Ben Christensen is a western photographer and film director who captures the awe-inspiring simplicity of the western lifestyle through his art. As an artist and outdoor enthusiast, Ben uses his artistry to bring the Old West back to life. He achieves this through the stylistic choices he makes within his craft. Specifically, he simplifies every aspect of his art: he shoots while sitting horseback, he uses warm light, he sticks to simple patterns and colors, and he utilizes the outdoors as his backdrop—all with the objective of illustrating the Old West. As an artist, Ben’s ultimate goal is to contribute to the western community by sharing the unique stories within it.
Can you describe your personal connection to the western world?
“It was all basically my dad. He is more of a mountain man; a rugged man who has always loved the western lifestyle and the outdoors. Because of that, growing up, every weekend he would say, "Hey, let's go camping." And we'd pick up the horses he had at a friend’s horse property and go deep into the mountains for days at a time. He was a traditional kind of camper. So our camping trips consisted of cooking meat over the fire and sleeping under the stars without tents. It was rugged. And that is where my love of the rugged journey of the cowboy and the simplicity of the Old West comes from.”
How have these horse packing journeys in the rugged outdoors with your dad impacted your life?
“No matter how busy I get with life, the outdoors is always there, not to escape, but to go and get a clear mind and go back to what we're doing in life or the purpose of it. And it has helped me get my mind clear. I learned at a young age how great and simple it is. And so to this day, being outdoors is a huge part of what I love to do and what has led into my photography career.”
What specifically about the American West or the old American West draws you to it so deeply?
“I'm attracted more to the journey where you pack everything on the horse and go. So you have to really bring the bare essentials. And you're riding in the outdoors for days at a time and camping. I almost go back to this old song by Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.” It goes along with that simplicity of it. For me, it's the outdoors, my horse, and me. And it's a feeling that no one would ever fully comprehend unless they felt it themselves. And I was able to feel it at age 10 when my dad took me for the first week-long horse packing trip deep in the Mountains up in Utah. We camped by a river or a pond each night and just kept going, riding horses. At one point on this trip, I looked around and realized we were in the middle of nowhere. Then, as I was eating some licorice in my saddle on my horse, it started pouring rain. We both just started laughing and my dad looked at me and said, "How amazing is this?" And it was amazing. It's just the simplicity of the ruggedness. And there's nothing that takes you more back in time or connects you to the Old West than that.”
How do you capture themes of the Old American West in your work?
“When I am documenting someone, I use the outdoors. We don't need some Hollywood pretend ghost town set. Instead, I can shoot in the outdoors and keep it simple in using nature more than anything. Like horse packing in the mountains and keeping that simplicity. So we plan a trip for a shoot that we all ride together, and I'll naturally capture their story to keep it real. I like to keep it raw, simple, dark, and add a certain tone to it that really speaks more of almost capturing a still frame out of a movie. I capture it in a certain way and then simplify it more instead of complicating it. It's going down to the root of things and bringing back the simplicity of what the Old West is all about, the western lifestyle.”
Do you have a specific technique that you use with your photography to give it your own personal touch?
“It’s important that my subjects wear their own hat. In old Western movies, the hat they wore is the signature piece of who they are. When you see a specific hat, it draws you straight to the person. It's part of their identity. So it is important that they wear the hat that they are known for all the time, whether I like their hat or not, because that is what they are connected to and who they are. And that's part of the simplicity of the Old West that I love—bringing in the character with the hat that tells it all.”
What drives you to execute your craft?
“I love creating and sharing my vision, my love for the Old West. My craft is really inspired by Old West movies. I don't dwell on a certain shoot for too long. I create something. I share it. Being a part of the creative world, you have to keep creating. And that's what drives everything.”
Why is it important to you to revive the art of the Old West?
“With my subjects, it has really inspired relationships; people who are passionate about the western lifestyle as much as I am. So that comes across in my photography, comes across in these projects because the people are passionate about it. When you're shooting an actor or a model, that’s one thing. But man, to actually document someone who is passionate about or authentic to what we are capturing—for instance rock climbing, horse packing, or ranching—people who are actually living it, or even just passionate about it, it speaks volumes through the photos because it's not faking anything. I want to create something that is a movement through my photography where I am able to have people connect with our heroes from the past, our family, our grandparents, and how we are all connected to westerns. Through the simplicity of these old westerns, the messages that come from it, the life lessons, the people, and the respect for the western lifestyle, I don't want that to be lost. I want people to recognize that you don't have to use drones all the time. You can create something in simplifying and slowing things down a little bit.”