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Book Review: The Traveller


Book Review The Traveller By Harvey Benge Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Harvey Benge’s traveler seems to be the rootless kind, moving along an ambiguous course, forked off a forgotten beginning, with an unknown end. His photographs suggest a largely solitary journey, with appearances by unnamed characters on emotional flyby and layover; guest stars out of place and time.
The TravellerBy Harvey Benge
Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2016.
 
The Traveller
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

The Traveller.
Photographs by Harvey Benge.
Dewi Lewis Publishing, Stockport, England, 2016. 96 pp., 88 color illustrations, 8¼x11½".


Harvey Benge’s traveler seems to be the rootless kind, moving along an ambiguous course, forked off a forgotten beginning, with an unknown end. His photographs suggest a largely solitary journey, with appearances by unnamed characters on emotional flyby and layover; guest stars out of place and time. Relationships are opaque — with figures out of focus or closed-off, encased and disguised. A blond woman is recognizable in recurring depictions and inhabits her own skin with increasing agency throughout the series of photographs; yet her relationship to the traveler remains unknown. Several headless female nudes and the occasional more outward-facing, from-the-hip street views are disorienting additions to the cast. Benge’s own image pops up five times in the form of photo booth strips, suggestive of a passport portrait. Handwritten annotations situate him in Paris, year after year. He looks in turn bemused and circumspect, even tired. They are our only anchor to the specificity of place and the passage of time; in his face, his identification, an ever-modulating, equivocal emcee.

The TravellerBy Harvey BengeDewi Lewis Publishing, 2016.
The TravellerBy Harvey BengeDewi Lewis Publishing, 2016.

This is no reportage or conventional travelogue; we do not learn about all the places the traveler has been, or when or why. There is no finish line or final destination here. Each image’s meaning lies not in the moment at hand, but remains dormant, awaiting Benge’s carefully arranged pairings and sequential propositions and the hope of the viewer’s revelatory experience. He banks on the symbolic potential of the banal in configurations that deliver a grab bag of divulgements and a sometimes heavy-handed combination of unresolved equations and ready punch lines. A set of handcuffs appears opposite a ladder leading to an open second story doorway, where we see an extended pair of hands — resignation or escape? A bare light bulb dangling from its cord, trussed up with a pink bow sits across the seam from a young woman in a skull and cross bones shirt — a feminized noose for a girl who’s blurry and fading away. A man wears a mask of his own face and a Michael Jackson t-shirt, opposite a discarded white glove — shrugged-off icon or lost amulet?

The TravellerBy Harvey BengeDewi Lewis Publishing, 2016.
The TravellerBy Harvey BengeDewi Lewis Publishing, 2016.

While there is no text included in The Traveller, elsewhere Benge has described the series as spanning fifteen years of travels from the South Pacific to Asia and Europe and comprising a semi-autobiographical fiction. The work is characterized as open-ended, questioning. The viewer is asked to tease out a story and answers from Benge’s sometimes odd and sometimes merely bland treatment of the mundane. While many a travel photograph foregrounds the new or exotic, Benge’s images instead remind me of those exercises designed to reveal the visually interesting in one’s everyday surroundings; looking anew at the landscape of the familiar. Spontaneity is traded in for a structured approach to discovery. This tack can lead to sharp observations and wry humor, but also risks the pitfalls of trying too hard when stripped of the voice and vision of the maker. There is a photograph in The Traveller that first reads as a fanciful city map — where sharp angles and arrows meet loops and s-curves; a loose guide to exploration. On closer observation, the image is seen as a dressmaker’s design — all latent potential and open ending. Benge puts his faith in such intrinsic codes and patterns in the visual world, that they are sufficient guides to personal discovery. Yet, I find there’s not enough of the photographer’s subjective path here. A more overt telling of Benge’s own story need not limit my travel through his work, but instead could be a suggested route, a guideline to follow and then veer away from, in search of my own alternate course. In the face of too many anonymous propositions and forks in the road, the more you see, the less you know.—KAREN JENKINS

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KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.


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