Nathan Benn’s gorgeous color photographs paint a complex vision of Vermont as a place of constancy and change.
Kodachrome Memory: American Pictures 1972 – 1990, at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, runs through May 25.
By Kathleen C. Stone
I drove to Vermont during a cold snap – four below, a white skim over the land – to see Nathan Benn’s photographs at the Shelburne Museum. On my way, I passed fields, some barren, others filled with solar panels; grape vines withered on metal trellises; dealerships selling John Deere; stray bales of hay. Much of the scenery looked as it did in 1973 when Benn first arrived in Vermont, although some things have changed. Both elements — change and constancy — can be gleaned from Benn’s gorgeous color photographs, now on view in the show Kodachrome Memory: American Pictures 1972 – 1990 (organized by art2art Circulating Exhibitions).
Benn, then in his early twenties, was sent by National Geographic to explore Vermont’s countryside and bring back pictures that told a story – didactic, his editor wanted, not artsy. A native of Miami and a stranger to New England, Benn had the inquisitiveness of an anthropologist, and in Vermont he found old farmhouses, communes, white churches with steeples, horseshoes and granite quarries – things that made Vermont unique, and utterly unlike Florida.
In photograph after photograph, Benn nimbly captured a sense of place and community. One shows a town meeting, New England’s unique form of municipal government, where five men and women stand and salute the American flag. Several pictures record a Memorial Day parade: two dozen spectators wait in the rain, clutching American flags, and the brass band marches through puddles. Civic mindedness and patriotism are palpable but so, too, is a sense of irony. Just months earlier, the United States had signed the Paris Peace Accords, agreeing to end our military involvement in the Vietnam War, and we can imagine what these Vermonters must have felt: loss, regret and stubborn pride.
Also in the 1970s, young people were retreating from cities and setting up rural communes, and a series of photos documents such a farm in New Haven, Vermont. We see a Volkswagen bus, that quintessential symbol of the hippy life style, parked under a tree; a man leans over a horse, his muscled body glowing in the bronze light; a bushy-haired woman stands before a hay trailer and another, barefoot with an apron around her waist, emerges from the farmhouse to look at the fields.
Other photos show Vermont’s industrial side: a factory in Burlington making wooden spools and bobbins, the interior infused with the warm colors of wood; an engineer with a Rembrandt face standing in front of a steam engine, the last one to run on Vermont’s rails; a green-shirted mechanic holding his greasy hands toward the camera.
In addition to these indelible images of Vermont, the show includes pictures Benn took throughout the South. Southern colors are aqua, chartreuse, fuchsia, cerise; men wear white shoes; some people have black skin. We see guests dressed up for a charity event in Palm Beach, together with costumed performers; wax figures of Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and their horse Trigger at an Orlando museum; a female figure, ebony black and dressed like Aunt Jemima, sits atop a popular family restaurant called Mammy’s Cupboard in Natchez, Mississippi. The sharp contrast with the Vermont photos, stark and pointed, reminds us that regionalism really used to mean something.
In 1991, when Benn left National Geographic, he archived his images, several hundred thousand of them. He went on to develop digital technologies for preserving and sharing photographs and, as Benn wrote to me in an e-mail, he pursued a deep personal interest in classical painting. (He confided that his favorite picture is a Renaissance work, Giovanni Bellini’s “St. Francis in the Desert.”) As he began to look through his images in the archives, Benn found himself most attracted to those that resonated with a classical sensibility: this approach informed his selections for the Shelburne show and the accompanying book. A shot of a farm auction, for instance, shows a man pulling apart a Holstein’s lips to reveal its teeth. In a composition worthy of Bellini himself, the man and the animal occupy the foreground, while the sharply raked background is centered on a shed, uphill from the two figures.
In another photo, six women on the porch of a grange building are arranged horizontally, on the left side of the porch. Yet the photo feels balanced for the same reason a Caravaggio painting feels balanced: there is enormous visual interest even in the unpopulated side of the image – here, the rounded form of a bicycle and a hand-lettered sign. In an interior shot, Benn uses the classical device of a mirror to expand our view. Two figures face the camera: a girl at the piano and a white-haired woman, presumably her grandmother, listening to the practice session. But Benn adds a layer of complexity, just as Velasquez, van Eyck, and others did, by showing us the mirrored reflection of a dark-haired woman from another corner of the room.
Before he started at National Geographic, Benn had favored black-and-white photography, but his editor asked that he switch to Kodachrome color film. What a gift! Kodachrome, a favorite of many photographers, produced deep, rich hues. And, because he used pre-digital cameras, Benn had to shoot again and again, framing instinctively, without knowing what he had actually captured on film. This labor intensive technique, plus the vivid color, gives his scenes a vibrant feeling of being in-the-moment.
As I left the museum, I headed south, passing through some of the towns Benn had photographed forty years earlier. The building in Burlington, where wooden spools and bobbins were once made, later became a Ben & Jerry’s plant and now is an apartment building. Pickup trucks and Subarus have replaced VW buses. Agri-business has put an unprecedented squeeze on small family farms, and chain stores have infiltrated parts of the state. But some things endure. Locally grown food is a point of pride, and people still dedicate their lives to farming. Vermont is both conservative and fertile ground for new ideas: solar panels cover the fields, and small cafes take the place of general stores. And the first Tuesday in March is still Town Meeting Day.
Kathleen C. Stone is a writer pursuing her MFA degree, a lawyer who earned her JD many years ago, and, even before that, was a student of art history. Her blog can be found here.