Richard M.A. Benson is a photographer, printer and educator who utilizes photographic processing techniques of the past and present. Benson has a broad range of interests in the photographic print–silver, platinum, palladium, and ink. Working in these different mediums, sometimes learning forgotten crafts and sometimes creating new ones, he has become convinced that ink and the modern photo offset press possess a potential for photographic rendition beyond anything else previously known. In recent years he has been working on the relationship between the computer and traditional photographic imagery, and has been applying the lessons from this in the production of long run offset books of work by different photographers, in both black and white and color.
Considered one of the finest printers of photographic books. His accomplishments include Atget (MOMA) the Gilman, Native Nations (Callaway), Lee Friedlander’s American Monument, One Eyed Cat, Factory Valleys, and Flowers and Trees. Lay this Laurel features photographs by Richard Benson and text by Lincoln Kirstein. Several books of Benson’s writing are forthcoming.
Since 1979, Benson has taught at Yale University where he is a professor of photography, and currently the Dean of the Yale University School of Art. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships (1979, 1986), the MacArthur (1986), as well as support from the National Endowment for the Arts (1973, 1982) and the Eakins Press Foundation.
Born on November 8, 1943, in Newport, Rhode Island, Benson studied sculpture at the Art Students’ League in New York, drawing with Robert Lamb in Providence, Rhode Island and spent many years working with Leslie George Katz of the Eakins Press Foundation.
John Paul Caponigro The transition to Dean of the Yale art department has been good?
Richard Benson Well it’s huge transition. I’ve gone from somebody who’s an honest maker of objects to that rather dubious person who thinks all the time, speaks and writes. I’ve always believed and I continue to believe that the elite of the world are the people who make things. And the lower class are the people who think, dwell on their thoughts and exchange ideas.
And I’ve taken this job because I’ve always been very very interested in education and part of that has been an attraction I’ve had to the exchange of ideas. It’s also an attraction I’ve had to being around when other people understand something. That makes me as a teacher feel great. So yes. I’m enjoying my new job.
But it’s difficult because I believe art, pieces of art, are pieces of understanding that you can’t render in any form other than the physical form in which you make the piece of art. And that has little to do with thought. Thought is a piece of what makes the art.
The other thing that’s happened is the computer has come along. And the computer is fascinating to me. I consider my fascination to be a failing on my part, that I should be so interested in it. Because like the viewcamera it’s a tool – tools are fundamentally uninteresting. The difference between an artist and a craftsman is that a craftsman is interested in his or her tools and an artist disdains them.
Now one reason I’m fascinated by it is that my life as a printer has been about solving problems, total problems in whatever medium, and the computer comes along and solves a whole bunch of them instantly. And it’s hard for me not to love that. The computer in terms of the printing press has just wiped out two thirds of the things we fought against in the analog world. All the problems of holding detail, the tonal steps that we had to battle out with film, it all disappears with the computer. You can do anything you want with it. You have to know what you’re doing. It’s a fabulous, fabulous tool. And the place you really see this is in color printing. Color printing is infinitely better now than it was fifteen years ago and that’s entirely due to the computer.
The other thing that’s happened is I’ve been gradually turning into a writer. Not to imply that I ever could write well, but what I’ve been doing has, more and more, been writing.
John Sarkowski went down to the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia and went through their collection of photographs and picked a hundred photographs. One of his most wonderful books is called Looking at Photographs, where he picked a hundred out of the collection of MOMA and he wrote a page on each one. And he’s picked this group of pictures and he’s asked me to write a page on each one.
And then I’m in the process of trying, for the fourth time, to begin a new book. This is a project where I’m trying to sort out all the things people make. I’m trying to make a taxonomy of the things people make. I’m fascinated by it, because I’m fascinated with what we make. But it’s typical of my failed new condition that I would be doing it intellectually rather than in a physical way.
So my little work room at the house is a place where I can just write all the time. I get up every morning and write for an hour or two before I go to work. And then I spend all day at work writing.
JPC There is a Bensonian notion of craft and art.
RB Sure. I have a lot of ideas about craft. I think nothing is more boring than to spend your time figuring out how to make a thing absolutely beautifully. I think you should make a thing as well as you need to make it to make it carry across the thing you’re trying to make clear and no better.
And that means that you have to be careful because you can get really interested in the thing you make. If you get interested in the making more than in the thing you’re making does then you’re becoming a craftsman. And a craftsman is fine but an artist is a different creature.
The worst possible thing you can do is to waste your energy trying to get all the little tiny bits and pieces right because when you get all those right the important things are wrong. So whenever I make something I just try to get the big issues roughly correct. I have no interest in getting the little things all precise. I don’t really care if the thing is in register on press, I could care less. I don’t care if there’s a hickey. I care if they’re not running enough ink because that’s the thing that controls how the picture looks. I care if they plated it badly and it gets flat. So my notion about craft is it’s a total waste of time to be chasing some notion of perfection when what we should be making is a roughly made object that serves its purpose well. I want it to carry out it’s intent.
I do that when I make a photograph too. When I make a photograph, I set the camera up in front of something I’m interested in, might tilt and swing a little, focus, do this or that, or raise the lens a bit. Finally just before I get ready to make the picture I pull back as far as the darkcloth will allow me to pull back and when I look and see I’m not aiming it quite the right way. That’s the important thing ; aiming it the right way and then pressing the button at the right time. That’s the way I think you make a picture.
There’s another side to this. In my classes at Yale I teach a technical seminar. And it’s so hard to get people to understand that the difficult thing about printing is picking the contrast and the exposure. And it’s so hard for me to get people to understand that they never should dodge and burn until they make a print as good as they can make it, figure out what the picture is telling them. Get the big things right and then adjust it and finesse it. One of the things that happens in traditional ideas of craft is all the attention is paid to the wrong thing. It’s paid to the detail. And to me the detail is never the thing that’s hard to get right. The thing that’s hard to get right is the big overall picture. Get the grade right. Get the setting on the timer right within ten percent.
I believe what I’m describing is the idea of craft an artist should have.
JPC Speaking about art is difficult.
RB Yeah I think there’s a real problem because we overintellectualize the things we make as artists and it’s compounded by the fact that today there is sort of a current idea that the thing about art is the way it’s about art.
JPC So people think one no longer needs to make the object. It’s okay to simply talk about it.
RB Right or even make something that refers to some other piece of art that somebody’s made. That’s just as bad. Because to me the subject of art is the human understanding of the world. And to me when the subject of art is art it becomes completely dull. And that’s one of the reasons that to my mind this is a barren time for artists – absolutely barren. Because there’s this trend where so many people feel the subject of art is the history of art. What could possibly be duller than the history of art? And what can be more interesting than trying to make a picture or some thing that says something about the human condition – not the art condition. I’m interested in the human condition – not the art condition.
Let’s talk about reproducing something. If you try to reproduce a picture you can’t get it to be the same. If you can’t make it the same what you have to do is you’ve got to figure out what’s important about the thing. And you have to figure out the means by which the important thing is made clear in the original object. And you have to figure out what the new means are by which you can make the thing clear in the new context. And if it so happens that the thing that’s important is absolute perfection and clarity and detail then maybe you can be interested in traditional craft with that picture. It’s almost never the case. It’s almost never what art is about. Instead it’s about something like gesture or form or tone. And so if I spend all my time worrying about the details, they’re not relevant to the problem. So I’m only running it down because I truly believe that the craft of the thing is usually not the issue.
Got another question?
JPC In that article on you in the New Yorker in 1990 you had said that you had revolutionized photography.
RB Oh yeah. I figured out a great way to make pictures that nobody’s interested in. It’s too hard to do. I wanted a way to make pictures, photographs, that allowed me to make them in multiple layers so that as I was making the pictures I was continually responding to the reality of the thing being made. The nature of something like painting is that you’re continually being informed by what you do. The nature of photography is that you’re not. You’re being informed picture to picture what you do. If you’re printing one negative you’re being informed print to print about what you do. But it’s completely different than the painter who puts a piece of the picture down and the piece indicates what the next move should be. That’s a different procedure and I wanted to put that in photography. So I figured out a very basic, although it ended up being very intricate, technique that involved making a very thin gelatin stencil on a sheet of aluminum that had a white painted ground on it. And the stencil had holes in it which were derived from half-tone dots and I was able to dip this panel in paint, acrylic paint with pigment. After the paint had dried I could scrub it and where the paint was over the gelatin the paint would come off and where there was a hole in it the paint would stick. The idea was to make a picture step after step after step and each step helping me understand how to make the next one.
The final object would contain the effort put into it. And so I got really interested in doing this. I did it for quite awhile. And I stopped doing it because it was too hard. The truth is I wanted to do something with the MacArthur that was original. I thought here’s my chance. Let’s really do something new. I did .
The other thing is that I really figured out a lot about how to print photographs on a printing press. Now in relation to the computer I haven’t done anything that’s technically innovative. What I have done is to take the learning, take what I’ve learned about the grayscale, and translate it into the new terms of the digital world. And what happened is that most of the people who were working in the computer wouldn’t know printing if they stumbled over it. The real key to it is to get the knowledge of the old and drag it into the new. Because the new always does the old job less well than the old, but what it does is something that’s a little different that the old couldn’t do. And as the old changes into the new the thing we witness is the moving of knowledge from the past into the present and then into the future and we witness it being modified by the new technology so that it can live in a new way in the future. By their very nature the people who invent the new technologies aren’t the people who understand what to do with them, because the inventors of technology and the users of technology tend to be two different groups of people. So I have had a lot of fun with the computer, really because I know more about press gain than all the people who run computers. I know more about plating and I know more about how the guy running the press feels because of what he had for breakfast, which is what really makes a book look good.
This thing about technology as time changes is a really interesting thing. And how we keep trying to do good things with it is really complicated. I believe that the way in which we lived in the past was a way that lent itself to the tremendous kind of achievement concentrated in a single thing like a painting. And I believe the way we live now does not lead us to that. That is what I think is sad. Instead it leads us to photographs, where we have thousands of them and it seems to me that on a very basic level the effort is diluted over this broader area.
JPC I’m not sure that effort is necessarily the only criteria with which to gauge success.
RB No. I’m only talking about the relation of effort to greatness. Working hard doesn’t mean something’s good but it’s possible that something isn’t good without working hard.
JPC I wanted a response to your quote, “I think that Cartier-Bresson and Winogrand are the peak of photography as it’s construed now, but I think the medium has to go somewhere else.”
“Something’s wrong with photography and I’ve got this idea that it’s because the physical thing we end up making just isn’t good enough.”
RB Did I say that? I guess I sort of believe that. I’ve certainly always been frustrated by the physical thing we make. That’s why I’ve made my pictures on a printing press for so long. Because I think I can make them better on a printing press than I can make them in the darkroom. But of course the result is I made fewer.
It’s very hard for me to know whether or not the computer is a complete waste of time. It might just be that it’s a complete waste of time for me. I’m devoted to it. I use it all the time.
JPC The thing that I like about working digitally is that it allows me to work in a photographic mode and in a painterly mode. To be able to reassign color, create composition, change proportion … it’s a wonderful, incredibly free way of working. I ask myself a lot why don’t I miss drawing more. Because there really hasn’t been a time in my life when I haven’t itched if I’ve gone for more than two weeks without it. I’m really surprised how much I don’t miss it. I’m working on a few issues myself about what the differences between photographic vision and painterly vision are; the difference between knowing something through recognition with quick mechanical apprehension and knowing something by looking at it for quite a long time and trying to reproduce it manually with a handmade mark …
RB I don’t think the issue is the handmade mark. I think the issue is that the physical materials guide what we make when we make something with our hands. The paint and the bristles and all that . That’s what it looks like. And with the computer that disappears.
JPC True. But I’m less interested in paintings that are about paint.
RB I understand. I’m saying that’s the overwhelming reality of what we make. You have to respond to it.
JPC How would you characterize your work? Artists are constantly being characterized by other people.
RB Well I suppose what I really am is a printer. I suppose I’ve photographed a lot but really what I managed to do is print really well. And that’s been very interesting because I think of that taking place in relation to other people’s work. So I suppose I spent a career trying to make other people’s pictures look well and that’s been very satisfying. And maybe I haven’t really been an artist. Maybe I’ve been a good craftsman doing a good job for other people. I’m perfectly happy with that.
JPC Then should we say Vladimir Horowitz is a craftsman more than an artist? There’s enormous artistry in Jascha Hiefetz’s work.
RB Yeah there’s a lot of artistry in trying to make somebody else look good. Don’t kid yourself.
JPC There you go. So perhaps we’re approaching it in a different sense. It’s interesting that that musical analogies hold so well for photographers.
RB The musical analogy makes it very clear. Because that musical analogy is admitting that there is a whole creative side to things done by somebody else. Really you’re talking about the performer, the performer is executing the score.
JPC Artfully or not.
RB I have no problem with one’s life as a printer being similar to that. That’s a nice idea. Yeah it’s a nice idea.