Mere Imitations

by Kevin Rabalais / 09 August, 2008
The art photography lite of Harvey Benge and slow burn of Andrew Ross.

Right from the release of his first photo book, Four Parts Religion, in 1992, Harvey Benge has proved himself a photographer with razor-sharp reflexes: his images, characteristically bright, slice and dice space with dazzling flair. A slipping glimpser, a restless mover, a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, he has been able, more often than not, to get his photographs of the ordinary and the everyday to spark, as if with high-voltage electricity.

Benge's latest book, however, springs from a different conceptual base to his hitherto gleefully anarchic assemblages with their snatch'n'grab approach. A Short History of Photography consists of an assortment of his photographs selected for their similarity to photographs by internationally well-known art photographers. Is it an act of homage, or a joke, or a bit of both?

A Short History of Photography is also the title of a famous essay by Walter Benjamin published in 1931, so the droll appropriation starts there. Benge's book, though, concentrates on 40 more or less contemporary photographers arranged in alphabetical order. The introduction, by British critic Gerry Badger, claims Benge's versions are not strictly speaking pastiches or copies, since he selected them from photo-graphs he'd already taken after noticing their resemblances. This method supposedly offers Benge a means of whipping his promiscuous and catholic- imagery - blame that trigger-happy finger - into a brisk march-past of stylistic allusions. Sounds gimmicky to me, and suggests anxiety and insecurity - or is the photographer just drunk on theory?

Jet-setter Benge spans the world with his (subconscious) imitations: there's a version of Hiroshi Sugimoto's celebrated horizon series, sea meeting sky; there's a version of Robert Polidori's take on the urban vista - the voracious lens scanning a 2006 Shanghai streetscape with an even focus. There's a nod to the pseudo--snapshot aesthetic of Wolfgang Tillmans, and a bow to Lee Friedlander's deployment of the photograph as camouflage (you have to look hard to make sense of what you're seeing).

Benge acts as hunter-gatherer from Paris, Missouri, to Paris, France, and then all the way back to an affectless, deracinated Auckland: this could be anywheresville. Benge photographs a child's tricycle at Mission Bay from almost the same low angle American William Eggleston used in his classic 1970 photograph of a tricycle on a suburban lawn. But when you compare the two, what you notice are the differences. And the prime difference is in the level of intensity. Where Benge offers clutter and cute lighting and melodrama (his narrative hints at abduction), Eggleston gives you the thing itself, monumental as is, and a metaphor for US gigantism.

Benge's method, then, works to his disadvantage. His rote formalism seems to be running on empty. When he offers a portrait of a girl taken in the manner of Rineke Dijkstra, you miss immediately the heightened vulnerability and gawky self-consciousness Dijkstra is able to coax from her subject; when he presents a banal piece of commercial signage and refers you to the appropriated advertising imagery of Richard Prince, you don't believe Benge truly shares Prince's barefaced cynicism.

Somehow, Benge siphons off the urgency and angst of the originals - the grainy immediacy of Robert Frank or the tenderness of Nan Goldin - and offers instead jazzy approximations. It's art photo-graphy lite. Lukewarm applause, perhaps, for the way Benge "references" the German deadpan aesthetic school of the Bechers, or artfully represents the staged photographs of Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall, but he only serves to remind you how forceful the originals are.

The best of Benge is in his chronicles of domestic intimacies: the style he credits- to Tina Barney seems identical to his own, and his playful sense of colour here reminds you just how good a colourist he can be: three shades of cherry, one on a dress, one on teacups and one on left-over piles of cherry stones - wonderful harmony within a single frame.

The problem's with the concept. Benge plays the tourist too earnestly, or too smirkingly. He hovers at the edge of things like an ad executive's idea of a tourist. Wittingly or unwittingly, he's going for the packaged experience on a round-the-world junket, summed up by his Massimo Vitale homage. It's a crowded scene on a Euro-beach: cramming the shot with sun-umbrellas, deck chairs, tables, pushchairs and sunbathers, Benge reveals the holiday experience as totally industrial: globalised, commodified, mediated.

If Benge shuffles his counterfeits and fakes like a cardsharp looking for the joker, Andrew Ross, in his first book of photographs, is intent on letting us see the strangeness familiar things possess in themselves. Ross' photographs are mostly taken in Masterton and Wellington, where he now lives. But these are no ordinary photographs. Your necessary reference points are TS Eliot, Samuel Beckett, James K Baxter and Geoff Cochrane, for, at his driven best, Ross' images express an extraordinary poetic fatalism: they search run-down buildings as if musing on death, the body and the ravages of time.

In Fiat Lux, Wellington becomes the naked city, with its old plumbing, dusty wiring and dirty linen literally exposed. There's surrealism in the way electrical cables seem arrested in the act of writhing. You get a sense of a phantasmal city, a spirit city, the city as an index of the hidden - only its cache of secret objects are actually things in plain sight: stained walls, rusty roofs, dented roller doors; and workshops and factory basements and second-hand shop interiors and boarding house corridors with the occasional stray occupant coming into view. Or else there's a whole community of stray occupants.

In a Ross photograph, the hitherto unremarked-on is patiently assessed. As John B Turner points out in one of the short essays by various commentators included in Fiat Lux, Ross' camera captures "more than the unaided eye can see". Ross began using an old-fashioned large format camera in the early 1990s and since then has worked on several series of subjects, notably a sequence depicting buildings marked for demolition for the Wellington motorway extension.

Photographing a neighbourhood ahead of the bulldozers and redevelopers, Ross resurrects the recent past as a historical project. In his hands, black and white photography allows a reduction to bare bones, to structure, to architecture and archaeology. His scrutiny reveals inner Wellington as rich in particularity. The city is a labyrinth made up of dens and habitats dense with textures. The camera bores in and reveals the eerie logic of jumble; it creates order out of the chaos of appearances: wires dangle and loop, the whole world sags, and yet amid the decrepitude and melancholy we are also aware of a pervasive irony. In his jagged, ever-so-slightly off-kilter depictions, flotsam and jetsam left behind by various tides of fashion persist and bear witness, but in such a subtle way it's like a slow burn - you don't get it at first, and then you do.

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