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Richard Benson (1943-2017) was a contradiction. A magnificent photographer better known as a master printer, he was a teacher who opened his home to students, but didn’t share his photographs in the classroom. He had deep reverence for things made by hand out of stone and steel, but embraced new technology. And though people rarely appear in his work, every frame is imbued with humanity. Now, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) explores a half-century of his prints and photographs in Richard Benson: The World Is Smarter Than You Are, the first major exhibition of the artist’s work.
Benson was born into a family of distinguished artisans in Newport, Rhode Island. His father, John Howard Benson, and brother John were stone carvers for the John Stevens Shop, established in 1705 and still in operation. Stevens’s carvers are renowned for the quality of their lettering, which appears on monuments that include the national Martin Luther King Jr. and WWII memorials in Washington D.C. and the John F. Kennedy gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery.
Craftsmanship and mentorship
Though Benson did not become a stone carver, he deeply appreciated all forms of craftsmanship, and honored it in his images. In the 1970s, he documented historic headstones in Newport’s Common Burial Ground, compiling them in a portfolio, The Stones of Newport. He was particularly intrigued by one marker, presented in his John Bull’s Great Stone (1973-78).
Bull was an 18th-century stonecutter who commemorated the loss of six of his siblings with a single stone, carved to appear as six individual headstones standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Benson thought it was remarkable, and used two exposures with a large-format camera to capture the stone’s length. Then he made a print the exact size of the negative—a contact print. This technique, which Benson used often, enabled him to avoid distortion caused by enlargement, and preserve original detail.
As far as most people knew, Benson was a master printer whose skill was lavished on other people’s work. Until more recently, explained exhibit organizer Peter Barberie, PMA curator of photographs, the public was largely unaware of Benson’s exquisite body of photographic work. The World Is Smarter Than You Are does justice to all facets of his practice.
The exhibition title is something Benson often said to his students when they were stuck in their art, to encourage them to step back from the problem, to alter their perspective.
Benson taught at Yale University from 1979, and served as dean of the school of art from 1996 to 2006. His influence as an artistic mentor is examined in Object Lesson, a contemporaneous exhibition at TILT Institute for the Contemporary Image, the former Philadelphia Photo Arts Center. Object Lesson features artists who studied with Benson, several of whom participated in an October 1, 2021, panel discussion at TILT with Barberie and Sarah Stolfa, TILT art director, herself a former Benson student.
Masterpieces of printing
As a sought-after printer, Benson collaborated on several foundational book projects, including Photographs from the Collection of the Gilman Paper Company (1985), documenting what is considered one of the most important private photo collections ever assembled. Benson’s plates for the limited-edition book, made of images curated by Pierre Apraxine, are a consummate achievement in offset lithography. Two rare copies are on view in a vitrine.
The portfolio O Write My Name (1984) showcases Carl Van Vechten portraits of pillars of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Ella Fitzgerald and James Baldwin. Benson elevated the pictures into fine art, incising the images into plates for printing, a technique called photogravure. PMA visitors can compare the versions, which are displayed side-by-side.
Same standard, new techniques
Those who appreciate the nuances of printing and photography will find plenty to consider in the exhibition because, as Barberie noted of Benson, “He was a techie.” Advances in equipment kept the artist experimenting until his death in 2017, but his objective, reproducing images perfectly, never changed. “He devoted his entire life to perfecting the printed picture,” Barberie said at TILT. “He was interested in that gap between what the artist wants to do and what the materials want to do and he thought that struggle existed for all artists, no matter how accomplished.”
Unreliable image quality delayed Benson’s movement into color photography, which at first was difficult to process and disappointing in result. He quickly saw the potential in digital, however, which yielded truer and more varied hues, enabled photographers to work faster, and involved less cumbersome equipment. Similarly, he gravitated to inkjet printing because it produced enlargements without distortion.
Geometry and humanity
Viewers who don’t care about technology can simply look at Benson’s magnificent pictures, which grew out of a penetrating vision which gallery notes describe as “a keen sense for the ways that photography can capture history by recording spaces and objects altered by time and individual habit.”
They can admire the beautiful geometry in an amusement park at rest in Wildwood, New Jersey (1985-95), and a down-at-the-heels neighborhood watering hole in Billy Goode’s, Newport, Rhode Island (1976-78). Or see why Benson returned again and again to Puerto Rico in Puerto Rico Landscape (1977-82), in which a single umbrella-shaped tree holds up the sky, and Sugar Mill at Aguirre, Puerto Rico (1978-1985), a two-story tall symphony of muscular valves and toothy gears. Sitting at the foot of the stilled processing equipment, in a shaft of sunlight, is a man—unusual for Benson, who preferred to imply a human presence, as in California (2009), where a line of battered mailboxes wait at a desolate crossroad.
This scarcity of people makes Benson’s tender family portraits all the more magnetic. The first works PMA viewers see are versions of a 1967 image of his wife Barbara Benson, sitting lost in thought, cross-legged on the floor in a dancer’s tights and filmy skirt. Other photographs depict their young daughter Sarah, sound asleep in the backseat of the family station wagon, and their infant son Daniel, enfolded in Barbara’s arms.
People also appear—barely—in one of the exhibition’s most beautiful images. In Newfoundland (2008), Benson included a few gray heads at the lower margin of a spectacular vista from the prow of a sightseeing boat. We stand on the upper deck with him, sailing along on a perfect reflection of sky and towering sunlit hills. It all proves Benson’s point: the world is smarter than we are. All we have to do is be smart enough to step back and notice.
What, When, Where
Richard Benson: The World Is Smarter Than You Are. Through January 23, 2022, at Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. (215) 763-8100 or philamuseum.org
Masks are required, in accordance with City of Philadelphia regulations. Purchasing tickets in advance is recommended, and timed-entry tickets may be reserved online for contactless entry. Hand sanitizer dispensers are available throughout the building, and enhanced cleaning of high-touch areas is in effect throughout the day.
The West and North (Kelly Drive) entrances of the PMA are barrier-free, as are the café and museum store. All floors are accessible by elevator, and all restrooms are accessible. Height-adjustable canes and wheelchairs are available at each entrance on a first-come, first-served basis. Personal attendants for visitors with disabilities are admitted free of charge, and service dogs are welcome. Accommodation information for visitors with vision, hearing, and other needs is available on the PMA’s accessibility page.
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