While discussing his role curating National Georgraphic's Your Shots photo competition, Ben Folds gives a mini masterclass in photography

By Jordan Runtagh
March 03, 2017 01:45 PM
Credit: Ben Folds/National Geographic Your Shot

Cell phones and Instagram have made it easier for everyone to be a photographer—but being a good photographer isn’t easy. All the selfie sticks in the world don’t mean a thing without a storyteller’s soul and an eye for detail—and Ben Folds can teach a master class in both.

As the frontman of ’90s piano rock heroes Ben Folds Five and more recently as a solo artist, Folds has penned songs that showcase his lazer-like perception, capturing moments and characters with hilarious—and often poignant—honesty. After years of setting scenes with music, he began to take a serious interest in the camera, ultimately becoming a passionate “hobbyist” photographer. His credits include the cover shots for a trio of early ’00s EPs (Speed Graphic, Sunny 16 and Super D), as well as his 2005 full-length, Songs for Silverman.

National Geographic recently commissioned Folds to curate an assignment for their online photo community, Your Shot, challenging shutterbugs of every skill level to capture compelling images of anachronisms. “Anachronism is a word of Greek origin, meaning ‘against time,'” Folds writes in the introduction to the prompt. “An absurdity such as an anachronism can help illuminate who we’ve become, what has changed, and what has remained the same. As a songwriter, I’m given to see art in terms of its story, and I think an anachronistic photo gives us a lot of potential for a story.”

The project drew an astonishing 10,000 submissions, from which Folds selected 15 to spotlight as finalists—running the gamut from stark black and white character studies to vibrant jungle scenes. His top selection, dubbed “Tech Cannibalism,” depicts a member of Papua New Guinea’s Huli tribe mid-selfie—with a lurid red phone case that matches the traditional body paint on his bare chest.

Folds spoke to PEOPLE about the Your Shot challenge, photography as an art, and the drive that pushes him to create in the first place.

I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that I’m a little intimidated when it comes to photography as an art form. It’s sort of like abstract conceptual art—I’m worried that it’s not for me but for people who’ve read books I haven’t read, and took classes I didn’t take. What is the first step in learning to appreciate photography on a deeper level?

I think we’re all in such an image-based world that people are probably more sophisticated in the way they look at photographs than they might think. I find I get asked that question a lot about classical music and symphony orchestras. And the truth of it is, to completely appreciate really fine art, it does take a while. That’s just the truth. That doesn’t mean that there’s not something on it at first listen or first view. So I don’t think that people should be intimidated off of it.

I think you should view photography in the way that you want to. If you want to look at it quickly and walk by, walk by, walk by, and when you see something that you like stop and look at it—do it that way. I see people always walking around museums staring at one image for a long time because I think they feel like that’s what they’re supposed to do. But sometimes it’s not what’s resonating. Move on by, there’s millions of images out there and I think we know more about them than we think we do.

I’ve read that the birth of your kids [twins Louis and Gracie in 1999] motivated you to pursue photography in a major way.

Definitely, because that’s when I put together my own dark room. Before that, if I printed in a dark room it was a community dark room. [When they were born] I thought, “You know, I’m going to get an enlarger and I’m going to make these prints like I want them and I’m going to make them on nice paper so my kids can have them and their kids can have them and it would mean something.”

With kids it’s an interesting thing because you’re trying to guess how profound a moment in an image might be years later. And often I’ll look through an old contact sheet and I’ll see something that now resonates more than it did then. Often it’s because you don’t know how your kid’s going to turn out, and then you see something about them you nailed that you didn’t realize back in the day.

It’s like a look into the future, in a funny sense.

Yeah, and that’s photography. And this assignment I did for National Geographic, Your Shot, [the prompt] was “Anachronism” — against time. That’s what that means. When you freeze time, you’re f–king with it. You’re saying something about time. How someone sees the future in that moment, how someone sees the past in that moment. Where do they go after the photograph is made? Did the photographer scare the person and that’s why they’re looking that way? Photography is great for all the questions it makes you ask, because it doesn’t say much—it’s only a second. One second before and one second after are very different.

That makes me think of the shot of the woman holding an old photo of herself from decades before. It’s the past and the present juxtaposed in a very literal way.

Credit: Raffaele Montepaone/National Geographic Your Shot

That was a neat moment for her. And you’ve got to figure that when she was sitting for that photo as a child, that was a big deal. Someone brought over a photo-making machine, you know? She kind of looked like she had the same sort of feeling about making a photo now. She’s not snapping a lot of selfies and posting them on Instagram.

How did you come up with the “Anachronism” prompt?

I really did just pull it out of my ass. Someone said, “What would your assignment be?” Ahhhh…anachronism! I guess my instinct was not to make it, ‘We’re going to photograph cats!” It made me think. Anachronism is hard! It’s a hard thing to put your finger on. A lot of [submissions] are monks with cell phones. Is that really an anachronism? Because that person is living in this era, so are we pretending they were beamed in from the 12th century? I don’t know if that’s an anachronism, but there were a lot of those, so people felt like they were.

Then there’s someone at a renaissance faire on the phone. That looks like dress-up to me, but maybe it is an anachronism. Maybe these people are stuck in that era and they romanticize that era and they’re willing to step out of that shell for a minute to use digital technology; maybe that’s what we’re seeing. But it needs to tell a story of the subject, and it needs to tell a story of a time and a place that’s beyond dress-up and beyond stereotyping.

Credit: Julie Redwine/National Geographic Your Shot

Some of the outfits were pretty great, especially when they toed the line between stereotype and homage. I’m thinking of the woman under the huge hairdryer, or the couple in the ’60s living room.

I loved that, because that in itself was its own story. It begins to be a little bit like a Wes Anderson thing. It’s surreal that they’re posing. We know that they know they’re posing. Or they don’t know they’re posing. Or the story is that it was set up. Or the story is something else! Every picture is certainly, by its details and perspective, capable of telling a different story. The story with the girl at the computer is more of a set up to me. That’s more of what the story’s about. The story of the people in the [living room] is more of a romance between the photographer and 1967. The day before he probably googled Woody Allen and William F. Buckley Jr. on the Dick Cavett Show.

Credit: Juan Osorio / National Geographic Your Shot Domestic Bliss

There’s a lot of room for humor in a prompt like this. The cognitive dissonance is really funny.

Cognitive dissonance is common with anachronisms because it’s against time. It’s that cognitive dissonance that calls you into an anachronism where you’re like “Whoa! What is that guy on the horse in the middle of a street for?” There are a lot of photographs of Cuba, because Cuba is anachronistic.

It’s funny. There was that movie Inglourious Basterds. Suddenly in the middle they’re using these crazy blaxploitation-style mannerisms or gestures out of nowhere in the middle of a movie that’s supposed to be World War II. Suddenly this s— happens and it’s anachronistic as hell. It’s funny. It makes you laugh, it’s interesting and it’s deep because it says a lot about how we see things now as opposed to then.

What was it that you were looking for when you went through these submissions? What makes a “good photo” for you?

I always want to step into a photo, and you want some art in the bones of it. You want to see that it’s framed in a way that’s helping the photo, colors are helping the photo, the subject themselves are helping the photo. All of those things are coming to bear. [It’s tough] when you see a photograph where a lot of these things are working for it, but “Jeez, this guy’s cropping is crap!” Or, “I wish he f–kin’ focused!”

Credit: Nabila Obayed / National Geographic Your Shot Past and Present

There was one that I left, which I thought was an interesting one for me to leave, and it was a very small structure in a river looking up. I felt it was a David and Goliath picture. It was looking up at all these buildings that were just going to eat it very soon. If you’re looking through 10,000 photos and you’re looking for that one, I was looking for the one that said that. Architecture anachronism, and a story inside the architectural anachronism. Because the new against the old is not enough. There’s plenty of those, why would I pick that? But in this, I was interested because I felt like I was behind the back of a very small old person, looking up at all these hulks, all these buildings that were superheroes. They were modern superheroes. It was an interesting story.

But what this photographer had done in telling the story, he had sharpened the photo beyond belief, and I thought that was over the top. And they tried to correct the lines in Photoshop, and I thought had done a very weird job. So those two things just about knocked it out of the standing, but I thought it was one-of-a-kind and I really needed that photo. So I thought, “You know, if I were an editor, I would go back to a photographer and say, ‘Undo that s— and let’s put that on the cover.’”

What was it about the photo “Tech Cannibalism” that made you put it on top of the pile?

Credit: Alexandros Tsoutis/National Geographic Your Shot

It does all the things you need it to do. Plus it pops because of the color, it pops because of the eyes, the absurdity. It’s modern but it’s not. If I put that on the front of National Geographic, I would have to think that it would make the cover funnier than their covers usually are. It’s cheekier than your average NatGeo cover. But it still, in style, looks like the magazine.

There were so many good ones. I feel like some of them would make cool album covers.

It’s interesting, a lot of the album cover ones were often lo-fi. They would attract me to being an album cover, but I couldn’t put them in the winners—which says something about my album covers. [laughs]

Does your photography ever inspire or influence your music in any way?

I think they both stem from my understanding of art as a story. That’s what they have in common. Other than that, I can wax bulls— about it and try to draw lines between it, but basically the thread I see is that I understand photography in its part of telling a story, and that’s the way I understand a song. What they both have in common is that the most mundane detail can have a lot to do with telling the story. The art becomes fishing for that, finding a detail that does that. Because you see them up and down the street all day long. People pass me and say s— and I go, “Wow! That’s a song!” I always put these in my little notes on my phone these days, if I don’t have a pen I’ll write what someone said as they passed me.

I was passing someone on the street the other day and they said, “He cried three times in the pilot, for God’s sake!” He cried three times in the pilot—that says a heap! You could say that many other ways, but the person wasn’t trying to make a metaphor. When I heard it, not knowing what the context was, suddenly I had a metaphor of gold. [There’s] ambiguous poetic imagination about it. So you have to look for those things. As a photographer it would hold true as well.