“It’s about preserving a disappearing culture,” he says of his work. “You’d be hard-pressed now if you go to Vermont or Mississippi to find somebody who is still looking as identifiably part of the region as they were then, because of the commoditization of culture.”
Starting in the early 1970s—a time he says was laden with “regional diversification and identity”—he traveled the country for close to two decades, shooting on assignment. Benn landed the job 36 hours out of college. “I walked into a summer job that lasted for 20 years,” he jokes.
He calls those early years of photojournalism a “battle between the didactic and the stylistic.” Many of his shots for Nat Geo ended up in the dreaded “yellow work box”—his editor’s toss file. Over a decade in the making, Kodachrome Memory: American Pictures 1972-1990 was born out of images salvaged from that pile—pictures that reveal intimate moments in mundane settings and glimpses into contemporary Americana.
“We all were really aware that we were in a race—before this disappeared—to preserve it in some way,” Benn says about his and his colleagues’ mindset at the time.
Since then, and after revisiting his dreaded discard pile, Benn selected the 108 images that make up Memory. This Friday at Medicine Man gallery, some of his works will be exhibited, and a limited book signing will take place.
His images are quick to inspire whimsy and instant nostalgia. “Like the cover picture,” he says, which shows a woman dressed in a plaid coat standing in front of a Coke machine. “It looks cooler today than it did in 1973,” he chuckles. “The pictures look different today, and if I look at them 20 years from now, they’ll again look different.”
He hopes once the book is out in mid-September, he’ll be reconnected with his mystery cover model. “I know less about her than anybody else in the book,” he says. “We never spoke, and I took maybe three frames of her.”
After his tenure at the magazine, Benn hung up his camera for what he thought would be a one-year sabbatical. “I knew I needed a break,” he says. “I was afraid of getting dull.” The break permanently extended, and the photog never looked back.
Cruising on the momentum the exhibit and book is sure to give him, it’d be easy for Benn to grab a DSLR and pick up where he left off. Taking on an introspective tone, he assures, “That Nathan Benn passed away in 1991.”
5-7 pm Friday, Aug. 30. Free.
Medicine Man Gallery,
602 Canyon Road, Ste. A, 820-7451