John Benton-Harris

Yankee Eye On the English

Modern Photography - “Great Images #10” Gravure Portfolio Series 1977

Creative Camera Yearbook Number 5 -“John Benton-Harris” 23 Page Portfolio 1978

 “Being a stranger in a strange land is not without its advantages,” John Benton-Harris has written of himself regarding those of his images that somehow bind together his own and his adopted culture. He clings fiercely to an American past, yet has spent the past13 years in Europe, mostly in England.  In that time his work and vision have matured growing into something unique, an alliance of the brash and forthright young photographer who gate-crashed Alexey Brodovitch’s class in New York City and the older, wiser, more sure-footed image maker who is occupying a position of increasing importance on the British Photographic scene.

He is, in his spanning of the two cultures, a rare kind of photographer. The American in him seeks to practice that most transatlantic of preoccupations, a defining of the nature of his adopted country, while the photographer who came to truly understand his medium in Britain looks for the humour, drama, pathos and irony that exists beneath the mask of a nation whose character was defined long before his homeland was discovered. In some respects this paradox holds the key to his photographs, for despite their often-charming exterior, there is an almost caustic honesty to them.

Benton-Harris’s situation as a resident foreigner can be linked to that of the stereotypical outsider- being free to observe and comment, yet not becoming a participant. But his case is different, for he has avoided many of the disadvantages associated with the photographic outsider. Relatively early in his career he recognised the weaknesses and superficialities that seem attached to the concept of the photographer as witness to something he can see but does not understand-and, even worse, is not compelled to understand. With his pictures he has broken away from the gloss and mythology of the globe trotting photojournalist who in Benton-Harris’s words, “aims to please and shoots to shock, shelving individual integrity in favour of editorial preconceptions.”

Instead, he has chosen the infinitely more arduous, yet potentially more rewarding, path of commitment to himself and his relationship to the subject, trying to create in each image a multi-levelled statement. At once his pictures reveal the subject with a reflective honesty, speak of their maker and his understanding, place the central image in some suitable context and express the process of thinking and questioning that is essential to this photography. Above all, they deal in subtle choreography that welds these facets into a visual harmonious whole.

It is a complex form of image making, which demands an absolute discipline and dedication.  To rise to the personal demands that have driven him to work in this way, Benton-Harris has abandoned the commercial photojournalism that used to be his primary source of income. Since the early 1960’s, when he became increasingly aware of the limitations that deadline thinking placed on his investigation of his subject, he has been fighting two battles-one to have the dignity and intelligence of the photographer recognised and respected outside an overtly “art” context, the other to see himself grow as a maker of relevant and incisive pictures that reflect his need to be a viable contributor to our visual literature. 

In a country that is only slowly awakening to the possibilities of photography as a medium of personal expression and communication, the fighting has been tough, and Benton-Harris has not remained unscathed. As he says “When I arrived in England, the photographically aware public was only dimly conscious of its sparse and fragmented present, unaware of its rich and sizeable past and almost totally ignorant of the major names in 20th - century image making. The only figures that seemed in any way to have created an impact were the privileged, aristocratic outdated or trendy super stars of synthetic imagery such as Lord Snowdon, Patrick - Earl of Lichfield, Sir Cecil Beaton and David Bailey. Those who thought of themselves as in the vanguard might have know of Bill Brandt,, but Hine, Riis, Kertesz, Brassai, Evans, Lange, Strand, Weston and an embarrassingly long list of others were unknown to all but a handful. Within a short time I realised how restricted were the possibilities for the thinking and questioning photographer. With a growing sense of frustration I began to face the futility of searching for outlets where none existed.”

These and other equally strong statements characterise the forceful nature of a photographer who learned his medium on the streets of the South East Bronx, where confrontations with some of the basic truths of existence are an essential part of the daily round. But if his background has caused Benton-Harris to develop a hard, at times abrasive, exterior, it also allowed him to witness a certain reality in human interaction that has shaped his perceptions. His ongoing project, to faithfully mirror those aspects of the English that he regards as relevant, entails seeing and recording the exterior, the interiors and the complex web of tradition and preconditioning that links Britain.    

To satisfy his own ethic he must present his findings in the most decisive manner possible, but since he photographs on a razor’s edge he cannot allow his sharpness to hide any barbs. If he is to remain true to his ideals he must deal in genuine characterisation and not become caught up in caricature. It is a difficult role, which requires the diligence of August Sander, the honest subjectivity of Robert Frank, the concern of Lewis Hine, the visual dexterity of Cartier-Bresson and the wit of P.G. Wodehouse. This last quality is important; Benton-Harris is neither a journalist nor, strictly speaking, a documentarian, but a teller of tales.

He says that his story is one of a country that has learned to hide itself behind a complex series of barriers, each one cunningly designed to function as a source if confusion to the unwary. The English Say one thing, mean another and think a third. To present this enigma visually with a degree of coherence is no mean feat, and it has taken Benton-Harris several years to unravel some of the mysteries and begin to assemble a meaningful body of work. He is fond of a quotation from Sir Winston Churchill “You must not underrate England,. She is a curious country and few foreigners can understand her mind…. She is very clever.”

The perception that there is a curiosity to England extending beyond the obvious was shared by his friend and fellow ex-Brodovitch student, the late Tony Ray-Jones, probably the most eloquent of the post-war generation of British photographers. Ray-Jones also realised how little documented his homeland was, and how many opportunities existed for the perceptive recorder who demanded more than the superficial. The friendship was stimulating to them both; while the two photographers seldom worked together they were quick to recognise the need for creating their own support system and to be mutually critical. In addition to their shared concern for reaching beneath the disguises so easily adopted by such a tradition-conscious society, they were both involved in producing work that asked more of the viewer than was thought tolerable by the average picture editor.

Benton-Harris’s road out of the magazine world was by no means easy, but if the rejection of a system had been encouraged to respect has brought about hardships it has also brought rewards. In refusing to become what he describes as a “company man with a camera,” he has been forced to rely on himself- to become his own man and learn the gentle art of photographic self-sufficiency with few assignments, no masters and no critics. This is not to say that he considers himself above criticism; it is merely the recognition that he must be the final arbiter of his statement. From this springs a rigorous working method involving ruthless questioning, editing, re-shooting, re-questioning and examining his motives in making each picture.

In a sense Benton-Harris’s career has run parallel to a change in attitude towards the medium that has affected a whole generation. As one by one the British outlets for traditional photojournalism have vanished, photographers have been obliged to redefine their positions, re-evaluate the nature of their work and attempt to find alternatives. Some have begun to make movies, some have turned advertising and company reports to support their personal work and some, like Benton-Harris have taken up part time teaching. Teaching provides him with a stable (and stimulating) base while seeking some form of sponsorship to finance long-term commitments to large-scale projects. Recent funding has come from the Arts Council of Great Britain, which has awarded him to grants to document the English way of life. The grants enabled him to build and shape his project into a more coherent statement of personal vision and understanding.

This statement is not yet complete. Every moment that is not devoted to shooting is spent researching and editing-looking for gaps and flaws. As he delves further into the mysteries of his subject he realises just how mammoth his undertaking is. Thus, the images published here could well be viewed as notes extracted from a work in progress.  For Benton-Harris, the progress has been exciting and illuminating. For us, given a private view of public spectacle, these photographs can lead to new insight into a curious nation. Moreover, they add to our collective knowledge of the medium and bring us a step closer to the realisation of Steichen’s proclamation on the function of photography; “To explain man to his fellow man, and to himself.”   - Peter Turner

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