When a master printer takes the camera

PHILADELPHIA – Is technical magic enough to make someone an artist? Richard Benson was an unrivaled photographic printer before becomin...


PHILADELPHIA – Is technical magic enough to make someone an artist?

Richard Benson was an unrivaled photographic printer before becoming a photographer. Hired in his early twenties by an art book printing company to make halftone negatives for printing on an offset press, he realized, as he later wrote, “I couldn’t. understand printing without first mastering photography, and my career began. “

By the time of his death at 73 in 2017, Benson had a deep understanding of the processes and techniques of photographic printing. He was also a beloved professor and dean at Yale. His own work with a camera, however, has received less attention. “The world is smarter than you are,” an exhibition running through January 23 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is his first museum retrospective. (The title is one of his favorite adages.)

There can be no argument about his prowess. One of his first images, “John Bull’s Great Stone, Common Burying Ground, Newport, Rhode Island” (1973-78), was taken with a large format camera and consisted of two contact prints mounted side by side. It depicts a series of six baby tombstones in a family, each marker incised with the face of an angel. Benson was descended from a family of Newport stone carvers dating back to colonial times. This composition, framed with perfect symmetry and sharp as a scalpel, is almost palpable, an appreciative flowering through the centuries from one consummate craftsman to another.

In black and white and color, film and digital, platinum prints, offset lithographs and inkjet prints, Benson mastered the processes and, when he found them insufficient, invented his own. Like those stunning vinyl records that were recorded to demonstrate the range of the first generation of stereos, Benson’s photographs often seem designed to mark the outer limits of what photography can practically achieve.

To reproduce photographs in a 1985 book devoted to the extraordinary collection of the Gilman Paper Company (later acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art), he amplified the two-tone process, where ink is passed through a fine mesh screen to impart subtle shades of black, gray and even, for older photographs, purple and sepia. The technique also allowed him to enlarge a negative without sacrificing detail. “Fall River Boiler”, a black and white image he photographed in 1978 and printed ten years later, is a nocturnal of texture and tones: feathery asbestos, slippery encrustations, circular black holes.

Benson was equally proficient in color. “Georgia” (2007), which depicts a vertical row of four signs – two red octagonal stop signs, two circular crossings, in yellow and orange – is a visual counterpoint to three storage silos in the background which are painted in red, blue and silver adorned with yellow. But the most virtuoso trick is the rendering of the sky, which is faded to a pale blue-gray on the horizon and gradually darkens to become a full-throated cerulean at the top. If, as Willem de Kooning pointed out, flesh was the reason the oil painting was created, Benson in his many twilight photographs shows that the twilight skies were the reason the color film was created. invented.

He started color photography in earnest in the early 90s and quickly turned to digital photography. Noting that the dominant color printing methods were lacking, he innovated an inkjet printing process in which, as in his lithography, he passed the sheet several times through the printer, applying blacks and colors. in layers. It’s a bit like thermal transfer printing used by William Eggleston, but the colors are less saturated and the process less laborious. The reflections in a lake, the pink ribbon of a sunset, the rainbow created when light passes through an irrigation fogger – all are rendered with poetic precision.

In some of Benson’s black and white photographs of building interiors, like “65 Kenyon Street, Hartford, Connecticut” (1974), I thought of Walker Evans. Edward Weston floated in my consciousness as I gazed at the organic semi-abstraction of “Agave” (c. 1975-85). And it was hard not to recall Eggleston seeing the jolts of color of the vintage red truck in “Wyoming” (2008), or the lime green rowboat in “Newfoundland” (2006-8).

As I walked through the exhibition, I saw the work of a person deeply imbued with the tradition, science and art of photography. But I also remembered a remark from Henry James, in a letter from 1888, about John Singer Sargent, who, likewise, could do anything he asked of him with a brush. “Yeah, I always thought Sargent was a great painter,” James remarked. “He would be even taller if he had a little thing or two that he doesn’t have – but he will.”


Richard Benson: The world is smarter than you

Until January 23, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, (215) 763-8100; philamuseum.org.

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