Benji Wagner: Using Photography to Engage with the Great Outdoors

A lifelong outdoorsman, Benji Wagner grew up mostly in Maryland and at quite a young age began avidly skateboarding, snowboarding and shooting photographs on film. He worked as a freelance photographer and filmmaker before starting an innovative outdoor equipment business a couple years ago. “I went to college off and on for years but never graduated,” says Wagner. “I am an autodidact. I didn’t enjoy school very much, and I prefer to pursue the subjects that interest me in my own way.” Benji Wagner is the co-founder and creative director of Poler Outdoor Stuff. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and three children. Here is the story of how he combines his passion for photography and the outdoors to create compelling motivational images for his new company.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I’ve always been interested in storytelling, people and the outdoors. I would like to create images that are out of time and out of place.

Q: You shoot with a Leica M6, correct? What characteristics of this camera do you find suitable for your work?

A: I believe some objects are more than the sum of their parts and that their limitations become their strengths. An M6 is one of those things and it isn’t really quantifiable. It’s a great example of how less can be more and a pleasure to use.

Q: Which lenses do you normally use on your M6?

A: The 35 mm f/2 and 50 mm f/2 Summicrons are the only lenses I have. I’d like to acquire a 21 mm at some point I think.

Q: Photography is not your day job, is that correct? Would you consider yourself a professional photographer or a serious enthusiast?

A: I was a professional freelance photographer and filmmaker before I started my company, Poler Outdoor Stuff. I no longer work for anyone else, but I still shoot for my brand.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about that your role at Poler and how it ties into your photography?

A: Photography is a key aspect of the brand. We have a series on the website called “Adventures” showcasing photo-essays shot by very talented photographers. We’re very grateful to all those who have contributed and hope others find it inspirational. Thanks to the Internet, photography is a part of everyone’s life in a way that it never has been. We aim to inspire people to spend more time outdoors and photography is what does that more than anything.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: My father showed me the basics, but after that it was mostly trial and error — constantly studying art books and learning about the masters. I became a huge fan of Magnum and all those great early photojournalists and artists. Currently I am really into Todd Hido, Ed Templeton and many of the people I get to work with on Poler, too many to list.

Q: You mentioned that you’ve always been interested in storytelling, people, and the outdoors, and the portfolio you submitted certainly captures all three of these elements. What story were you telling with these images and what audience were you aiming at?

A: The photos I sent you are all from recent shoots I have done for Poler. I’ve used an M6 for about 15 years but I thought some of my recent work would be most fitting. I try to tell stories that inspire young and old to get outside, have fun, explore and be part of their environment rather than sitting in front of TVs or computers. Poler makes stuff for everyday adventures and the stories are intrinsically tied to the products we make.

Q: Which color film did you use to create these images? Do you ever shoot digital, and have you considered using your lenses on a Leica M9 or a Leica M camera that provide the Leica M experience in digital form?

A: I usually shoot Kodak Portra or Kodak Tri-X. I have a huge emotional attachment to film because I’ve been shooting it for more than 20 years. I’m not sure I would feel the same if I was younger and more sophisticated in my use of digital, but one of the things I like about film is that because the majority of the images in history were shot with film it has a timeless quality. I strive to shoot photos that are out of place and time, images that seem like they could have been shot yesterday or 20 years ago. That said, I would love to shoot with the new Leica M digital camera. It looks great and I’m saving my pennies for one.

Q: This image in your portfolio, of a slim bearded guy wearing a cap standing in front of craggy mountain peak and looking off into the distance, seems to capture the archetypical outdoors man, but it also has a wistful and enigmatic quality. Where was this picture taken and what were you trying to convey to the viewer? Did you shoot it on black-and-white film, and if so, why did you choose black-and-white for this particular image?

A: This is a shot of my friend Alex Olson taken in Iceland on a shoot in collaboration between Poler and Nike. It was taken for commercial purposes but I hope it also seems to have some transcendent quality that is enigmatic as well. I did shoot this on an M6 with Kodak Tri-X film. I am a huge black-and-white fan and would probably shoot black-and-white exclusively if I only shot for my personal satisfaction. It is beautiful and timeless and emotive.

Q: In the above image, with his hands on his hips and looking straight into the camera, the subject looks very assertive, and of course the logo on his blue shirt advertises your company. This image also exemplifies the effective use of limited depth of field, indicating that it was shot at a wide aperture. Can you tell us why and where you shot this picture and what lens and aperture you used?

A: This is also of Alex Olson, who is a professional skateboarder and artist that was featured throughout the same campaign. We were skateboarding in the streets of New York before traveling to the back country of Iceland to explore and go camping. I shot this on an M6 with a 35 mm Summicron lens wide open at f/2. I wanted Alex and the shirt to be front and center in this image, so that it felt assertive and direct to the viewer.

Q: This is a nicely composed picture of a skateboarder in midair with mountains in the background. His landing options look pretty precarious and the image has a surreal quality. Obviously it must have been shot at a pretty fast shutter speed. Can you tell us something more about this picture, the technical details, and what you were thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: This was shot in Canada at a man-made lake. The subject is my friend Rick McCrank, who is skating a giant concrete ditch that serves as overflow for the water in the lake. I really liked the juxtaposition of a skateboard trick being done in a natural setting that feels grand and surreal as you said. I shot this at 1/1000 of a second with my M6 and 35 mm f/2 Summicron lens on Kodak Portra. When I shot it I was thinking about how amazing Rick is and how few people in the world could even imagine doing what he was doing.

Q: This image of a skateboarder leaning against a cyclone fence could be considered a technical failure by some because the left-hand side of the image is way overexposed and the colors are washed out, yet it has a dynamic quality that somehow conveys a certain authenticity and a sense of being there in the moment. Do you agree, and why did you include this image in your portfolio?

A: This is an example of a happy accident that can only occur on film. The roll this was taken from was somehow fogged or exposed strangely; I still don’t know how. That overexposure you mentioned is actually more of a fog that some would find unacceptable but to me it added a mystical and intriguing quality to what would have been a more mundane image.

Q: One image has a grab shot quality in the sense that capturing the moment was clearly more important than achieving a precise composition. What the heck is going on here and what does this image mean in the context of your portfolio?

A: This image is more dependent on seeing the whole story and it was taken just before the other image of Rick McCrank. I guess I like the do-it-yourself spirit of climbing fences and getting into some mischief that this embodies. It’s in the spirit of the old song “Don’t Fence Me In” and captures the freewheeling spirit of skateboarding in general.

Q: How do you think that studying the work of the great Magnum photographers of the past has influenced your work, and what draws you to the work of the contemporary photographers you mentioned, Todd Hido and Ed Templeton?

A: I was deeply inspired by the work of the early photographers associated with Leica and street photography in general. I became fascinated not only with their work but with their personal lives — photographers like Josef Koudelka, Elliott Erwitt, Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Eggleston and so many more. Like anyone who is young, I was looking to the greats to be the stars in the sky to guide me in the right direction so to speak. It was apparent that they all used Leica cameras, and not only that, they seemed to have great attachment and affection for them.

Later I became more interested in conceptual work and less attached to the idea of journalism or the decisive moment. I love the work of artists like Todd Hido, Alec Soth, Ed Templeton, and many, many more. I am very grateful that I now get to work with many talented young photographers through my company, Poler Outdoor Stuff, than I ever would have if I was just a photographer on my own.

Q: How do you see your work evolving over the next three years, and do you plan to explore any other genres such as classic portraiture, wildlife photography, landscapes, etc. all of which relate somewhat to your present work?

A: I am really focused on the business right now and don’t spend a lot of time shooting anything other than stuff like what you see here, which is fine. I still shoot lots of personal stuff documenting my family and my daily life and I occasionally get to go out and shoot a campaign that I really enjoy. I’m not sure what the future holds but I will always shoot photos and will always have my M6 with me, all the way to the end of the line.

Thank you for your time, Benji!

- Leica Internet Team

Connect with Benji on Poler Outdoor Stuff’s website and Twitter.