NEW YORK — As the sun shines through the tall glass windows onto the third floor of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, museum-goers stand in the special photography exhibit, pointing and conferring in hushed tones. At “The Printed Picture,” the viewers, young and old, are all students.
The exhibit was created by Richard Benson, the former dean of the Yale School of Art and current adjunct professor of photography, and is complimented by the MoMA’s publication of his book of the same name. It explores the history of printing and photography, emphasizing their importance in modern culture.
“The underlying premise of the whole thing, the book and the show,” said Benson, “is that the process of printing pictures, the whole practice, has been one continual activity that started way back in prehistoric times. It has remained one coherent sequence.”
For Benson, the process of making multiple copies of a single picture is “central to our society and civilization,” as he put it in an interview. This concept is one that Benson conveys to the viewer and the reader: The 307 objects in the show, many of which were taken nearly a century ago by unknown photographers, reveal this fundamental process of photography. One of the examples of a platinum print was a picture of the 1907 managing board of the News.
The concept for the book was drawn from 30 years of lectures Benson delivered at Yale. Benson, along with Jonathan Edwards College Master Gary Haller, produced a smaller version of the exhibit and book in JE in March 2005 called “The Physical Print.” The show at MoMA was compiled from Benson’s own teaching materials and supplemented with works from the museum’s collection. Benson is donating the works from the exhibit to be a part of a study collection at the museum.
“We’re very excited to have this show here,” said Sarah Meister, a curator in MoMA’s photography department who was involved in creating the exhibition. She said viewing the show is an “intensely rewarding experience, even for casual viewers.”
The exhibition is structured chronologically, moving from handprints in acrylic paint, to woodblocks, to daguerreotypes, to chromolithographs, to photography and onward. Walking through the rooms of the gallery is like flipping through the pages of a textbook with illustrations. Examples of each printing type line the walls, many with enlarged details above, magnified 50 times their size to show the structure of each picture.
Benson only displayed a few of his own prints, three of which were examples of dye sublimation, a process in which tiny heating elements transfer dyes to a paper support.
“This show is not about my work as an artist at all,” said Benson. “It’s about my work as a teacher.”
But teaching and making art go hand in hand, Benson wrote in “The Printed Picture.”
“The best (and perhaps only) really good way to teach: to make your own art along with the students, so they come to understand the process as a whole, and can see the complex physical and intellectual activity needed in such work,” he wrote.
The passage is on the page opposite an etching by fellow Yale professor Sam Messer, associate dean of the School of Art.
“It’s beneficial to both the teacher/artist and the student,” Messer said of doubling as both an artist and as a teacher. “For the teacher, in a sense you have to practice what you preach, and it keeps you connected to younger generations of artists.”
“And vice versa,” he continued. “It gives the young artists role models, shows them the possibility of existing as a working artist.”
Benson agreed with Messer, noting that teaching has been the mechanism by which he has been able to clarify his own thoughts.
“As an artist you express how you feel through the work,” he said. “As a teacher you have to verbalize it.”
All members of the School of Art teaching faculty are working artists, Messer said. “Someone is always having a show,” he said.
And some, like Benson, have two. In addition to the exhibition at MoMA, Benson also has an exhibit of his own photos — called “Found Views and Chosen Colors” — just a few blocks away at the Pace/MacGill Gallery.
“It’s an odd thing to have happen, but it’s really nice,” Benson said. “So I’m really pleased that that was made possible.”
The show runs through June 1, 2009 at the MoMA, and Benson’s book can be purchased for $60.