New York

Richard Benson, Puerto Rico, 2007, color photograph, 20 x 13 3/8".

Richard Benson, Puerto Rico, 2007, color photograph, 20 x 13 3/8".

Richard Benson

Pace/MacGill Gallery

Richard Benson, Puerto Rico, 2007, color photograph, 20 x 13 3/8".

Puerto Rico, 2007, despite being one of only two photographs in this large exhibition to have been made outside the continental United States, is emblematic of photographer Richard Benson’s series “North South East West,” 2005–11. The image’s subject, an isolated tropical tree at the edge of a parking lot, is representative in its humbleness and outdoor, out-of-the-way location. The sky behind it, as in many of the show’s photographs, is a rich cerulean, the clouds near the horizon puffy and white; shadows are nonexistent. The tree’s visual similarity to a peacock’s tail feathers metaphorically suggests a central element of Benson’s achievement: the rich and varied colors he creates with his signature “multiple impression pigment prints.” The slash of orange wending across the bottom of the frame surprises in its brightness and purity. It must be seen in person to be believed—more so than usual, JPEGS on the gallery website do this work no justice.

We regularly encounter such saturation out in the world, yet when portrayed in an image, it has a tinge of surrealism, or suggests digital artifice. Benson achieves this quality of color by isolating the image’s constituent parts into different layers and printing each separately after making minute color adjustments. (He even adapted his novel technique for the related book, running each page through the press twice.) Traveling the country in an RV, Benson regularly stops to photograph what catches his eye—and sometimes, one suspects, what he thinks might make good use of his printing technique. There are picturesque clapboard houses surrounding a village green clothed in snow. There are disused railroad cars and signage, as well as an image of tracks receding toward a far-off horizon. There is a midcentury commercial truck, parked alongside the highway to advertise Butch’s Place, and a row of roadside mailboxes, both with mountains in the distance. And a pile of hay bales is surmounted by an American flag. Each scene is rendered with precision, often from an oblique angle that invites the eye into the photograph.

The photographs were all taken under similar conditions—in which the quality of light that best achieves Benson’s chromatic splendor was present—meaning that pictures taken in different parts of the country, or at different times of year, begin to look the same. Rhode Island, 2010, echoes New Mexico, 2006, which in turn echoes Nebraska, 2011. Because of this, we are oriented geographically by our preconceived notions of place: Clapboard houses signify “New England,” while a lone utility pole in a vast, flat expanse of land signifies “the Great Plains.” Benson’s vision of America verges on kitschy Americana and rarely challenges our assumptions. There’s a glittering blue Ford Mustang on a lift at a mechanic’s shop in Virginia, a sailboat resting in a Rhode Island boatyard, and three small cabins abutting a Vermont lake. The colors in the last photo are almost hallucinatory. Benson captures the precise moment when the setting sun turns both the sky and the lake’s surface cotton-candy pink, and at the same time distinguishes the green of the grass from that of the painted cabins. The photograph is a compositional and technical achievement of the first order. It is a disappointment that, cumulatively, this selection of Benson’s lovely travel images comes across like an antiques road show.

Brian Sholis