Object Lesson: On the Influence of Richard Benson
“Creative restelessness – it’s a good thing” – Paul Messier
I met Richard Benson the summer of 1994. I was just out of college and knew I wanted to be a photographer. I’d recently purchased a Calumet 4×5, picked up a sink in a junkyard, and set up my first studio for just a couple hundred dollars. I didn’t have much in the way of equipment, so I was shooting view camera negatives to print in palladium under the rich Colorado sun. I pulled together any graduation money I had left and went to Snowmass, Colorado for a 3-day seminar on photographic printing taught by Benson at Anderson Ranch.
Just outside of Aspen, Snowmass is one of the most beautiful parts of the state. I couldn’t afford much in the way of accommodations, so camped in a forest of aspen trees on the outskirts of town, returning each evening after 10-hour discussions about photography to make some pictures of the forest of aspens before getting my fire and dinner started. Benson’s seminar was basically a three day talk about his book The Printed Picture, which looked at the history of photographic materials, published in conjunction with his retrospective at MoMA.
For the first two days, John Szarkowski joined the seminar, as a sort of moderator (or maybe foil, definitely a good cop/bad cop dynamic). After decades working with some of the world’s most influential modernist photographers, Benson spent the workshop guiding us through boxes of their prints animated with stories about Gary Winogrand, Frederick Sommer, Walker Evans, and Eugene Atget. It was mesmerizing.
If you don’t know much about Benson, first you should know most people called him Chip. He was also one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. With only a high school degree, Benson was a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, and finished his career as Dean of the Yale Art School. He was not only a master printer of platinum and photogravure, but he also pioneered digital and offset printing, and was even a consultant for early versions of Photoshop.
Benson’s primary work as a photographer was printing books – standouts in my mind include the remarkable 4 volume set MoMA and Szarkowsi produced about Eugene Atget, American Monument by Lee Friedlander, the National Gallery of Art’s monograph of Paul Strand, Madonna’s Sex, Lay this Laurel, a book of platinum photographs Benson made in collaboration with Lincoln Kerstein about the Civil War memorial along the Boston Common, and of course the book that led to his MacArthur award, Photographs from the Collection of the Gilman Paper Company.
Benson’s boxes of photographs and gifts as a storyteller helped confirm my commitment to photography. He showed us exquisite photogravures, platinum prints, gold-toned POPs, four-color carbons, and even prints he made on aluminum plates using exterior latex house paint. Each of these radiated with incredible tonalities and tactile surfaces, and fully embodied so much of what I still love about photographs today (I still cherish the materiality of photography).
His stories for each of the pictures were equally compelling. Benson told us about the time he essentially stole a negative from Walker Evans, his famous studio photograph (Penny Picture Display, Savannah 1936), because Evans had cut other copies of the negative with a pair scissors to make them fit a smaller negative carrier; Benson needed to be sure that at least one copy of the negative remained fully intact. He also told us about the time his car, full of hundreds of priceless Atget prints, was stolen from a diner parking lot, and the time Winogrand used his darkroom to print for an exhibition. Apparently Winogrand had the habit of always hanging the same bolo tie from the enlarger while printing, as a sort of talisman helping to guide his vision. I left Anderson Ranch with a handful of 4×5 negatives to print in my modest darkroom, filled with a much deeper love for photography, and more importantly a resolve to make photography my life’s work.
A new book published by Aperture, Object Lesson: On the Influence of Richard Benson, is a collection of essays and interviews by and with a number of illustrious photographers, curators, educators, and printers, all talking about Benson’s impact on their careers and commitments to photography. Included are some of the most original American photographers, collectively representing several different generations of the medium, all of whom were either students or colleagues of Benson’s at Yale – Tod Papageorge, Dawoud Bey, Abelardo Morell, Tanya Marcuse, Lucas Foglia, and Kristine Potter, amongst others – as well as influential curators and gallerists – Sarah Meister, Peter MacGill, and Jock Reynolds – some notable colleagues who helped Benson pioneer offset printing, Thomas Palmer and Robert Hennessey, and even John Goodman, Benson’s collaborator in photogravure.
Benson is also characterized as having the highest ethical standards, committed to the belief that family matters first – he considered all his students part of his family – and that accurate, detailed, and beautifully rendered photographs are essential for understanding our world.
There are patterns that emerge with all these contributors in how they characterize Benson. He possessed a relentless creative drive and a superlative aptitude for the mechanics of photography, he demonstrated the type of self-discipline and work ethic necessary for anyone interested in doing meaningful work in the arts, and his curiosity was equally insatiable and contagious. Benson is also characterized as having the highest ethical standards, committed to the belief that family matters first – he considered all his students part of his family – and that accurate, detailed, and beautifully rendered photographs are essential for understanding our world.
As a book, Object Lesson is true to Benson’s vision. It is simply designed, with high quality reproductions. The book is essentially divided into two sections, made distinct by being printed on two different paper stocks. The first part, “Contributions,” is laid out like one of Benson’s favorite books on photography, Looking at Photographs by John Szarkowski, with one short essay by each of the contributors (mostly Benson’s students) and an adjacent picture illustrating the ideas discussed. The second section, called “Conversations and Writings,” includes transcripts of discussions between Peter MacGill and Chip’s wife Barbara; two colleagues from Yale, John Gambell and Gary Haller; and Thomas Palmer and Paul Messier. This section also includes essays by Peter Galassi and Jock Reynolds, and a short piece written by Benson about Lee Friendlander, “Working with Lee,” originally published in the 2005 retrospective monograph by MoMA.
Collectively they portray a man with a child’s enthusiasm for photography, a profound love for exploring and tinkering with the materials we use to make photographs, and an unparalleled aptitude to make meaning from it all. I feel so lucky I got to meet him, even for such a short time, and still sometimes wish I’d gotten into Yale. It would have been a privilege to see and know more of him.
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