Tennessee State Museum through October 2
by Bob Doerschuk
“I look for inspiration, for moments that are almost too good to be true, too incredible to be real, but they are. And I want to capture and share them.”
Though born in Bristol, Tennessee, photographer Benjamin Walls has never shown his work in Nashville. Maybe he’s been too busy taking gorgeous pictures of nature’s wonders all across America, on cliffs overlooking the ocean in Australia, or from atop an elephant, presumably to get the right angle on some nearby tigers in the wild.
Fortunately, the Tennessee State Museum corrects that oversight on July 1 when it unveils Through Appalachian Eyes: The Fine Art Photography of Benjamin Walls. Just 36 years old, Walls has assembled a catalog vast enough for the Museum to divide his show into four well-stocked sections: Appalachian, National, International, and Abstract. From intimate images of flora snapped just an eyelash away to lightning-lashed landscapes, all of these works serve his mission to celebrate the natural world.
“I look for inspiration, for moments that are almost too good to be true, too incredible to be real,” he explains. “But they are. And I want to capture and share them.”
Even at age 6, when he got his first camera by clipping and mailing a coupon from the back of a cereal box, Walls felt the pull of the outdoors. It intensified when he persuaded his parents to allow him and a friend to hike through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Somewhere between being dropped off at Cades Cove and retrieved 11 days later on Interstate 40, he underwent a transformation of sorts.
“What I saw on that hike inspired me so much,” he says. “And I felt for the first time this deep desire to share what I saw with people. I didn’t know any way to do that except through photography.”
This epiphany prompted Walls to look at the pictures he’d taken on that hike through more critical eyes. “They didn’t convey to people what I had seen in the things I’d photographed. So I began really critiquing myself. It was difficult, but it drove me to improve. To this day, my favorite question is, could I have done better than this?”
Educating himself through trial, error, online resources, and art books at the local library, Walls developed his vision and technique. Except for a single class in enlargement processing at Australia’s Southern Cross University, he mastered his craft entirely on his own. Eventually his pursuit of the world’s hidden beauties led him from the representational to the more elusive.
“Sometimes you can distill the essence of something by taking a small but essential portion of it and cropping so much that it goes from reality to a form of abstraction,” he notes. “One of my pieces, Elements, is simply the rim of a geothermal pool in Yellowstone. Also, for a series I’ve been working on called The Abstract Force of the World, I’ll move the camera parallel to a tree trunk while keeping the shutter open. You can still see the tree but a plethora of tiny details is gone. What’s left is the color of the forest and the way the light goes through it. That’s what I want the viewer to see.
“Ansel Adams used to talk about having a vision for a subject,” he summarizes. “When you have that vision, when you look beyond the obvious, that’s when you move from documentation into fine arts. I want to transcend documentation. For me, it’s all about the vision.”
Through Appalachian Eyes: The Fine Art Photography of Benjamin Walls is on view at the Tennessee State Museum through October 2. For more information, visit www.tnmuseum.org. To see more of Benjamin Walls’s work, visit www.BenjaminWalls.com.