What happens when a doting husband and father, who also happens to be a gifted if somewhat obsessive photographer, carries a camera around with him all day long, and takes image after image, day after day, year after year, of his wife and children as they go about living their lives? A visit to the Denver Art Museum (DAM) answers that question.
DAM is presenting (through May 29, 2011) the first-ever solo museum exhibition of Colorado amateur photographer Robert Benjamin[i]. The exhibit is titled “Robert Benjamin: Notes from a Quiet Life”, and consists of 40 chromogenic and Polaroid color photographs. DAM describes the exhibit as “a rich exploration of the photographer’s everyday life”. That is a fitting if understated description since these 40 images are selected from God knows how many thousands of images Benjamin presumably captured over a 20 year period <the images were made between 1984 and 2003>.
Any parent who has ever observed—or better yet, photographed—their kids around the house will appreciate Benjamin’s images, as they evoke a sweet nostalgia over remembered ‘quiet scenes’ from one’s own family life. One image in particular, Walker Sleeping, Boulder, 1994 really resonated with me, as I recall capturing a nearly identical image of my youngest son years ago. In this image Walker is taking a mid-day nap on a living room sofa. The overall warm tone of the image enhances the tranquil scene, while the angular lines provided by the sofa cover, and the position of Walker himself in the frame, add interesting graphical elements to the image.
I was not surprised to find out that the image that I thought was the most striking of the exhibit, Nellie Dreaming, Lyons, 1999, was also selected by DAM and most media organizations and exhibit reviewers as the iconic image of the exhibit.
In ‘Dreaming’, Nellie is clearly not dreaming. She is sitting in the family car wearing a blue blouse and a Mona Lisa smile. She is turned three quarters to stare patiently at her dad, while he takes yet another photo of her. But her serene visage is in stark contrast to a riot of conflicting images and colors that surround her—the car, a park, trees in autumn color, a road, blue sky, telephone poles, and a boat. Some of the images are behind her and others in front but reflected off the car’s windows. The totality of the image is truly a dream-like scene, sort of a Nellie-in-Wonderland.
However, for all of the, warmth and loveliness of these 40 images, there is a troubling aspect about this exhibit—there is not enough evidence that they should be considered ‘Art’.
The heart of the problem lies with Benjamin’s refusal to share his art with the general public. Do a Google search on ‘Robert Benjamin, photographer’, and you will find no links other than references to this exhibit. <As luck would have it, there is another Robert Benjamin, photographer, in the world—he’s just not the Robert Benjamin of the Quiet Life exhibit.>
DAM implies that Benjamin is an art ‘insider’; in its press release DAM describes Benjamin as “a ‘photographer’s photographer’ who has traded prints with America’s leading artists”[ii]. But those of us on the ‘outside’ are left with no means of forming our own opinion about claims of Benjamin’s artistic credentials beyond an evaluation of the 40 images of this exhibit.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Quiet Life’s 40 images are unattractive or mundane. They are all nicely composed, and generally feature soft flattering light and warm colors. And Benjamin’s subjects—generally his wife (Pamela), son (Walker), and daughter (Nellie)—are attractive and usually captured in some action or pose that would bring a knowing smile to any husband or parent. And from the presumably thousands of images he had to select from, Benjamin did pick 40 appropriate images to represent his notion of ‘quiet’ family life.
I have the gnawing concern, however, that anyone, even someone with little artistic talent or intent could, if he took enough photos of his family over 20 years, find 40 images that are nicely lit and composed and capture family members doing sweet and familiar family things. Let’s face it, taking lots and lots of family images, while not everyone’s thing, is not out of the reach of most folks. And if you take enough photos, say thousands of them, how hard would it be to find 40 fairly nice images?
The possibility that Quiet Life’s 40 images are happy accidents is the huge difference between this exhibit and, say, an Ansel Adams exhibit. When we take in an Adams exhibit we know that he didn’t come up with the exhibition’s images merely by taking a zillion images and then picking 40 that good fortune made handsome. Adams made sure the public had access to proof, in the form of hundreds of published and exhibited images, that he was an artist of considerable skill. Further, many of his images were self-evidently captured at locations and under conditions that most amateurs would not tackle. No amateur, no matter how lucky, could have captured Monolith, The face of Half Dome by accident, no matter how many snaps he took.
So, with no external evidence of Benjamin’s artistic skill and merit, and with the presumption that these 40 images were drawn from thousands of other images, I have to question whether what we have here is art, or just an accidentally excellent set of family snaps.
Aside the question about whether ‘Quiet Life’ features art work or merely excellent family pix, I still would encourage everyone, especially parents, to see this exhibit. As a ‘dad’ myself, I couldn’t help but smile at the familiar family scenes so pleasantly captured by Benjamin. And in Benjamin’s defense, he apparently had to be talked into exhibiting these images. So at least it is others – the folks at DAM in particular – who carry the burden of proof that, despite scant evidence available to the art public, Benjamin is an artist and these 40 images should be considered ‘Art’.
[i] Robert Benjamin: Notes from a Quiet Life is a rich exploration of the photographer’s everyday life: unguarded moments with family, things around the house, and small visual surprises on walks to the corner store. Benjamin’s images capture the beauty of his world—like his daughter sipping a soda, his son peacefully sleeping on the couch, and tender moments with his wife, Pamela.
“The sheer magical presence of the people and things in his photos, remind me of the beauty any of us can find in everyday life,” says curator Eric Paddock.”If we aren’t too caught up in other things to stop and really look.” From DAM description of the exhibit at www.denverartmuseum.org
[ii] Robert Benjamin: Notes from a Quiet Life Opens November 13 – New Photography Exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, DAM press release,October 13, 2010, Media Contacts: Ashley Pritchard, 720-913-0096, Kristy Bassuener, 720-913-0115