By Tanya McKinnon
When you wander through galleries and museums looking at huge perfectly printed photographs, you know a tremendous amount of work has gone into making each print. Ben Diep may well be the man behind those prints.
Ben’s first artistic love was painting, but after only two semesters at RISD he had to return to New York to help his father start a custom photo lab. Before long he began to realize the artistic possibilities in printing, the ways he could bring his painterly sensibility to the printing of photographs. From there he went on to open his own printing studio, Color Space Imaging in New York City’s photo district, and became part of a small select group of fine art photographic printers. Diep collaborates with photographers such as Duane Michal, Joseph Bartscherer, Holly Lynton, Sandra Gottlieb, Ron Weis, Lothar Baumgarten, Candida Hofer, Richard Pare, Dana Lixenberg, and Daniëlle van Ark. In any given month Ben may be printing for a museum or gallery show in the US, or for one of the many art capitals in Europe.
When you have a photograph printed by Ben, you’re getting an image not only unique to the photographer’s vision, but also to Ben’s, in that he has rendered that photograph into the form of a painting.
As Ben took me on a tour of his studio, he explained, “A great deal of high end photography is now shot digitally, and that opens the printing of photographs up to the tools in Photoshop. With Photoshop, every image that comes through here is treated like a painting. Digital printers and digital scans or camera files have an advantage over analogue film as they capture greater range of color and density, however this attribute is a double-edged sword, as it causes the image to appear flat, with low dynamic of color and depth. Prior to printing, digital images are processed or ‘finished’ in Photoshop whose tools enable me to draw out from the image a similar depth of color and complexity of texture and contrast that exists in a painting. For example, if a portion of a photograph is in shadow or highlight, Photoshop allows me to draw out the actual colors that comprise that detail in real life, so that it no longer looks simply gray or black and white.”
Ben sees printing as an art form and his workspace as a salon for artists to discuss and explore the process of art making. “When I started Color Space Imaging in the city I would invite my employees to each lunch with me in the shop, and while we ate we would look at and workshop images. I did the same thing with them that I did with artists who came to me for printing: hang up a photograph and discuss it. In this way my employees stayed focused and color sensitive throughout the day and, as a group with the photographer, we continually looked for ways to push the boundaries of the printing process.”
This is a philosophy he has brought with him to the rivertowns when he moved Color Space Imaging here in 2012 and when he and his wife, Mairead Daly-Diep, opened Square Peg Gallery in October of 2015. In this striking red brick building facing the Hudson River on Warburton Avenue in Hastings-on-Hudson, Ben and Mairead present contemporary art in a variety of mediums, including photography, painting, sculpture, installation, music, and poetry. “The work we are exhibiting goes beyond being decorative and aesthetically pleasing; it’s both thoughtful and thought provoking. It must be poignant and beautiful and true.”
“The goal of the gallery is to collaborate with the artist, but also to bring a museum level of installation to the space. We welcome schools, universities, and art classes to come and experience the gallery. It’s a space that facilitates not only the display of art, but learning and the exchange of artistic ideas.”
Square Peg also collaborates and exchanges artists with the Rafius Fane Gallery in Boston.
What about the Hudson River inspires you?
The Hudson River is a constant source of inspiration for me. I look out at the wide-open sky. I see the moving water reflecting so much color and it is continuously changing. The river and the palisades is a place of unending reflection. No matter how long or deeply I look it has no end of inspiration. It is an aesthetic meditation without bottom. I can come back to it every day.
Why did you choose the medium you work in?
I currently work in digital imaging that outputs into digital projection or digital prints.
I started as an oil painter and I love oil on canvas. I love to have the range of glaze and texture that reflects my mood and energy at the moment.
I stopped painting after I left college and returned to New York to start a new business with my father. It was supposed to be a temporary job, but I have continued printing photographs for the last 30 years.
Through printing I learned about making art for many artists through the medium of photography, not just black and white and color prints, but film, the positive and negative.
Photography is fascinating because for many different artists it is a way to experiment and transition within their medium.
What haven’t you done in life or art that you yearn to do?
I committed to be a painter, but have not painted for the last thirty years. I have instead made my process in photography a painterly one in every way. My goal is to ultimately go back and forth between the two mediums. As I age I realize more concretely that time is limited and I don’t want to miss having also lived as a painter. I have also always dreamed of living in Paris, and hope one day to do that.
If you were giving a commencement speech, what would be your most important message?
Find out who you are, and be truthful to yourself. The sooner you are comfortable in your own skin, the sooner you’re comfortable with your own style, your texture, your technique your medium, then you can go forward.
But the most important thing you can do is make a positive difference in someone else’s life. You don’t have to be rich or outrageously successful as long as you’re contributing meaningfully to the lives of the people around you. I am satisfied in my life because I can feel that I’m positively affecting every artist I collaborate with. I see the satisfaction, the light in their face when we take it to the next level. And that is the most important thing to me.
Artists are often perceived as self-centered and self absorbed, but in the end art is really a selfless act because artists ultimately share their most vulnerable selves with the public. They are alone for long stretches of time, then they emerge and share that work with other people. This is an act of love; it is a very beautiful thing.
How do you handle failure?
When I have a setback I have to remind myself that this is an opportunity to reassess and reflect. I take comfort in this. As a painter when I would get lost I was also closest to finding my soul then, to finding a new, a true way. It is when I am the most mindful. It’s when I think I know the path that I worry most.
Make no mistake: failure is very upsetting, especially when your finances are limited, but for me, not taking the risk is a greater failure.