When it comes to questions of size, the Australian photographer Ben Thomas has a predilection for the miniature. Or at the very least, the world's great cities brought down to miniature. In his book Tiny Tokyo, and through his City Shrinker feed, Ben manages to reduce the vastness of the world to a more intimate and personal level, without sacrificing the richness or wonder contained therein. We recently asked the photographer a few questions regarding his distinctive vision and signature technique, and discovered that indeed, the old adage is true: it's a small world after all.
EQ: So what led you to photography as a creative medium? Who have some of your greatest influences been, generally and in photography?
BT: About ten years ago, when I moved from Adelaide to the much bigger city of Melbourne, I was really keen on discovering my new hometown. For me, the best (most fun) way to explore was to head out and take photographs. Just by coincidence, I sought out higher vantage points to see what was around. I started experimenting with different tilt shift techniques and achieved some interesting results. After I released the first images on my blog, the response was incredible and prompted me to start exploring more options.
Olivo Barbieri was and is still a huge influence. It was his work that first introduced me to tilt shift photography. I remember seeing some of his work as part of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. I spent a lot of time standing there, getting lost in his work. More recently, I have been studying and enthralled by the works of Jeffrey Smart. His use of color and perspective is something I find completely fascinating.
EQ: Much of your featured work has dealt with the idea of the miniature—creating smaller-looking versions of actual-sized worlds. What do you find personally appealing about these "miniature" worlds?
BT: From my early work with the tilt-shift effect (using both photoshop and tilt-shift lenses) I found the overwhelming public response to be firstly, disbelief that the scene was a real one, but more importantly that it revealed the viewers’ already present attachment to a place. This emotional response was the same whether the scene was home, a holiday memory, or the iconic. Each attachment is unique and special in its own way and always personal, and the dreamy, story-like quality of the images is ideally suited to this romance with location. I really enjoy being able to connect with people on that plane.
As much as that sense of communicating though, I personally love the process of exploring. You don't need to be shooting tilt-shift to be an explorer, but I have really embraced the technique as a way of bringing details into sharp relief. Certain details can be brought into focus that might get lost in the background of a normal photograph. These incidental moments and objects are often overlooked but really help reveal the personality of a place.
EQ: Technically, how do you create the miniature effects that you use in your photography? How did the technique develop?
BT: As mentioned, a lot of my early photography was shot from high vantage points, and some anomalies had cropped up shooting at that range and height which were not ideal in themselves, but gave me a feeling for an aesthetic I wanted to explore. I had seen a few gorgeous examples of tilt-shift and felt this was a great way to explore the city and deliver my particular message. In my early work, I achieved the effect in Photoshop, but shortly after that I purchased my first tilt-shift lens, which was pivotal really.
The tilt-shift effect, put simply, is an adjustment of depth of field and perspective. It creates the impression of a close-up view, which allows the eye to be tricked into seeing the image as a diorama.
EQ: Of all of the cities you've photographed, which is your favorite and why?
BT: Tokyo is my undisputed number one. I still find it hard to fully comprehend the urban sprawl of that city. You move within these sub-cities and the seemingly endless cityscape is constantly changing. It is really inspiring. Even after five visits, doing the book, and an intensive three-week shoot, I still feel like there is a lot more to explore.
EQ: How has living in Australia influenced your work? And how has it affected how you look at the world?
BT: It’s only been in the last few years that I have come to really appreciate living in Australia from a photography perspective. As a kid, all I wanted to do was visit the biggest cities of the world, I felt like that’s where all the action was. I’ve been lucky enough to visit a lot of the world's biggest cities over the years and now I’m finding myself appreciating what’s around me here in Australia a whole heap more. As a family, we try to get out and discover new places every weekend, and I spend most Sunday nights blogging about it. In the span of a month, we have visited some fantastic beaches, built snowmen in the hills, discovered newly designed parks and gardens and new architecture in the city. I feel like I’m seeing Melbourne all over again, with new attention to the little details that make it what it is. I’m hungry more than ever to travel interstate and internationally, my desire to discover has never been stronger.
EQ: What other creative outlets do you have when you're not taking pictures?
BT: Music is my other great passion. Some of my most powerful memories traveling and shooting have been of times where I’m completely alone (whether in a crowd or otherwise) with my headphones on, completely lost in the music and the moment. It’s a way for me to give the purest focus to my work, true clarity.
I am also a keen cook and brewer, for me this is a way to be creative every day of the week. Much like photography, the process of experimentation and building knowledge is hugely rewarding.
EQ: Your latest book is about the city of Tokyo. What, in particular drew you to that city?
BT: I first visited Japan in 2008, and I was overwhelmed by so much, but of course by the photographic opportunity. It's incredibly vibrant, colorful, bold, but at the same time traditional, ancient, restrained. Tokyo has a very particular character in terms of color, geometry and contrast which is where my focus is just at the moment.
EQ: If you could photograph any person, place, or thing in the world, past or present, what would you pick and why?
BT: It would be to shoot the globe from the space station. I know this sounds a little corny, but I couldn’t imagine a more magnificent scene to shoot, to see everything at a scale like that. Amazing.
EQ: What's next for Ben Thomas? Any big or exciting projects on the horizon?
BT: I’m working on a few new projects at the moment, one in particular that I’m really looking forward to is a two-month artist residency that I am doing in Tuscany next year at a place called Villa Lena. Words can't describe how fantastic it’s going to be to have a couple of months dedicated to working on some specific projects from start to finish.
I was really fortunate to have been able to use one of Taku’s tracks to underscore a video I made leading up to the release of Tiny Tokyo. I’ve been really inspired by the work he’s doing and we’ve stayed in touch. At the moment, he’s managing a collaborative project called Create & Explore, which provides an “intersectional platform for beat-makers and photographers to create and explore the power of artistic collaboration.” I’m very excited to be a part of it and can’t wait to share more.