Photographer Ben Baker talks Trump, Cate Blanchett, and date night with the Obamas

Baker with current US President, Donald Trump. Photo: Supplied
Baker with current US President, Donald Trump. Photo: Supplied

He's hung out with Barack Obama, scouted the best room in the White House when setting up a photo shoot with then-Vice President Al Gore and made Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Stiller smile for the camera. Welcome to the world of photographer Ben Baker, a former Adelaidian who moved to America at 23 and now calls New York home.

The dream-like sequence of Baker's rise as a photographer reads like a fantasy tale, including a stint in the '90s working alongside Annie Leibovitz assisting on Vanity Fair covers.

But Baker is as unassuming as it gets and he's not one to brag about rubbing shoulders with US presidents and A-listers.

Photographer Ben Baker says communication is the key to getting the perfect shot. Photo: Supplied

Photographer Ben Baker says communication is the key to getting the perfect shot. Photo: Supplied

Talking heads

"It's all in the conversation," says Ben Baker.

"When a magazine assigns me five minutes to photograph Obama and Michelle, I have to try and make that time matter and get the time extended," he says.

"If I go in with an honest exchange between me and who I am interviewing I find that really helps get to a good photo," says Baker who comes back to Australia regularly to work on projects – his most recent photographing the film stills for Aussie thriller Rabbit.

"The way I work is I talk a lot and listen a lot and I happen to have a camera in my hand," he says.

A young start

Baker grew up in Adelaide with his parents and sister who also works in film in Adelaide. His dad would drive seven hours to remote indigenous communities in the Northern Territory to act as a mediator between them and land councils while his mother was a social worker.

But it was while studying at Christian Brother's College in Adelaide that he found his niche thanks to a photography teacher who expanded his mind and encouraged him to take photos.

"Those mentors are important," says Baker.

"It's because of this teacher I really found my place. I learned photography is a gratifying field because it's so instant and that gave me a nice feeling."

On his own terms

Baker failed to score a place in Fine Art at TAFE but that didn't stop him from being on a mission to succeed on his own terms.

"It was heartbreaking at the time," he recalls of missing a place at TAFE.

"I worked as an assistant in Adelaide, got commercial photography work at 19 in Sydney but there's only so many bottles of red wine you want to drink," he says of finding that world a little stifling.

The Big Apple

After a sojourn to Japan he ended up in New York.

"I got a job working with Annie Leibovitz almost right away but I don't think I understood at the time how big that really was," he says.

"Annie was working on a book with Susan Sontag called The Women's Project and she needed one extra assistant. I wasn't the normal paranoid New Yorker who had to control everything, I had a freer attitude and she enjoyed that. Then we did a Vanity Fair fold out cover with Cate Blanchett – it was her first moment as a big star. Then I'm at Al Gore's place in Washington, DC and Annie gets me to go and visit the Vice President's residence and scout it and advise which room is best to shoot in," he says.

Date night with the Obamas

His most famous images include Barack Obama sitting in the White House with his wife Michelle in 2008. According to Baker, the iconic image required a lot of pep talking and was almost not going to happen.

The infamous shot of the Obamas. Photo: Supplied

The infamous shot of the Obamas. Photo: Supplied

"We were meant to be in the rose garden, then it was threatening rain and Obama had a schedule change," says Baker.

"It was one of those moments that could have fallen apart quite easy," he says.

"As soon as they walked in I needed to find a way for them to connect and at the time my wife was working in politics in Chicago and I told them I needed to figure out a spot for our date night. That's what really got me through because they embraced and really focused on each other then. I spent three of my six minutes talking date night and then the photo was taken. It took them to a sweet place and it happened organically," says Baker.

Giving the finger

And then there's the famous image of Donald Trump pointing the finger on the cover of Fortune magazine in 2010.

"The photo of Trump changed the game," says Baker.

"Those set of images came out before he became President and they're powerful. The magazine got me five minutes in the door and I had to connect emotionally. It's very instant work and intense," he says.

Bringing it home

Yet for every glamorous moment in the spotlight, Baker is only too happy to head home and do the campaign work for his beloved Port Adelaide AFL team and work with filmmaker Luke Shanahan on Rabbit.

"It's an intense psychological drama with a Kubrickesque 70s European feel about it," says Baker.

"I've long done portraiture but never shot a film poster so this was a wonderful experience. Luke wanted me to bring the characters in the film to life via one strong image," he says.

"It was shot over seven days and Luke totally trusted me which is rare in the world of film."