Growing up, ben ham spent carefree days trolling through the pluff mud of the Lowcountry marshes in a little boat, captivated by the ever-changing tides, moss-draped trees and oyster beds. A lover of the outdoors, landscapes became his muse, and as a teenager, his camera was a constant companion on those boat rides, hikes, backpacking and mountain climbing trips. While friends prodded Ham to make a career of photography, he never considered it more than a beloved hobby until more than 20 years ago, when he donated a piece of his black-and-white photography to a charity silent auction. To his surprise, when he checked to see if anyone had bid on it, he noticed a crowd gathered around his piece.
“My first thought was that someone had knocked it over or it was broken,” recalls Ham, who soon discovered there was a bidding war for his work. At the end of the night, his piece was auctioned off for more money than one of his current photographs sells for. “I remember driving home under the live oaks that night with the car top down, and the moonlight was bouncing off the trees, and I thought to myself, ‘I really can make a business out of this.’”
Now the 63-year-old photographer, who calls Bluffton home, is approaching more than $10 million in sales, with a Ben Ham Gallery in both Charleston and Bluffton, and a sprawling production facility in Hilton Head, where his prints are framed in olive wood imported from Italy and protected with museum-quality glass and shipped to customers all over the world, from Africa to Australia and South America. Unlike many in the fine art arena, Ham is self-taught, garnering much of his inspiration from famous landscape photographer Ansel Adams and poring over his three books, The Camera, The Negative and The Print. Even with today’s flashy technology, Ham still mirrors Adams’ pure technique, slipping a dark cloth over his head and shooting on film with a large wooden camera. His love of black-and-white photography began as a teenager, when it was all he could afford to develop and print; now, it’s much more personal to his craft. “Color doesn’t intrigue me at all,” Ham admits. “When you strip away color, it becomes more about composition.”
To arrange the perfect composition, Ham constantly scouts different locations, most untouched by man. Once he returns to his chosen spot—usually before sunrise—he approaches his subject like a painter. “It’s all about contemplation. I usually stand there and think about it for a while before the camera ever comes out,” he explains, adding that he exposes no more than a few sheets of film for one scene. “I try to create a window to transport you to whichever world it is, and I always feel like you have to become intimately familiar with a place to capture its true essence.”
While the photographer is most known for his Lowcountry work, those landscapes only make up a quarter of his work. In his 100-piece collection, you’ll discover high-altitude landscapes from snow-draped forests and mountain lakes in Colorado, haunting images of the Southwest, Napa Valley’s wine country and the Pacific Coast, and the dreamy landscapes of Italy. “My work has been an interesting journey, because a lot of my customers have invited me to visit or travel with them,” he says, referencing long trips to photograph Italy or Napa, where he was introduced to the Mondavi family and eventually held a show at the prestigious winery.
How does Ham keep his work fresh when shooting in the place where he’s spent much of his life? He leaves that to nature and simply changes his perspective. “The environment is constantly changing and moving,” he says. “I look for things that I may have passed over before. You have to always keep your eyes open.” *
Angela Caraway-Carlton is a Miami-based freelance writer, travel and lifestyle expert, and television producer. Her works have appeared in Indulge Magazine, Time Out, Elysian, Aventura, South Florida Luxury Guide and Modern Luxury Weddings South Florida & the Caribbean. Caraway-Carlton has covered lifestyle trends in South Florida and beyond for more than a decade.