Harvey Benge – The Traveller

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At somewhat regular intervals, envelopes postmarked in New Zealand will arrive at my door step. Inside, each one carries a new self-published book by Harvey Benge. These books are all the same in form (a single, stapled signature), but not in content. They’re essentially very well-produced zines. I would have to gather the set I already own to see if the following truly is correct, but I believe they tend to originate from the various trips that take Benge to other parts of the world, Paris being very prominent among them.

If this approach to publishing might sound a bit fragmented (which, in a sense, it is), the photography is as well. The pictures are their own little planets, minute observations of things (or people) that nobody else would pay much attention to. Grander narratives are absent, as are, obviously, “projects”. This is not the time and space to dive into the idea of projects and what might be gained from them. That said, Benge’s work demonstrates that there exists another mode, where individual pictures are not supposed to add up to more than the photographer’s overall vision. Admittedly, this can be a lot.

Making singular observations with your camera, instead of working within the confines of projects, comes with advantages and disadvantages. Being untethered allows a photographer to follow her or his whims, her or his photographic sensibility. But there also is a lot less guidance, and while individual images might excel, seen as a whole, will they add up to more? And if yes, how so? In what ways?

To produce a book, say, or a project out of singular observations is close to working along the lines of those mining archives. There is raw material that has no larger meaning attached to it, and it can thus be selected and shaped into a larger, coherent whole. Benge has used this approach in the past, and he makes use of it again with The Traveller.

The book does not only look autobiographical, it also feels that way. The former will be obvious to even the casual viewer, given the use of photobooth or passport pictures that have dates next to them. The earliest is from 2004, the latest from 2015. These pictures provide a repetition of sorts, a variation on a theme, a face slowly ageing.

This particular device is used not only for these portraits, there are variations on different themes. There is, in particular, the theme of a female nude, pictures of a young woman (or possibly different women), depicted lying prone on her (their) back(s), the frame cutting the full figure somewhere on the upper thighs and just below the chin. For me, the particular framing intrigues and disturbs me at the same time: who are these faceless women turned into objects of male desire here? And these pictures need to be seen against the (clothed) portraits of other (or the same?) women, all of which confront the camera (and the man behind it) quite assertively.

Add to this mix a smattering of other, more singular observations, and you arrive at a photographic autobiography of sorts that is as puzzling as the life of this particular individual must have felt at the time when the pictures were made. Life is, after all, a big puzzle, whether we have our glorious five-year plans or not. We can attempt to produce a coherent picture only in retrospect, a picture that might or might not have found its place in such a plan.

And which autobiography isn’t also fictional? Aren’t the stories we’re telling ourselves (and others) about the things that happened to us, the combination of which amounts to our life story, also fictional, with omissions, whether conscious or not, playing a major role? We don’t remember some things because we can’t, or because we don’t want to, and we might even remember things that never happened.

The Traveller; photographs Harvey Benge; 96 pages; Dewi Lewis; 2016

Rating: Photography 3.0, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.5

Ratings explained here.