IT’S A CASE OF, like father like son for professional photographer Ben Messina. His father, Seb Messina has been a highly regarded Queensland landscape photographer for several decades, and Ben has clearly picked up the photographer’s gene from his father. In striking out on his own, Ben has both a passion for capturing landscape and an entrepreneurial streak in bringing his images to the public.
A new gallery quietly opened up in Maleny’s main street a few weeks ago, a gallery that simply sells the photographs of Ben Messina. But it is already a constant buzz with locals and visitors alike, fascinated by breathtaking images of Australia’s outdoors – from baking desert scenes to cascading waterfalls and forest landscapes. They confirm the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words. But do they sell?
“Photography is more affordable in some ways than paintings,” says Ben. “My limited editions do go up in price as they sell out, and so they can become expensive towards the end. But I do see photography and painting in the same vein … if someone likes a picture and they are willing to buy it and put it on their wall, then it’s art.”
Like other forms of artistic expression photography demands passion and emotional connection to the subject. Ben has had that connection since he was a boy growing up in Cairns with its lush and sensuous landscape.
“As a kid growing up in Cairns my father was always a professional photographer”, says the quietly spoken Ben. “So he started teaching me and my brother when we were young. We learnt to hand print in black and white as we had a commercial dark room in the house. So, it’s always been in the blood you could say.”
Ben has been a professional photographer since he was 18. In Cairns he was a commercial and fashion photographer. Then one day he was doing a commercial shoot for Peter Lik, the award-winning landscape photographer.
“He loaned me one of his film-based panorama cameras for a few months and I was hooked. That’s when I decided – that’s enough of commercial work and this is it for me. I stopped doing all other forms of photography and went into landscape.
“It’s probably the hardest of all forms of photography to make a decent living out of,” Ben adds thoughtfully. “That’s because Australians view photographic art as not quite on the same level as painted art. I can understand that because Australia doesn’t have a great history of photographic artists, unlike the Americans who are used to regarding photographs as art.”
That’s not to say that Australians aren’t catching up and having a high regard for their photographers – Max Dupain, Bill Henson, Ken Duncan, Rennie Ellis, Frank Hurley, Tracey Moffatt, Olive Cotton, Steve Parish, and William Yang, to name a few.
Professional photography requires a technical mastery of equipment that is constantly changing. Ben uses Nikon digital cameras but uses a Fuji panoramic film camera to achieve a finesse of depth and detail unique to film.
“I use a mix of the two – film and digital – because film still has a beautiful quality about it. Sure, you can replicate it with digital but I find for a really beautiful result I will shoot it on film. You do a quick scan, clean up the dust and it’s ready to print basically.”
Ben and his wife Joanne moved from Cairns down to Brisbane early in the new millennium and established a gallery in Sandgate, where they now live. Joanne runs that gallery which also offers printing and picture framing. So why Maleny?
“I tend to do things from the heart,” says Ben with a smile. “My wife Joanne and I have always loved Maleny. Full stop. We just like the place. For me it’s an inspiring landscape. I love being up here. We eventually want to live up here. I could have gone with Montville but I just like the feeling here. I just think it’s got great potential.
“This is my fourth gallery now and what I have worked out is when people aren’t in their home town or suburb, then they’re in Maleny as tourists. They’re pretty much on holiday when they’re here. So that’s when people are looking for things like art, shoes or whatever to buy.”
“People buy my photographs because it’s an emotional purchase. It’s not generally for the image location. When I take a photo it’s because it is something I like. I don’t take an image thinking this is going to sell well. And that’s what I love about landscapes, you can write your own schedule and take photos of what you want.
“There are no trends either. Everyone has a different taste. I have sold a wide variety of images, and I don’t just have images of Queensland or Maleny. There are photos here from every state in Australia and New Zealand, which sell well here too.”
Ben doesn’t sell the framed images on the gallery walls. If you want a particular photo, Ben can print it on site and have it framed to suit at the Sandgate shop.
Ben plans to eventually hire more staff to run the gallery so that he can get out more often with camera in hand. He’s also looking forward to becoming more familiar with the hinterland landscape, so we can all look forward to Ben Messina’s keen professional eye producing some stunning local images in the future. As Ben says with some relish, “If it’s visually pleasing and it interests me then I will keep going back until it works.”
by Michael Berry