Think of the photographers whose work caught essential moments in some developing American movement. Does your list include Ben Tecumseh DeSoto? It should and that’s the point of Ben DeSoto: For Art’s Sake, a new documentary about the longtime Houston-based photojournalist.
The film’s debut is slated for Wednesday night at Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston (MATCH). A pair of screenings of the short film will be preceded by a reception and exhibit of DeSoto’s work. The reception and exhibit are free and open to the public. There’s a $10 admission to view the film and hear a follow-up panel discussion with DeSoto, whose 30-year career in Houston saw his lens focus largely on the city’s music scene. His work was featured in The Houston Post and Houston Chronicle and his images of Houston’s homeless are also some of his key works.
The documentary’s filmmakers, Andrew Benavides and Michael Zapata, became interested in DeSoto because of a set of iconic photos he took of a Houston rap giant. Zapata, whose involvement in the Houston arts scene dates back to the late 1990s as a deejay and event promoter, said the project blossomed from that kernel.
“I had this idea of doing a small feature on Ben DeSoto kind of commemorating the 20-year anniversary of his DJ Screw photos. This was something I pitched to Andrew around 2014, with plans on releasing it online in 2015, just kind of a celebration and reflection on Ben’s work and the story behind the images,” Zapata said.
“So, I pitched the idea to Andrew about doing something like this and I think, both of us being native Houstonians and having a passion for just about anything from Houston, (he) was on board to kind of capture this story. Once we connected the dots with Ben, he revealed a lot more of his collection and told us stories about his career that we reflected back on and said, man, this could probably be something a little bigger.”
The filmmakers were enthralled with DeSoto’s massive archive of photos, an archive which took months to comb through, according to Benavides. What they saw in the images rivaled the best of music photos elsewhere, according to Zapata.
“I think with Ben’s work we felt he was up there with like Ricky Powell from New York or Glen Friedman. We felt like his work was on the same page as these other photographers, but he didn’t really get the shine,” Zapata said.
Zapata said DeSoto’s eye for shooting early punk bands is a good example of how differently he approached art than other photographers at the time. He was able to freeze-frame burgeoning Houston acts like The Hates and Mydolls because he was adventurous in his music explorations. He was able to hone on what made relatively unknown bands (at the time) like Black Flag and Red Hot Chili Peppers exciting before they became world-renowned.
“We just felt like it was our responsibility to really advocate for this guy and try to get his work more recognition and financial opportunities as well, with licensing and merchandise. That’s kind of what motivated us,” Zapata said.
Another huge motivation was spending time with DeSoto, who has retired and now resides in Utah. Zapata now lives in Florida, so connecting to piece the story together had its challenges.
“There was never really a lot of time for all three of us to be together except for maybe a couple of holidays,” Benavides said, estimating they spent a total of about three weeks together over the course of the four-year project, which was funded in part by the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance.
“Those two to three weeks were so impactful, just spending time with him and getting to know him. We walked into this with him being our subject and now we’re walking away from it with him just being a great friend,” Benavides explained. “It doesn’t take long to really connect with him, he has such great character.”
“He’s just a humble, humble guy willing to share his stories, his knowledge of photography – I know he was a teacher at one point – and with the title, For Art’s Sake, you’ll be able to see in the film he’s truly an individual that did it for that reason,” Zapata added.
Whether he was shooting a punk act, a hip-hop artist on the cusp of greatness or humanizing the plight of the Houston's homeless through his photography, Zapata said it’s important to remember those moments were fleeting for a photographer like DeSoto. It’s part of what makes his images special, in Zapata’s opinion.
“I look at these images and I see that you were just limited to that one roll of film. You didn’t have a disk to give you endless amounts of images to shoot during that assignment, so you get what you get. I think that’s where the art comes into play. You didn’t have all the tools that you do now to do post-production and manipulate images. You didn’t have the storage space to take that many images. It was really all about capturing that moment in time and I think that’s what sticks out to me when I think of art and his work,” Zapata said.
Benavides began self-producing video projects in the mid-2000s, work which landed on MTV and VH1, before he went to work for Monster Energy as a video director in its marketing arm. He’s worked on projects like FX’s Atlanta series, HBO documentaries and is now in post-production on a documentary about the legendary Houston breakdancing crew Havikoro.
“Every photo that Ben took, he identifies with it. He put his own style into it. You can look at other photos from that time and I feel like there’s a stamp that says ‘Ben DeSoto’ on a lot of them,” Benavides added.
As they learned about DeSoto’s art, they also learned about the motivations behind their own work. For Zapata, the experience was a full-circle back to his interest in film and communications. He planned to study the subjects in college before he went into the music business. His work in that field gave him an appreciation for networking with other creatives, which proved to be an asset in telling DeSoto’s story.
“My vision of this project was to have all Houstonians involved. Just about everybody that played a part in this film is a Houstonian and has some relation to it,” Zapata said. “So, with the vision, I felt that if you had an appreciation for film or music, concerts, photojournalism, one way or another this project would identify with you in some way.”
“I’ve been doing this for a living for over 12 years,” Benavides said. “When you do something for a job, for money, I don’t want to say you get jaded but you get taken away from the passion thing. If anything, this struck that fire that I had back then. I learned that sometimes you can step away from that 9-to-5 mindset of doing it as a job and actually do something that you’re passionate about.”
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“We’re doing this as a passion project, that’s probably the best description,” Benavides continued. “It’s really a passion following this man’s work and it’s such an exciting project. It doesn’t feel like work, it’s just been such a fun ride.”
That’s a lesson learned from DeSoto’s example, an artist who often pursued art not from assignments but just for the love of it.
“I think he’s one of Houston’s best kept secrets,” Benavides shared. “He just hopes that his photos are a gift and I feel like they are, they’re kind of a gift to the city of Houston.”
Ben DeSoto: For Art's Sake premieres Wednesday, November 6 at MATCH, 3400 Main. The event begins at 7 p.m. with a free and open to the public reception and exhibit of DeSoto's work. Admission to the film's screenings that night is $10.