JTF (just the facts): A total of 18 large scale photographic works, framed in thick black wood and unmatted, and hung in the entry and the three rooms of the main gallery space. All of the works are digital chromogenic prints mounted on Dibond, made in 2012 from source material taken between 2000 and 2011. Square format dimensions range from 16×16 to 72×72, while the more panorama style works range in size from 17×51 to 50×107; some images are available in multiple sizes. The works have generally been printed in editions of 8 regardless of size, with a few exceptions in editions of 3. A monograph of this body of work was published in 2012 by Abrams Books (here) (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: I have written before about the need for a more granular and comprehensive 21st century definition of “appropriation”, and Michael Benson’s newest show of space photography provides an opportunity to revisit these thorny questions once again. His awe inspiring images of celestial bodies knock your socks off with their grandeur, and then given their art gallery setting, they trigger a set of questions about his process and the application of his artistic intent. Is this what Saturn really “looks like”? How much did he tweak the colors or manipulate the content? Do we as an audience want him to show us the “truth” or express his personal vision? The fact is, while we can easily be impressed by the scientific facts on view, we don’t really have a ready vocabulary to investigate and categorize the art side of Benson’s works.
While it may not seem immediately obvious, I’d put Benson in a loosely held together “archive mining” bucket, along with growing group of artists as diverse as Zoe Crosher, Doug Rickard, Kate Steciw, and Penelope Umbrico. Starting with a body of source material (often digital, but sometimes analog like vernacular photos or postcards), they sift and sort, crop and rephotograph, edit and rework, order and reconsider, using the imagery as a jumping off point for their own artistic projects. Some stay “close” to the material, while others turn it into something nearly unrecognizable. This is a wholly different kind of appropriation than the old school Pictures Generation recontextualization we are used to; in many cases, the original context isn’t hugely important to the conceptual basis of the new end result and there is often no inherent irony at work. The artists are mining archives for material they find exciting or simply useful, which can then be used to make downstream artworks. Photography purists tend to scoff at this camera-less process, pooh-poohing the effort as some kind of less than admirable short cut. I think this is a mistake; we are just seeing the birth of a new strain of photography that starts with the wealth of visual material already readily available (rather than newly clicking shutters) and we will naturally see the development of new and diverse technical approaches and measures of craftsmanship, some that will match our current definitional categories well and others that won’t.
So back to Benson. His works start with raw imagery taken by NASA and European Space Agency probes and scientific missions, which he then meticulously stitches and tunes into large, vibrant art objects. Geysers on Enceladus, swirling flares on an eclipse of the Sun, flashes of comet impacts, many of his images show us something truly special or amazing, at least to the non-expert viewer. Others take the elegant rings of Saturn and turn them into abstractions of slicing cross section lines, perfect arcs, or sweeping electric blue stripes. Wavy Mars dunes in red sand turn into something akin to Edward Weston, while clouds on Earth flatten out like tabletops as they reach the upper atmosphere. In some cases, Benson is extremely crisp and literal, seemingly cleaning up a straightforward shot for better viewing/understanding; in others, his editing hand is much more visible, outer space becoming a forum for abstraction.
I think there is no denying the astonishing power of many of these images; the best have a soaring elegance and drama that most normal terrestrial subject matter will find hard to match. But until we clarify the conceptual boundaries of emerging archive mining strategies, I think we will struggle to find the right categorical place for works like Benson’s. Photographic archive mining is here to stay, and we need to think carefully and rigorously about the spectrum of ways it can be successfully carried out. On the surface, Benson’s approach stays very close to the science, but underneath, it isn’t radically different from Internet scouring and repurposing; his chosen archive is different and certainly more specialized, but many of his foundational concerns and issues are exactly the same.
Collector’s POV: The images in this show are generally priced based on size, ranging from $4200 for the smallest works to $25000 for the largest, with multiple intermediate prices in between. Benson’s work has not yet become consistently available in the secondary markets, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors and space/science buffs interested in following up.