Review: Notes from a Quiet Life by Robert Benjamin


Book Reviews


All photography is carefully constructed fiction, and this is especially true for family photography. I don’t know whether Robert Benjamin would agree with that. Having met the photographer last year and having had more than just one spirited conversation with him, I am not sure he would. But to say that photography is carefully constructed fiction takes nothing away from it. On the contrary, it is exactly this property of photography that allows it to elevate moments taken from life out of the ordinary: It is always the person behind the camera that makes the photograph and never whatever might be in front of it. (more)

The case of family photography introduces all kinds of additional complexities here. Much has been written or said about, for example, Doug DuBois’s All the Days and Nights, Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home, or Sally Mann’s Immediate Family. And a lot of that also applies to Robert Benjamin’s Notes from a Quiet Life, which, I’m hope, will find its place in the canon of family photography as one of the most shining examples.

The photographs in the book were taken over the course of around 25 years, using a number of different cameras/formats. There are panoramic photographs next to Polaroids, there even is a double exposure. This might sound dizzying, but the mix does not cause any kind of confusion at any moment. The photographs all are indeed notes from a quiet life, moments observed and felt, and then preserved in the form of photography.

As an outside viewer, it is always very hard to assess to what extent the photographer extricated himself from the moment, to what extent he had his artistic vision impose on the photograph. This is, in part, what makes it so hard to write about family photography. Usually, we can just make assumptions, or we can conclude something from what we imagine we might do. But those assumptions, the baggage we bring to other people’s family photographs, tend to if not ruin, then at least mar our experience. What we have to do instead is to let go, and to allow ourselves to experience something shared that usually is not shared.

Art is always that: An experience shared, an act of generosity. This is what makes bad art so infuriating: Of course, it’s fun to think about rich collectors paying a lot of money for, let’s say, Damien Hirst’s spot paintings. But those pieces of art, the way they are presented and sold, besmirch the experience of art for all of us. I’m sure very few people would want to admit it, but when it comes to art, deep down we’re all idealists.

The shared experience is what makes good art such an exhilarating experience (despite the breathtaking and off-putting amount of cynicism that exists in the professional art world). And this is also true for photography, of course. The shared experience is what makes good family photography so special. It certainly is what makes Robert Benjamin’s Notes from a Quiet Life very special. Highly recommended.

Notes from a Quiet Life, photographs by Robert Benjamin, essay by Eric Paddock, 72 pages, Radius Books, 2012

(find my video presentation of the book here)