Martin Benjamin - Bull’s Eye
By Shelby Lee Adams
When asked by the Mandeville Gallery to write a piece on the photography of Martin Benjamin for his new exhibition, Bull’s Eye, I began my research. The book Atomic Age is probably his most famous work. Seeing this beautiful infrared black and white photography caused and brought forward some disconcerting feelings and inner images I had suppressed from my own early childhood. I also grew up in the “Atomic Age,” but in a different environment, the beautiful mountainous country of eastern Kentucky.
Martin Benjamin and I were from disconnected cultures and different parts of the country, but the Atomic Age was born with us. We both became observers of life, educators, teachers, and most importantly what brings us together today: photographers. Benjamin’s photography affects me deeply, causing me to reflect upon primal concerns of our survival, our delicate world, and sensitivity to past and current threats to our life’s very existence on this planet.
Now to experience Bull’s Eye, Benjamin’s current expansive photographic exhibition, one reflects, observing and participating in several worlds simultaneously. Diverse countries: Italy, Vietnam and our own beloved U.S., appear in his new works, in many large color diptychs: photographs placed together with a seamless aesthetic sense. Yet, when one moves from country to country, culture to culture, image to image, one begins to see uniformity within diversity.
Through our memories that reach from the Atomic Age to the present, the viewer cannot help but to imagine the photographer as a modern day Moses returning from the mountaintop after 40 years of self exile, with his tablets (diptychs) bound together, bearing his people’s new life codes. Apathy appears as the new generation’s golden calf, while compliance and an abundance of commercialism bears down on us. Yet unlike Moses’ tablets, Benjamin’s work does not condemn or command. It brings us nurturing and inspired paired views and codes of life, expressing modern affection witnessed with genuine feeling and care.
Benjamin’s diptychs illustrate humanity’s recurrent need to touch each other, to pair, to dance or to act together, even when distant. It is the active imagination of the photographer that couples, imagines, finds, seizes and creates this new cultural matrix. Be it old or young, comic or sincere, youthful laughing Buddhas, or hog’s heads separated, he finds and continually rediscovers life affirmed because he sees and knows the life strand itself, delicate and invisible. He finds and shares lights on cables to help us find our way.
“I give to thee a golden string, it is up to thee to wind it into a ball.” – William Blake
Often, art that is conceived in a threatened unhappiness conveys over time a vision of coherent peace. I reflect on Benjamin walking through the streets and pathways of Vietnam as I write. He has overcome his personal adversity from our Atomic Age as Vietnam has transformed itself into a glorious cultural Mecca. Together they have made a marriage of positive recognition, chicken feet and peacock feathers forming a homogeneous nature, new photographs that resonate a new life itself and yet one that has always been.
When we are taken to Naples, transported by Benjamin’s image to the old world culture from which many Americans descended, we perceive this photograph differently. It is a single, yet multiplied experience, no diptych, but with many religious icons from times past represented within. No stigmatas, but the scarred heart of the Virgin Mary invites us, pulls us in, blesses us and comforts us. Yet what we see in the photograph is only a contemporary cigarette sales cart. Be warned, the labels attest to another modern day atomic energy: the ambiguity and mixed messages this brilliant photograph evokes is ever present, radiant, raw, and representative of our times.
Today our artists represent our conscious social, moral, creative and spiritual innovations; they know and communicate directly with our totally vulnerable human race. We have left the dogma of structured religion, finding it full of hypocrisy and self-interest. Philosophy and science have become so insular, losing much of the ability to communicate outside of their own abstractions. Anthropology searches for our past shamans. Many fields of study leave society lost again, like fragments of a lost song, drifting, still searching for a listener.
Martin Benjamin inspires my utmost awe: he is communicating internationally to many people on multiple levels. He has not isolated himself, living in egocentric rhetoric. His work reflects a love and concern for us all. He walks through our commercialism and despondency, sees our vulnerability and humanity, and still wants to communicate. His pictures give us an openness to interpret for ourselves: importance. Reflecting a maturity and vision that is his alone, though he has never lived alone on the mountain. He walks about with his camera among us, showing us ourselves, to each other, together, without criticism or judgment. Amen. Lucky are his students to study with him and the rest of us benefit from his photography because it communicates.
Shelby Lee Adams is a photographer, author and a current Guggenheim Fellow. He lives and works between his home in the Berkshires, Massachusetts and in eastern Kentucky.