This Week in Photography Books: Clare Benson

 

Autumn comes early in the mountains.

It’s true.

The East Coast may be boiling under a late-August heat wave, but my next-door-neighbor’s trees are already turning yellow, and we had to add an extra blanket to the bed last night.

It always fucks with my head, realizing that late-August isn’t entirely summer around here.

But you get used to it.

One minute, you’re swimming in the Rio Grande river, sunning yourself on the rocky beach like an over-grown lizard, and then, just a few weeks later, you’re dreaming of ski season.

Sure, the knees will be another year older once you buckle up your boots, and the freezing cold might penetrate your bones a bit more each season, but that’s the way it works.

Fall follows summer, and winter comes next.

Unless and until the Earth’s weather patterns are well and truly screwed, (a likely future scenario, we’re told,) rural humans will follow the seasonal cycles, and repeat the habits they learned from their parents.

Out here in New Mexico, there are plenty of people who grew up hunting with their Dad, uncles and cousins. (Or maybe a Mom or an aunt?) It’s deeply engrained in the local Hispanic and Native American cultures, for sure, to the point that camo is an acceptable form of fashion in the local burrito joints around town.

Not surprisingly, there is not a massive overlap between the hunting/4-wheeling/fishing culture, and the more bougie, gringo pursuits like skiing, snowboarding, rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking, etc.

Some, of course, but not much. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met someone from Taos who’s never skied before, but could chop down an Piñon tree and cut it up for firewood blindfolded.

(Not that I’d recommend anyone operate a chainsaw without looking. Very bad idea.)

This concept even made a recent New Yorker cover. (I only know because my son asked me to explain it.) As a first, I’ll photograph it so you can see what I mean.

As I told Theo, it’s all about the Two Americas, where people can worship the same mountains, and pledge allegiance to the same flag, but feel like their neighbors inhabit a different universe, if not a separate country.

As always, I’m on a rant for a reason, as I just put down the strange and cool “The Shepherd’s Daughter,” by Clare Benson, published last year by photolucida.

The Portland-based organization runs the photo world contest “Critical Mass,” (which I’m currently judging,) and its top prize is a published photo book. Ms. Benson won the 2015 competition, and the book turned up in the mail last year.

Because I was a judge, I was sent a copy of the book, so it ended up on my bookshelf, rather than in the submission pile. But as you know, I’m always looking for opportunities to highlight female photographers, so today, I pulled it down to take a look.

Ironically, Clare Benson seems to embody a hybrid of the exact dynamic I mentioned above. We met coincidentally in April, when she came to an artist talk I was giving in New York. It took place in a German beer hall in Queens, and she asked me all sorts of intelligent, very art-world questions about my work.

At some point, she mentioned that she’d studied photography at the prestigious program at University of Arizona, home to the Center for Creative Photography, and the Ansel Adams archive. So I took her for a city art person, out for a night of cheap German beer and good conversation. (The room was populated by Yalies and Columbia students/professors, so you can imagine the demographic I’m suggesting.)

Boy did I have Clare Benson wrong.

Or rather, like me, she seems to be an artist who can navigate the ivory towers and gritty streets, while still having a foot firmly planted in raw America.

To be clear, the most mountain-man thing I’ve ever done is chop off a deer’s paw, and I’ve never killed anything bigger than a mouse. (Though I have killed a lot of mice and flies.)

Clare Benson, so this book shows and tells us, comes from an actually hardcore family of hunters in Northern Michigan. If you’re not a fan of chopped up animal parts, you might not want to look at the images below.

The photographs appear to be staged, or created, rather than found, as Clare is featured in some of them, and there is a constructed vibe coming across. (The text confirms it.)

These are art photographs in documentary photography’s clothing.
(Is that too far a stretch for a pun?)

They’re cold, and structured. They feel like they’re real, in the sense that Clare’s connection to the land and culture comes through. But we also understand the function of the animals as still lives, almost: as talismanic markers of a world she knows, but doesn’t inhabit on a regular basis.

In the words of a (very) famous television show, (and a series of books that probably won’t be finished,) Winter is Coming.

I know it is.

There’s a chill in the air at daybreak, and according to my neighbor Morris Arellano, the elk have come down from the mountains already. (He told me this morning.)

Before you know it, the leaves will drop, the snow will arrive, and I’ll have a whole new host of problems to bitch to you about each week. (Freezing snot, clogged chimney, shoveling the driveway, etc.)

So for today, while some of you are still sweltering, I thought a cold, smart, original book was just what you needed. And if you want to eat some rabbit in Michigan this winter, now you know who to call.

Bottom Line: Spare, bleak, poetic book about winter hunting.

To purchase “The Shepherd’s Daughter” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

Jonathan Blaustein

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