The buzz, clash, and commotion of Sherman Avenue in downtown Coeur d’Alene created a striking contrast to the tranquility that permeated the unpretentious interior of the Benjamin Powell Galleries. A couple men in casual business dress meandered among the alluring scenic prints of Powell’s inspiring photography. The photographer himself sat across from me in the comfy little seating space near the back, his distinctive blue eyes meeting mine with directness and serenity as we talk about his art.
Raised in the outdoor mecca of Missoula, Montana, Benjamin Powell and his siblings were always hiking, fly fishing, hunting, and playing outside. A National Geographic special, followed by a dream, first gave Powell the thought of becoming a photographer. “The next day,” he says, “I told my sisters about the dream, and that I was going to ask my dad to teach me to use his camera. And my older sister beat me to the punch and asked my dad before I could.” Young Ben instead snapped through disposable cameras, eventually losing interest in photography as he got older. But he never lost his ardor for the outdoors.
His wilderness and outdoor experiences prompted him to volunteer for the U.S. Marine Corps, where he visited 17 different countries and experienced three combat tours in the Iraqi conflict. “I was infantry, so I slept out every night under the stars and was out in the outdoors constantly. That also built that desire [for the outdoors].” When Powell returned home, these desires began to stir up the longing from his childhood. He turned off all his electronics, disconnected his phone, and went on the road, spending a year homeless and wandering. “I kept my cell phone for a camera and really started using it. During that year, I started to find that I had the gift of photography. It came very naturally.”
After that year of solitude and introspection, he met his life partner, Heather Goodner, who encouraged him to buy a camera. He discovered quickly that portraits and shooting people are not his thing. Instead, he has spent four years forging a deep path as a landscape, scenic, and nature photographer. He established art contracts with Kootenai Health and a handful of area banks, and then, in May 2016, he opened Benjamin Powell Galleries on Sherman Avenue in Coeur d’Alene to showcase his prodigious work and break into the private market. But it’s not the photography that he loves, in spite of his recent surge of recognition and success. “I enjoy the outdoors and places of quiet and places of solitude. I wanted to share those places, and that’s why I picked up photography. Photography is just the medium that allows me to [share this].”
Last summer, Powell spoke at TEDx Coeur d’Alene on the topic of “Solitude, Nature, and the Spirit.” He challenged his audience to find that space where they could silence the noise that comes from society and dampens our ability to connect with our true selves. “What I hope is that someone will stand in front of one of my pieces, and my soul or my spirit will speak to theirs. And for just a minute, their spiritual eyes will open up, I will encourage them to find their purpose, and encourage them to do what they love to do. That’s my real goal. Hopefully these places will talk to them, like they talk to me.”
Now, Powell and Goodner are setting out on another adventure. In February, they closed the gallery and will be packing up Goodner’s three sons, and perhaps Powell’s daughter, and travelling the U.S. for a year. “Our whole goal is to, as much as we can, live life. We plan to hit all of the national parks on the map, but there’s no schedule. Just go, experience life, meet people, and see what happens,” says Powell. They have a few big sponsors behind them, and they intend to commence their pursuit of the outdoors and “those magical moments” in April. Whatever the future holds, Powell is resolved to tackle the challenges right in front of him and focus on inspiring others to discover their “true spirits” with each scene he shoots. //