photographs. "I approach my photography like a painter does; it's all about composition," he explains. "I do lots of scouting, pick my composition, find what I want to photograph and then I unpack. My camera is the tool."
And that tool might as well be from the dark ages in this digital era. The heavy and cumbersome eight-by-ten wooden field camera takes 20 minutes to set up. One wrong move can destroy an image he's worked to set up, with shutter speeds varying from 30 seconds to 10 minutes.
The images are captured on black-and-white sheet film and developed and printed at Ham's Hilton Head studio and then sold only as framed, large format limited edition fine art pieces.
Amazingly, some of his most famous images are taken with as few as two shots, but that's because he does quite a bit of thinking before clicking. "My photography is about an emotional response as much as the image," he explains. "It's that longing feeling and connection to a place. That's what I'm trying to do with my work."