Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Physical Print by Richard Benson

In March of 2005, Yale University had an exhibition celebrating the different print processes in photography.

The show’s curator and Dean of the art school Richard Benson explains:

This show is a history of photography, but one that is hung upon the changing technology of photographic printing. If we examine the 165 years of the medium, and try to make sense of it, we find that many threads of development are apparent, because photography is so young that its evolutionary stages remain accessible to us in the junk heaps of our recent past. Photographs were used for different social and commercial functions, turned into high art, and transformed into ink replicas for wide distribution. One small aspect of this whole has been the steady development of a rich set of systems for making the photographic print, and this particular technological history is there in my pile of collected pictures. This show is an eccentric walk through the history of photography, using its printing technologies as guideposts for the journey.

A catalog called The Physical Print: A Brief Survey of the Photographic Process accompanied the exhibition. At first it resembles a scholarly book with its plain cover, academic title and spiral binding but Richard Benson’s accompanying text to each illustration departs from common textbook writing. They are not only informative as to the different processes but enjoyably tweaked with personal reflection.

Richard Benson, is certainly no stranger to printing technologies. Anyone who has a habit of checking the printing credits in books will recognize his name as he has made the separations and overseen the printing for many of the most beautifully printed ones. He also won a MacArthur Grant for his development of a printing process involving acrylic paint on aluminum. I saw a show of these images and their tonal range was exquisite. They were printed in editions of one. If you bought the print, you also got the clipped negative.

In a conversation with John Paul Caponigro he explained the process and what set him on his pursuit:

“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.”

Unfortunately, there is not a page in the catalog dedicated to this process that he invented. He does include and champion the new digital technologies. As he has remarked elsewhere, he is happy to be out of the darkroom, "Making art in a room in the dark is the stupidest thing imaginable."

The catalog includes 56 variations of printing processes and uses mostly completely unknown images as examples. Only seven images were familiar to me and the artists range from the likes of Helen Levitt and Lisette Model to lesser known names such as Allan Chasanoff and John Lehr. As you could guess, the printing is well done.

I believe this catalog is still available through the John Edwards College, Yale University.

Book Available Here (The Physical Print)