The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2008. Hardbound. 308 pp., 326 color and black & white illustrations, 8x10½".
The Printed Picture Text and editing by Richard Benson. published by The Museum of Modern Art, 2008
Richard Benson has been teaching at Yale for thirty years. He was named Dean of the Art School in 1995, and when he stepped down from that job in 2006, a tribute by photographer Tod Papageorge in the Yale Art Gallery Bulletin described his career as "crooked" and "careening."
The young Benson looked so much like his father that the family called him Chip, as in "off the old block." John Howard Benson was a legendary calligrapher and stonecutter whom his son recalls as an "odd" man with a long beard and homemade corduroy shirts — he died when Benson was 12. After his freshman year at Brown, Benson told the college president he wanted "to work with his hands" and left. He became a large-format photographer, a master printer, received a MacArthur "genius grant" and two Guggenheims. He helped develop the tri-tone printing process and invented a way to make gorgeous prints in acrylic paint on coated aluminum. In a 1990 New Yorker profile he admitted, without seeming to exactly boast, "I can honestly say that I'm the best printer in the world."
Benson's "hands-on" experience shows throughout The Printed Picture. For instance, he regards the dye-transfer method of color printing as a kind of gold standard employed by giants such as Eliot Porter to make "the best of all chemical color prints." But not always. Dye-transfer enthusiasts seldom mention that "bad dyes" can compromise excellence. But Benson does:
This is the continual problem with printing processes: like celebrities they get a reputation, and before too long this reputation can cloud the reality of the process that underlies it. Dye transfer prints were expensive and rare, and could be as bad as anything else. When they did their job well they were, like Marilyn Monroe, better than anything else around.
The book masters the difficult balance of practical information, history and academic interest — ever wonder why the print you ordered online doesn't look quite like it did on your computer screen? Page 300. Want to read a moving observation on the role of craft in the "unexpected and unpredictable" achievement of art? Flip back to page 298. This balancing act is a difficult trick, and its success is evidence of the sheer number of hours Benson has spent making, designing, thinking, and teaching about printed matter.
The Printed Picture is both a history of printing and an atlas of graphic technique — it would be a definitive text-book without any images at all, but shockingly, the 325 illustrations alone are worth the cover price. This is where the work really shines, as it rejects the role of a purely academic study by presenting itself as a journal with insights on cost, craft, art and theory.
As pilots in Nevada guide drones to bomb targets 7000 miles away, hands-off is replacing hands-on everywhere. A concluding two-page spread shows a bar-coded catalog cover. It's been touched just twice: by the hand that stuck it in Benson's Rhode Island mailbox and the one that took it out.
Benson prides himself on being a realist. He neither flinches nor grieves as he shows how painstaking ways of making splendid prints lost out to mechanized methods. "The old chemical processes are near death and digital media rule the photographic world," he writes. "Those who don't believe this are almost all over 60 years of age."
A phone conversation with Benson on the day after he turned 65 finds him cheerfully reiterating that today's printing methods are far superior. But he also cautions that media is not the whole message. There is, after all, the matter of content, what a picture has to express, to give. Merely because techniques improve, "you are not going to find people making better pictures," he says.
The final illustration in the book reproduces an oil painting that hangs in Benson's living room. It depicts a road sloping toward a New Mexico mesa — and is a lyrical study of how dozens of shapes, colors, and curves coalesce into a vivacious and serene form. Turns out it was painted by his nephew Christopher. Benson finds "hand, eye, and mind" working together, and that affords him such evident pleasure that his enjoyment becomes ours. But he adds, "if we have learned anything in the last few hundred pages it is that this old way of working is becoming irrelevant."
He might be right. More Masters of Fine Arts degrees were awarded in the U.S. last year than there were people in fifteenth-century Florence. The number of these masters who could paint with the authority of their Florentine predecessors is a wistful question.
This book is dedicated to the memory of John Szarkowski, who ran the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art for nearly thirty years. Benson's indispensable essays recall the ways of seeing, thinking, and writing that make Szarkowski's books distinct and definitive. Like them, The Printed Picture casts light.—Michael More