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Remembering Richard Benson Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

27 June 2017

Richard Benson, who passed away last week at the age of 73, left college to join the Navy. Stationed on a repair ship, he learned all about lenses, which planted the seeds for a lifetime pursuit of photography in which he became a pressman, a photographer, a teacher and inventor.

His early decision to skip college only applied to his role as a student. He took a job teaching photography at Yale in 1979 where he eventually served as Dean of the Yale School of Art from 1996-2006. He retired from teaching in 2011 to devote himself to his photography.

He received two grants from the National Endowment for the Art, two John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowships, the Rhode Island Governor's Medal for the Arts and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. His photographs are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.

But lets go back to the beginning.

In 1966 the newly-married Benson, whose wife Barbara was a school teacher, found employment at the Meridien Gravure Co. as an apprentice halftone cameraman. The company, which never did print in gravure, specialized in high-end illustrated books for museums.

He realized then that nothing he could do in the darkroom could approach what he could do on press, noting "the smooth and perfectly graduated tones in a photograph are the hardest of all things to portray with ink."

As a pressman, he ran a 29-inch Miehle, convincing his clients it was the best way to produce black-and-white photographic reproductions. But to do it right required multiple passes through the press, "using a black and gray ink, and later I added an additional gray" to build up the tonality that a single pass couldn't.

He took the same approach to photography as he had with printing. Wielding the camera out in the world "has been a magical act that I have never tampered with technically." But he dove into the art of making the print itself. That's where the creativity was.

In fact, he adopted the same approach he had developed on press to photographic inkjet printing, building the image up from a skeletal first pass to a final touch plate for a particular color.

The approach obviated the need for using ICC profiles for digital printing, as he suggested near the end of his historical tour of the printed image, captured in eight hours of video at the Modern Museum of Art in New York City.

In an email to us a few years ago, he explained that aversion:

I suppose it is a bit like old process on a single color, when we never thought of profiles but just tried to make the damn thing turn out. I still have profiling low on my list of concerns and I use the generic ones that come with papers, but feel that the addition of the multiple passes over-rides any sort of profile concerns. Also -- a feed table is not enough to get perfect register -- I also mechanically over-ride the Epson registration mechanism.

He was a little more bombastic on the subject in his historical tour of the printed image based on his The Printed Picture, captured in eight hours of video at the Modern Museum of Art in New York City.

The whole world of the computer, he observed in the segment of that video series titled Future of Photography, is about control. Control promises accuracy, dependable results. "Bullshit," he said. "It's the worst way for an artist to work."

Any process that is controlled, that is predictive, he argued, is counter creative.

Of course he wasn't so much against control that he didn't invent that feed table for his Epson to ensure accurate registration for multiple passes through the printer.

That, however, freed him to lay down a light color and evaluate it. Where does it need to go? It's a question we don't get the chance to ask when we tweak an image in our image editing software and, happy with what we see, click the Print button.

In his book North South East West, he discussed his method in depth, showing a set of impressions from the first one of the light RGB image with no black ink to the neutrals pass to the blacks pass. A fourth image shows the composite image.

He generously explained it all to us in a phone call in which we reminisced about running a sheet-fed press. "Are you an old printer?" he asked. We confessed. "Well, that's what happens to the best of us, you know." We get old, he meant.

Richard Benson was the best of us. But he wasn't, by our measure, old. Damn.

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