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Richard Benson’s All-Seeing Eye

John Pilson, Guest Writer

Photographer John Pilson remembers his mentor and colleague Richard Benson—and the lessons that have stayed with him.

Nobody had a finer nose for pretension—or derived more pleasure in pointing it out—than Richard Benson.

This makes responding to his legacy a challenge. Benson’s work speaks for itself. Or put another way, his photographs were made from a desire to describe and share his profound investment in life as a visual experience. Benson was full of ideas, but only the variety William Carlos Williams described in his epic poem Paterson: “No ideas but in things.” Benson, like the poet he so passionately admired, saw virtuosic possibilities in a humble but relentless attention to detail. This philosophy and working method are detectable in every work in the exhibition Richard Benson: The World Is Smarter Than You Are (on view through January 23, 2022).

Benson’s students benefitted from his vast technical knowledge. Some, such as myself, were challenged for believing their clever art ideas were more important than technical nuances. I can hear Richard in his gravelly voice (think Nick Nolte) pronouncing to the entire room: “Pilson, you think too damn much!” This was a frequent refrain throughout my time as a graduate student. Nobody had ever told me I thought too much in any of the photography classes I took as an undergraduate, let alone my philosophy courses.

It’s worth mentioning that this was the late 1980s, when everywhere you looked it appeared as if “art photography” needed big ideas more than it needed great photographs. Benson would shoot down our art-speak while sympathizing with our ambitions and the obstacles we faced in wanting to break new ground. He reminded us that “an artist is a person who tends to be really good at one thing but spends most of their time trying to do something else.” For him, the revelations and the ideas in photographs were in the details, in the unsentimental specificity, or what his friend and fellow photographer Garry Winogrand referred to as the mystery of “a fact clearly described.”

Many of the subjects Benson photographed across decades will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever crossed the US by car or run a few errands via bicycle in coastal New England: aging farm machinery, austerely utilitarian boats, derelict factories, and the frequent intersections of history, nature, and our built environments. Benson’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Industrial Revolution only partly accounts for the complete absence of nostalgia in photographs that regularly describe remnants and artifacts sharing present-tense place and time within a single frame.

At certain moments in his work, Benson chose black-and-white film and inkjet printers. In others he found it necessary—and appropriate—to hack a twenty-first-century desktop printer with nineteenth-century brass registration pins. Or, frustrated with pre-Photoshop color gamut limitations, he needed to invent a technique combining multiple halftone separations and layers upon layers of hand-applied house paint. It was the only way to produce color prints from his large-format color negatives that finally met his exacting standards.

If asked why he had gone to such lengths while others remained content with the latest readymade printer options from Kodak or Epson, Richard would simply offer: “Because that’s the way the world looks . . . and I want things to look in a print the way things looked when I saw them.”

As fascinating and impressive as many of Benson’s technical innovations may have been, none were intended to be more interesting than the photographs they made possible.

The building blocks of the medium (optics, resolution, inherent qualities of various printing methods) often served as dowsing rods to suggest where, what, or whom to photograph. For example, many of Benson’s photographs of his family are produced with and informed by the unique properties of the 8x10-inch view camera and black-and-white negative film. Photographing this way requires a mixture of emphatic care and authoritarian control. But in the course of Benson’s work, photographs of family and other closest-to-home subjects are entirely natural extensions of a larger inquiry into our designs, arrangements, purpose-driven work, civic progress, and looming fragilities written across a landscape without end.

Although Richard Benson’s working life ranged across disciplines (hand-tooled mechanical clockworks, steam and combustion-engine design and restoration, hand-ground lenses, and custom-built telescopes), the exhibition at the museum limits its scope to Benson’s photographs. For Benson, neither capital-A “Art” nor rigorous craft were virtues unto themselves. Yet the world described in these photographs, with their “just-the-facts” titles—places and dates without backstory or anecdote—tell us all we need to know about Benson’s omnivorous curiosity and his belief in the nature and purpose of photographic seeing.

The author, right, with Richard Benson in Benson’s Newport Rhode Island studio, 2013. Photo by Tommy Kha.
The author, right, with Richard Benson in Benson’s Newport, Rhode Island, studio, 2013. Photo by Tommy Kha

John Pilson is an artist and educator. He is a Senior Critic in the Yale School of Art’s MFA program in photography, and lives and works in Brooklyn.