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Victoria Cooper+Doug Spowart Blog

HARVEY BENGE: An appreciation from a fellow traveller

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Harvey Benge’s portrait from his Blog header

 

VALE: HARVEY BENGE

With the recent passing of Harvey Benge many whose lives have been touched by the man have told stories of their connection with Harvey. In many ways my story is no different – Harvey gave so much to those he met. He enriched lives as well as nurtured and encouraged networks to form, information to be shared and contributed to the critique and philosophy of photobooks to a worldwide audience. In December 2017 his Blog recorded its 1,000,000th view…

Recently I have been thinking and reflecting about Harvey a great deal and how for a moment we shared a friendship through our interest for the photobook in it many forms. At this time I feel a need to share some my reflections of Harvey…

 

it’s not hard to find erudite statements from photobook commentators and critics from all over the world about Harvey and his work – But I wanted to find his manifesto for life, photography and books … and I found it in his description for the book The Traveller

The Traveller is a personal reflection of the world where strange connections occur. The photographs never offer answers, only questions to tempt the curious. This democratic view is an acerbic, wry response to the world in free-fall where nothing is certain. Yet I hope that readers can find humour, affection, and unexpected beauty.

 

Harvey Benge photobook: The Traveller PHOTOs: Courtesy MomentoPro

 

About 15 years ago I came across a book that seemed to be a compilation of photographs by the world’s doyens of photography – Adams, Araki, Baltz, Eggleston, Felman, Frank Friedlander et al. The book was entitled seductively A short history of photography and was authored by Harvey Benge and Gerry Badger. So I bought a copy. It wasn’t until after the package arrived and I turned the pages that I found that Benge in fact created all of images. Many purchasers of the book may have felt ripped off but I laughed and laughed. This book also resonated with personal projects of mine 10 to 15 years earlier where I too had created and presented work under pseudonyms to an unsuspecting audience.

 

A History of Photography book

Whilst the name Harvey Benge kept on cropping up in my academic research in photobooks I felt that his work did not fit with my project at that time. This changed when I attended one of the most significant forums at that time on the topic of the photobook at the Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney on Saturday, June 7 2014. Coordinated by Daniel Boetker-Smith from the Asia Pacific Photobook Archive, the event featured a Photobook Fair and a Forum at which key identities of the emerging photobook community were panelists. This included Professor Christopher Stewart (UTS), Dan Rule (Perimeter Books), Harvey Benge, Helen Frajman (M33), Benjamin Chadbond (Try Hard Magazine), Ying Ang and Daniel Boetker-Smith.

At the MCA Photobook Forum June 2014 PHOTO: Doug Spowart

The Forum discussion, responses and questions from the audience seemed to located in addressing the desires that attendees had in wanting to find their way in creating, marketing, selling books and being successful photobook makers.

I asked a couple of questions to broaden the discussion, which related to a key interest of mine that emerged as part of my PHD research. My questioning referred to the way that the freedoms that are well established in the artists’ book discipline in design, structure and narrative could inform future directions for the photobook. Harvey was the only one on the panel that understood the rationale of my question and at the end of the Forum we connected and spoke more about the ideas behind my question and he commented that he had appreciated my input. A few days later I sent some photos to him of the Forum including photos of him in action and he incorporated them in a piece he wrote about the Forum on his blog.

Channeling Harvey Benge photobook

In 2015 I was invited to make a presentation about photobooks at the Auckland Festival of Photography’s Talking Culture Symposium – Photobook Stories at the Auckland Art Gallery. I was looking forward to meeting up with Harvey but alas he was in Europe at the time attending the yearly string of photography events that happen between May-July. Even though I was unable to connect with him at that time, and inspired by his Short history of photography, I set about making a body of photographs that would emulate his style. These images were formed into a little book I called “Channeling Harvey Benge”. I had MomentoPro print out a copy and I sent it to him. When he returned Harvey enthusiastically got back to me saying “Thank you so much for … the wonderful Channelling Me! I’m flattered and honoured that you have made such a tribute… so thoughtful…”

A Preview copy of Channeling Harvey Benge can be downloaded here PREVIEW PROOF of Channelling Harvey Benge-book
(Note this is a printer-ready PDF and due to page setup for double-pages some images may not match across the gutter)

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On Reading Photobooks WPD Project

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Another remembrance of our connection was from an event I coordinated for World Photobook Day (WPD). The WPD has it origins with the date, October 14 1843, when Anna Atkins’ book Algae of the British Isles: Cyanotype impressions was catalogued by the British Library. The WPD was formed by a worldwide movement of Photobook Clubs to celebrate Anna Atkins and her book on this day. Since 2014, as part of my role as the coordinator of the Photobook Club Brisbane, I have created events to celebrate WPD. In 2015 my partner Victoria Cooper and I curated a project in which we asked significant contributors to the photobook discipline to nominate their favourite photobook, tell us why they like the book and to make a photo (a selfie) of them reading the book.

Harvey reading Collier Schorr’s Blumen – for the On Reading Photobooks WPD exhibition

A PDF of Harvey’s page and project information can be downloaded HERE: ON READING: Harvey Benge submission

 

Harvey enthusiastically responded to our request and was one of the first submissions. His favourite book, at the time was Collier Schorr’s Blumen. Other contributors to the project included Martin Parr, Larissa Leclair, Polixeni Papapetrou, Michael Coyne, Daniel Boetker-Smith, Stephen Dupont, Jack Picone et al. The exhibition was entitled “On Reading Photobooks” and was shown in Maud Gallery Brisbane, The Photography Room in Canberra, and a PDF catalogue was produced.

Harvey+Doug at Photobook New Zealand 2016

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Over the years we connected via email but I did finally meet up with Harvey at the first Photobook New Zealand conference in Wellington in March 2016. We shared some conversations and I gave him a copy of a little book that I’d made entitled “I’m about to read a photobook”. I attended the Photobook Fair, book displays and a lecture that included David Cook, Anita Totha, Bruce Connew and Harvey discussing “Getting your photobook into the world”.

 

Harvey and his list

Harvey was animated and delivered a salient talk outlining an 8 point plan assisted by a handwritten text on an envelope received from his friend and colleague Antoine D’Agata. He said:

1. 90% of life is showing up (Woody Allen)
2. Take the long view – 30 to 50 years
3. Make your work authentic
4. Don’t try and be famous
5. Don’t show dodgy work to everybody who has ever drawn breath
6. People work with people they like
7. Luck has a lot to do with it
8. Get naked, make porn

 

In 2017 I was preparing a lecture on the Antipodean Photobook that I had been invited to present at the Vienna Photobook Festival. To bring a range of voices into the lecture I approached Harvey and asked him about what photobook makers in Australia and New Zealand could do to get their photobooks onto the world stage. He responded quickly again and came back with 3 points:

  1. Take the long view, in my case I made my first book 24 years ago.
  2. Show up in the world, don’t just sit at home in Aust or NZ looking at the wall.
  3. Do it for yourself, that way there is a chance the work will be authentic.

 

Harvey Benge pages in the New Zealand Photobook Compendium

As part of the continual update of my ANZ Photobook Compendium for the second PBNZ I approached Harvey for some of the back story behind two book projects: 1. ‘The Auckland Project’ that he had coordinated with John Gossage and Alec Soth and, 2. his visiting photographer series that had included Roger Ballen. Interestingly at this time Harvey had just donated one of every book that he’d made to the Auckland Art Gallery. Harvey sent through what I’d requested and it was incorporated into the Compendium that was launched at PBNZ in the Te Papa Photobook Fair by Ann Shelton.

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Harvey Benge Auckland Art Gallery vitrine for Nothing Is As It Seems Photo: Supplied by Harvey

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During much of 2018 Victoria and I worked on a commission from the Tate on Martin Parr’s recommendation to curate a collection of Australian and New Zealand photobooks. In a conversation Harvey’s name came up and Parr said he had been collecting Harvey’s work over the years and had visited him in Auckland. Parr recounted mentioning to Harvey that he was interested in getting a copy of Gary Baigent’s 1967 classic Unseen city. To his surprise Harvey and he had walked down the street to a little book shop and picked one up for a modest fee.

 

Over recent times I had not seen much from Harvey only the occasional post on his Blog and I had heard something from New Zealand friends about him not being in good health. Then very early one morning about a month ago Harvey rang me and told me of his illness and its prognosis. We spoke about many things – about unfinished books, how he felt about the work that I’d been doing on the ANZ photobook and how much he appreciated what I was doing. He mentioned my little book ‘Channeling Harvey Benge’ and how chuffed he was that I’d made it and presented it to him. He asked me if I could let my network of friends know of his circumstances. There were difficult moments of unfinished work but there was joy in the recognition of the continuing legacy that his books, his love of books and the love he had for people who made them. During the conversation he became tired and emotional – he said “I must go my friend….”

Vicky and I sat dazed – it was 6.00am local time…

I think of the times that Harvey would sign-off an email with the message ‘would be good to catch up for a talk sometime and perhaps chat about a collaboration…’ And I would have loved walking down the street with him to that little book shop to pick up Unseen city.

Although I will now miss the opportunity for those and many other things with Harvey’s passing, I know that in my future, and perhaps also for many of Harvey’s friends, he will still be an important part of the community he loved and supported. I know I will continue ‘channelling the spirit’ of Harvey Benge.

 

Doug Spowart

Written on World Photobok Day 2019

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One Response

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  1. […] Australian photo book creator and historian Doug Spowart felt a special affinity with Harvey, who inspired a photo book titled, Channelling Harvey Benge and a tribute, Harvey Benge: an appreciation from a fellow traveller. You’ll find a snippet below and the full tribute at wotwedid.com. […]


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