This week we continue the A to Z of Photography with an interview with contemporary photographer Benjamin von Wong, renowned for his attention grabbing, fantastical images. We follow this with a history of Vivitar, a camera and lens manufacturer that didn't make cameras or lenses!
Benjamin Von Wong
If you've watched Benjamin Von Wong's BTS videos or TED talk then you will appreciate his fantastical images. Von Wong actually trained as a mining engineer in Montreal, hooked in by the sales pitch for a well paid job, before then working for several years in some fairly out of the way places. The pivot point in his life that led him to buying a camera was splitting with his then girlfriend. After an intense period of shooting and learning from his mistakes, his first break was event photography.
It was during this period that he became interested in developing "set pieces" that were fantastic, mind boggling, epic, and intended to be overtly sumptuous and stunning. In short, the seed for Von Wong, as his brand was to become, was sown. As his images became popular, so Von Wong was able to up-the-ante and produce more impressive effects. There was no income generation, rather this was about creating visceral scenes purely for the sake of it. Posting his collaborative work garnered larger numbers of followers on social media, however it was the production of BTS videos that caused interest to spike. Producing stunning imagery is attention grabbing — showing people how you did it leads to a large community of engaged followers and increased the number of people wanting to collaborate on new projects. Fstoppers had a part to play here and Von Wong feels a closeness because it featured his first BTS video. He says
if Fstoppers hadn't existed I wouldn't be where I am today
I asked Von Wong about his strategy for social media that propelled him to where he is now. He thinks he was part of the lucky generation that was at the nexus of the smartphone-social media wave that swept the world as people moved to 24/7 connectivity and a life-lived that was always online. However he warns that this is a constantly shifting market and whilst there is some level of best practice (be regular, be consistent, be timely), you cannot reproduce those past successes today. Indeed he doesn't think he could reproduce his past success in the same way as new strategies are now needed. Once you've missed the wave it requires a order of magnitude increase in work to achieve similar results.
By the time 2012 came around, Von Wong had reached a tipping point. Mine engineering wasn't a passion so he quit and funded a trip to Europe, offering workshops along the way. This became a modus operandi, with Von Wong in search of the viral hit, an image that would catapult him in front of global audiences. It came in the form of "An Underwater Shipwreck" whilst he was on holiday in Bali and led him to tying his models to a shipwreck in order to photograph them (read more from Von Wong himself)! The exposure from this shoot landed him squarely in front of large brands, garnering him his first major commercial job for Huawei using their then new P8.
Don't think for a minute that everything a successful photographer produces is stunningly successful. Von Wong is open about this and whilst he sets his standards high, he doesn't shy away from the material he has posted. As he lives and breathers social media, so you can look at his entire post-history on Flickr. It is open and honest, and allows you to see how one commercial photographer has developed. Von Wong says that photos (and photo shoots) aren't successes or failures as it isn't a binary split. Projects have a range of different elements to consider — sure, the photo itself, but then the lighting and the model, as well as the message to convey. Von Wong has posted images of a failed project that never launched because the messaging was wrong, even though the shoot itself was a success.
Success breeds success and Von Wong receives a varied number of commercial projects, however he stays grounded by keeping this at 10-20% of his output, the remainder coming from collaborative or philanthropic projects. He has turned his hand to campaigning for the environment, with projects such as Mermaids Hate Plastic and Climate Change Doesn't Care. Given his formal background in mine engineering, I asked him about this somewhat ironic stance. He was quick to note that the mine industry in North America has to focus upon the environment as they are required to put aside 10% of budget for rehabilitation and so, unlike other industries, are responsible for the end-of-life of their product. An interest in the environment is therefore long standing and he doesn't see himself so much as an environmentalist, as someone overtly conscious of the world he lives in. He also takes on highly personal projects such as How to make a viral fundraiser where he produced a video which helped raise over $900,000 for 4-year-old Eliza O’Neill who suffered from a degenerative brain disease.
So getting under the skin a little, what about Von Wong the person? He likes sake (Nigori specifically), as well as beer (Leffe), and Mezcal, along with the staple of any creative... coffee! He's not a movie fan per se (they fill time on long plane journeys), but likes the Marvel series, as well as thought provoking flicks like Inception. He also watches documentaries, such as Racing Extinction, however they can be draining to take in. He's a fan of photographer Nick Brandt and particularly his Inherit the Dust series where he places life size photo panels of African animals in a contemporary environment. Von Wong doesn't own any artwork himself, principally because he lives out of a small two room rental. His favorite utility software, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Adobe Photoshop. His favorite keystroke? Cmd/Ctrl-Z! Let's face it — creativity requires experimentation so it's great to be able to undo a bad choice! His favorite lens would be a 16-35mm f/2.8, but due to the cost he limits himself to the f/4 version. His favorite gel color is the CTO for when he needs to warm a scene for a little more tonality.
Von Wong principally works in-camera and whilst he has used compositing, he loves traveling, meeting people, and just generally doing amazing stuff! Part of what makes the job enjoyable for him is not sitting in front of a computer, however he is keen to scale his activities and one of his measures for success is impact. Compositing may allow him to scale the impact of his activities so it's something he's thinking of returning to.
Talking of impact, I asked if he had thought of moving from individual images to a style modeled more on a comic strip. It's not something he's considered, principally because of the return on investment in terms of time and money. He believes photos are a more effective use of resources for getting a message across. His work is about
creating the universe/world for others to participate inside of, rather than creating/directing the entire piece
And a Von Wong movie? "It would cost a zillion dollars!", although he hasn't ruled out working on documentaries.
Thinking forward I asked where his projects are headed. He is looking to actively encourage and bring "creatives in to the impact space." Specifically to
empower others to find meaning in the work that they do
As part of this, he has created a series of "creative nuggets" on Instagram which are daily posts looking at all stages of the creative process. He's keen to hear what people think, so take a look and drop some comments.
The creative process isn't all plain sailing, so I asked about irritations. His answer was on-point: "people that are useless!" More specifically people that turn up to help out on a project and not only do they not contribute, they actively take away because they stop other people from working. Being creative also leads to self-doubt and it's good to know that everyone worries about these things. Is he doing the right thing, heading in the right direction, being efficient in what he does.? However it's clear that he loves his job, living and breathing it. It is also hugely varied so that on one day he might be mixing with A-list celebrities, then sleeping in an airport or on someone's sofa. He will get the rock star treatment if he gives a photography talk, rapidly shifting back to being nobody again. I asked him about how he finds meaning in his photography and his response was straight: "I force myself to find meaning." For him this comes back to impact and specifically social impact.
We all want a life well lived and it is something we can strive to achieve. However there is no excuse not to have an impact upon society - we are all part of the world we live in, so take a leaf out of Von Wong's book and make it a better place.
Vivitar sounds like a German lens brand produced by Leica or Zeiss… or possibly a Japanese manufacturer of high quality glass. Indeed, I would be surprised if there wasn't a film photographer who hasn't, at some point in their life, owned a Vivitar product. So what is their story?
Vivitar was actually founded in Santa Monica, California, in 1938 by Max Ponder and John Best, originally called … Ponder and Best! They initially imported German photographic equipment, expanding to a range of Japanese brands post-war. They introduced the US market to Olympus, Mamiya, Rollei, and Voightlander amongst others, however in 1964 they lost the distribution rights to Olympus and Rollei which meant coming up with a new game plan. In true entrepreneurial style, they created their own brand and rebadged the equipment they sold! However their understanding of the camera market went deeper - they appreciated that third party lenses could be made cheaper than OEMs and, if sold in large enough numbers, margins would be respectable. Vivitar built a reputation for good quality lenses at modest prices.They upped-the-ante in the early 1970s by commissioning manufacturers to produce lenses to their own design, the Vivitar Series 1. They also produced a range of 35mm cameras manufactured by Cosina, as well as a highly acclaimed series of strobes. Vivitar eventually became a large multinational with a number of national subsidiaries
In 1985 it was bought by Hanimex, hitting annual sales of $100M, however this was the high point. Vivitar was sold to Gestetner in 1990 and moved away from lenses and flashes, to the high volume point-and-shoot market. The company subsequently went through a range of sales, with the brand name eventually being sold as part of bankruptcy proceedings to Sakar International in 2008. Salkar didn't want the stock which was sold in a huge online auction!
As is often the case in business, it was a sad end to an innovative company. Do you have fond memories of past Vivitar products?
Other V's that didn't make the cut for this article include Willard Van Dyke, vintage print, Vogue, vorticism, Vu, Velbon, vignette, View form the Window at Le Gras (image), Valley of the Shadow of Death (image), VJ Day in Times Square (image), vignette, Voightlander, and VSCO.