Jim Bengston

Jim Bengston's photographic work is very diverse. Jim Bengston (b. 1942) is originally American, but has lived in Norway since 1970 and had this country as a base for work.

An exhibition in two parts

  • "Room with a View" April 27 - May 27
  • “Close to Home” May 31 - June 24

The diversity also reflects this international fact, for some of Bengston's most famous works are made from footage from residence in the United States. But he is probably best known for the pictures taken at Portør, both the deserted and empty sea panoramas, and the pictures he took between 1977 and 1985 of bathing and playing children and young people, published in the book Slow Motion. In these images, taken with flash and long shutter speeds, Bengston's understanding of 1960s performance art and new dance emerges. As in performance and avant-garde dance, the images are based on investigations of "ordinary movements". The blurred focus and the fact that remnants of movement are seen in the photographs as blurred shapes at the arms, legs and heads give the images an almost ritual touch. This is akin to futuristic photographs and paintings that just tried to show movement in still images. The usual and basic movements are taken out of the flow of time and attached to film and paper as a picture. The use of flash illuminates the nearest part of the subject and thus also creates a slightly alienated mood, which helps to elevate the everyday to a more meditative form of experience. Another well-known series is Empty Landscape, shown at Lillehammer Art Museum in 1996 and accompanied by a book of the same title.

The pictures at the Lillehammer exhibition were based on recordings made in the southwestern part of the USA in the state of Utah, on Ringebufjellet and in the skerries at Portør. Between these extremes, where magnificent, almost eternally untouched landscapes in three climatic and topographical fringe zones are opened through his photographic gaze, there are images of Norwegian inland forests, cityscapes, interiors with and without people and a long series of images showing different types of exhibition containers and displays . Jim Bengston's work so far shows a typical feature of photography as a phenomenon, which was emphasized by Susan Sontag in her influential book On Photography (1977) - namely that photographers are not authors ("authors and women") such as painters and poets . She pointed out that although there is a conscious artistic gaze present in photography and there is a difference between artistic photography and other types of photography, photography is strictly speaking not an art (such as poetry and painting), but a medium. At Bengston, this is seen in the fact that he - like almost all other important photographers - has worked with the same set of motifs and with the same type of issues. There is an acceptance of the tradition in this, and there is a formalistic strength in the fact that photography is in many ways a form of image creation that must play on the team with the entire apparatus' prerequisites. This method of photographic work has brought Bengston's images to important exhibitions and collections in many of the world's leading museums.

Bengston has a background as a reportage photographer and advertising photographer. In 1969 and 1970 he worked as a journalist and photo editor for the Associated Press. In addition to commissioned photography in the advertising industry, Jim Bengston is also a significant architectural photographer. He has the interest and insight into new architecture that is needed to be able to present a three-dimensional, monumental art in pictures.

Room with a View
The first part of this exhibition period shows photos from New York City, New Haven in Connecticut and one from Oslo. All these images - which in the exhibition are shown under the common title Room with a View - announce the architectural understanding. All photos are taken from an interior and out into an urban and built-up room. Most of the photos - the ones that actually make up the Room with a View series - were taken over several years. Bengston lives with an old colleague when he's in New York City, and it's from the apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side that these pictures were taken. Room with a View is an appropriate title, because it plays on a well-known title by the novelist EMForster. Bengston, who began as a literary scholar with German literature as his specialty, is also in dialogue with fiction. In this case, it is a photographer with a keen interest in landscapes who twists Forster's views - which in the book and film were from a hotel room towards the rolling and romantic landscape of northern Italy - in the direction of New York's stone desert. That this view also has a sensitivity to the meeting between a built and a natural room, we see from the changing lighting and from the green plants in the window. Down in the streets between the rows of houses, there is a vibrant people's life in this most literary and cultural part of the big city. And behind the windows of these buildings, books are sliced and read, music is composed and instrumentalists rehearse. Bengston uses the facades 'grid pattern, brick cladding and beautiful Beaux-Artes ornamentation to build flat layers in the photograph, layers that give tension to the void between the apartment's windows and the house facades, the facades that give a sense of depth and height along the buildings' flat sides. The light in the subject is photographically controlled so that it highlights surfaces and models the void. The lamp light in the windows plays with the daylight in the sky and gives the images a pulse that is both of the day and of city life. 

The photo Yale University Art School was taken from a hotel room overlooking the university campus. The last New York photo was taken through the train window on the way from Grand Central Station on the two-hour train ride north towards Yale. The last picture in this first part is from Oslo, more specifically through the car window at Smestad Car Wash.

All of these images have a structure that is unique to the photograph. One of the strengths of Bengston's paintings is that he is first and foremost a photographer who has incorporated the entire history and phenomenology of photography into his artistic practice. By the term photographic phenomenology I mean the totality of the subject, the apparatus and the person who takes the picture. Perhaps the most important thing for modern photographers and their postmodern successors and interpreters is the apparatus itself. Photography as a medium is about light and darkness, about aperture and shutter speed (opening and closing), about a lens in glass, about a negative in glass, about a negative or slide in celloloid, and in our digital days about a display in glass, about light-sensitive storage chips and about a plastic screen where the pixels produce images in light and dark areas. All these layers in the apparatus are either evenly curved or completely flat. The camera has a house (the word "camera" means room or room) and all photography is really about the tension between transparency and opacity, between what is completely transparent and what is completely covered. This is clearly seen by the fact that inside the camera body it is completely covered and dark when the aperture is closed. The unexposed film is completely opaque before it is illuminated / exposed to a radiant subject, and it becomes completely white and transparent if it is overexposed. An untaken photograph (if it is possible to say something like that) is completely black, a photograph of bright light becomes completely transparent after long exposure. Photographs are therefore always things that are perceived somewhere between transparency and sealing.

Due to these conditions, which are given in the first place, photographers over the last hundred years have tended to favor certain subjects. Rooms and rooms with changing lighting, walls, facades, posters, shallow and flat deep recesses are very common and it is often the case that dense motifs where the elements are evenly distributed are favored because the finished image appears visually flat and even. Therefore, hedges, canopies, shrubs, mountain walls, skies with clouds or evenly distributed clouds, sea surfaces, ripples, roads in asphalt, gravel, meadows, deserts, gravel roofs, etc. In a class of their own among the most photogenic motifs are windows. Photographs taken either out or in through a window show an actual situation, a subject that has an identical structure to the camera and the negative itself. The point of photographing windows, which are flat and transparent, is to capture traces in the window surface that show that this is a flat, transparent layer placed in the room being photographed. In order to make windows visible in photography, they must be captured somewhere in between being completely transparent and being completely covered. What makes windows photogenic and semi-transparent can be dirt and dust, scratches, cracks, glare, refractions, mosquito nets, semi-transparent blinds or raindrops. This can be seen in most of the pictures in part 1 - Room with a View - while in the panorama and some others it is not so clear that there is window glass between the photographer and the subject.

On the other hand, there are windows in opposite facades on the other side of the urban space between the building bodies. One can conclude intellectually - since this is not visible - that the situation in these facades is similar to that which applies where the pictures were taken from. This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that the photos were taken from such a high vantage point, but still both some distance up to the ceiling, that they must have been taken from a room - with a view.

Close to Home
In the above there is an interpretive direction where it is pointed out that the exhibition space we call Nøstetangenrommet has a very special atmosphere and character and that this is structurally similar to the phenomenology of photography, as this is explained in the above. The room is a "camera". It is completely darkened (camera obscura), so that the brightness can be controlled and the objects exposed in the way the curator wants. The objects are reminiscent of a past. The room's original windows are blinded - and in these can be hung photographs that become pictures of something that is outside the windows. The objects in the room are built into glass cabinets and a number of mirrors appear in the room. All this is to be understood as something that has a similar logic as a photographic display of cultural-historical objects. The room makes us acutely aware that something is both here right in front of us and comes from another time and another world - a melancholy and enigmatic mood that is also evoked in the viewer when she looks at photography.

Jim Bengston is the type of artist who immediately captures such conditions and sees their relevance to his own work. When he was invited to exhibit the pictures from the series Room with a View, he came to see the room and he was so excited about the task and the possibilities the room provides, that he started making the pictures that are exhibited in the second part, the pictures he has called Close to Home. The title is similar to the title of an American TV series and is such an established expression that Bengston was not aware of the link, but the pictures are also literally taken near his own house, in the shed in the edge zone for buildings and urban fabric at Vettakollen in Oslo. These pictures and the New York pictures show that out of a ("blinded") window can be viewed pictures of other houses with the urban void between them, or there may be a view of intimate and almost untouched forest interiors. With this we see that a photo camera - just like a room in the home - is not only a machine to take pictures with and to live in, but also places for viewing and wondering.

The forest pictures have a height format and that for several reasons. The creation of them is thus situational. The Nøstetangen room has high narrow blind windows on the outer wall. The tall tree trunks in the woods around Bengston's house create narrow, high passages and spaces. As in mathematics, it is in "world logic", to use an expression of the French philosopher Alain Badiou, true that 1 plus 1 is equal to 2. This irreversible logic is supported in this case by phenomenology, ie by how wholes between mental, sensory and physical / material forms of experience merge into total experiences (phenomena).

For what is it that creates a resemblance between tall narrow windows and doorways and photographs in height format with narrow, vertical passages? What creates this connection is the fact that both human bodies and tree trunks (the building materials used for door frames, window linings, etc.) are tall, narrow, vertical. For a photographer like Jim Bengston, who has previously worked a lot with panoramas, be it in deserted areas or in the city, it is with elevation format linked to a separate way - not just to take pictures - but to observe the world. It is obvious that the differences between width formats and height formats in photography have to do with two alternative ways of looking. Panoramas are the world as it is perceived when we (or the camera cylinder) scan the surroundings by turning our heads. The eyes (and lens) are at the same height and the head is rotated. The fact that this is a form of observation that takes some time is replaced in photography by the fact that photographers can put together several shots, either on the clipboard or in the computer. Time can also be reinterpreted into a curvature of the subject as seen in the finished image. This is a form of observation that is very optical, since the body - apart from the head and eyes - is at rest. Vertical formats, on the other hand, are best suited to express the way we experience the world when we walk-look. Go-see is a way of expressing oneself that characterizes phenomenologists. Walking-watching is something other than standing-watching. For standing-seeing really favors a fixed image, preferably square or in landscape format in the golden section. Such images have a central perspective and are found primarily in the painting (created to perfection in the Renaissance by Raphael, Piero delle Francesca and Mantegna). Walking-seeing favors height formats since walking-seeing means moving forward towards a slit that is wide enough for the body to pass. Since the ground can be insidious and full of bumps, dumps and the like, walking-seeing will consist of an alternation between looking forward and up in the long run and looking down in the short run. The optics in this form of experience are similar to the camera's changing depth of field. What happens when a person walks-sees is that an increased awareness is created that the eyes are part of a raised body and that they sit relatively high up in the body. Thus, vertical formats within photography are more physical than panoramic horizontal.

This is a realization that was reinforced during 1960s performance, video art and new dance. The other art form where this type of cognition is very significant is in architecture, especially the modern one. That modern architecture not only requires an open floor plan and space plan to give human movement great freedom and flexibility, but also favors asymmetrically placed windows and that these are rarely in traditional formats or square, hangs i.a. together with the breakthrough of phenomenology towards the end of the 19th century. The modern architecture favored windows without bars and in a marked width or height format. Height-shaped windows and panoramic windows could eventually be led all the way down to the floor, so that the whole of nature entered the living room and that sliding glass windows opened for free movement between inside and outside. This is just one of the many common points of contact photography and modern architecture have with each other - already Le Corbusier compared his window bands with the aperture of a camera. The house was not only a machine to live in, but also a camera to experience images (and receive light pulses) with.

For the presentations of three vertical Close to Home photos, a photograph of a mannequin in mink fur has been selected. In the room around her in the shop window, the snowfall is symbolized by light fur spots. These are metaphors for snowflakes, while in Bengston's pictures from the natural plot around the house there are real snowflakes. These become visible on the photographic print as relatively large white dots. They are caught in the air and due to the same flash that was used so effectively 30 years ago in the Slow Motion pictures, they are highlighted in the photograph. This is a conscious and poetic use of the formal possibilities of photography. In this way we see how photographers through changing times, in different societies and under different political and social conditions have stuck to some of the "world logic" as it appears / appears in the photographic process. After all, the question is whether the real formalism in art is not what separates art from propaganda and what separates art from journalism.

The logic of the Nøstetangen room - a world of artistic statements
Museums are in a similar situation in the span between historicity and something timeless. They are linked to changing political regimes and to changing methods of interpretation. Museums are places where the best forms of the past are held up against an ever fleeting present. It is inevitable to experience museums as melancholy places, where things that were new and alive through use are put in glass boxes to be preserved. The Nøstetangen room is about such things. That a similar structure applies to the lifeless mannequin in painted plaster, with wing glasses and beautiful fur, we understand if we allow ourselves the idea that this is the image of a winter forest princess, trapped in her transparent tower. In the real world, there is no escape without the purchase transaction and a real woman becoming like a queen by wearing the fur. In this exhibition, another alternative is given, which is the fairy tale. The road out goes over the leafy hill, through a wood and into the secret forest she could have come from.

Åsmund Thorkildsen 

Museum director

Jim Bengston is represented in the following collections:

  • Art Institute of Chicago
  • Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris
  • Brandts Klædesfabrik, Odense
  • Drammens Museum
  • Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki
  • Henie-Onstad Art Center, Høvikodden
  • Lillehammer Art Museum
  • Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo
  • National Museum of American Art - The Smithsonian, Washington DC
  • Preus museum, Horten
  • Polaroid Collection, Cambridge, USA
  • San Francisco MoMA
  • Oslo Municipality's art collections
  • Norwegian Cultural Council
  • Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

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