UCD Advocate inFocus

BookBeat: The private life of a reclusive photographer

Robert Benjamin’s gallery debuts at Denver Art Museum

By Jason Abdilla

Assistant Managing Copy Editor

Published: Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Robert Benjamin’s exhibit, Notes From A Quiet Life, at the Denver Art Museum is his first solo gallery in a nearly 40-year career as a professional photographer.

Why would a professional photographer remain behind the scenes for so long? Eric Paddock, Denver Art Museum’s curator of photography, believes he avoided the limelight to keep his art simple.

“I think he sort of reached a time in his life when he was ready to let his stuff out into the world,” said Paddock. “My sense is that he didn’t pursue a career as an exhibiting photographer because maybe he felt it would compromise the simplicity and purity of what he was trying to do.”

Paddock offered a hypothetical illustration of what might have happened if Benjamin had pursued being popularized. The centerpiece to the illustration is Benjamin’s photo, Nellie In Her Plaid Dress.

“Let’s say he showed this when it was new, and that he wanted to do it for money or so other people would like him. And let’s say somebody reviews that and says it’s the worst piece of shit they’ve ever seen,” Paddock said No 27-year-old artist is ever going to start making pictures like that [because] they’re going to gravitate towards the things that get validated by the wider world.“

Benjamin found validation in the art itself, said Paddock, not in someone else’s opinion. This isolation from popular art has a very different outcome from someone who produces art for the masses.

Paddock explained that another possible reason for Benjamin’s seclusion is that photography has been something incredibly private, almost spiritual.

For Paddock, Nellie In Her Plaid Dress remained a focal point for Benjamin’s privacy, simplicity, and purity.

The picture is of his daughter who’s standing against a blank white wall. Her face is expressionless, pale, and calm, almost porcelain in texture. Her eyes are locked on the camera’s lens with a gaze of piercing familiarity. Paddock explained that it’s easy for the viewer to forget that her father is the one she’s looking at and that this unseen detail is what makes these "quiet” photos so powerful. But as the title of the gallery suggests, this is a note, a message for people to receive.

“On the face of it, it’s a pretty easy picture to take, most parents will make pictures like this,” said Paddock, “but typically the parents take a picture looking down at the kid, and in this case we’re looking slightly up at her. It creates a kind of majesty, dignity, and power that they wouldn’t have if they were placed at a lower angle.”

And this is the note Benjamin leaves for his audience: That family and photography are the essence of his life.

Beyond the content is a technical facet that makes Benjamin’s work even more noteworthy.

He only uses Kodak Portra paper for his prints, which is no longer made. Since the paper is no longer produced, Benjamin has spent several years scrounging up the last 400 sheets in the U.S. But why is Portra so crucial to Benjamin’s art?

Paddock explained that it is the same quirk that a chef has for his favorite pan, or a runner for his lucky socks.

“He just got used to it, and when he’s making the picture, and visualizing what it might look like as a print, his imagination is working off of what he already knows. So, when that key ingredient is gone, it changes the art entirely,” said Paddock.

The question that looms is whether the end of Kodak Portra paper spells the end of Robert Benjamin as we know him.

“I don’t want to speculate,” said Paddock. “We’ll just have to see.”

The photographs will be on display Nov. 13, 2010 through May 29, 2011, in the Delisa and Anthony Mayer Photography Gallery on level seven of the North Building of the Denver Art Museum.