Laura Bennett is one of the photographers chosen for the 2018 Rfotofolio Selections.
“There was magic in this project, beautifully executed and exquisite detail and color. The articulation of the work also brought together the idea of our bodies as living…and dying organisms that are in harmony with the natural world. It is work that I returned to again and again and was delighted each I revisited it. “ Aline Smithson
Would you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
I like being home. If there’s a fresh pot of coffee and some tasty bread with butter, I am ready for the day, and maybe a good sandwich. When I was growing up in Jersey, my mom made sure there was a variety of cold cuts and cheeses in the fridge. I guess the sandwich is my comfort food. I grew up with an Italian mom and a Finnish dad. One was excitable and talkative, the other poetically reticent. I’ll leave it to you to guess who is who. For the past eight years I have lived with my husband on a magical acre in the Sierra Foothills between Reno and Sacramento. We have two dogs, a cat, and two chickens. His work takes him out of town during the week, so I do a lot of the work on the property. I take care of four raised gardens. I think a dedicated gardener understands the beginning and ending of things. It’s especially true for an artist who looks to nature for inspiration and answers. I have raised nine children, and at this point in time I have seven grandchildren.
Where did you get your photographic training?
It began at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California. It’s a great little community college nestled in the redwoods. I went back to school as a widow raising eight children. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy. Bruce Van Meter taught the photo classes back then. This would be 1995. Film was still the standard. Bruce was an excellent teacher. He didn’t laugh too hard when I opened my Ilford paper in the classroom light, or when I developed my first two rolls of film and they were blank (the film didn’t advance in the camera, so I was apparently shooting nothing.). Once he realized my stubborn desire to learn the craft, he made sure I knew every detail regarding black and white film exposure, development and printing. He taught a color class as well. To develop color prints we would pour nasty chemicals into drum cylinders. I remember gently twisting the prints out of the cylinder, praying I got it right. The darkroom was simply magic for me, and I have managed to stay in one ever since.
When I transferred to Humboldt State in 1998, Ellen Land-Weber and Don Anton were the photo professors in the art department. They are two sides of a coin, that’s for sure. Ellen is a tough cookie, sharp and a bit intimidating. I preferred her teaching style, because she was up front – no bullshitting or false praise. My first photo history class was with her. She also taught Photoshop, which I think was 4.0 at the time. That class was my introduction to color correction, film scanning and printing digitally. The real asset in that department was the lab tech, Vaughn Hutchins. Lab techs are always underrated. He was, and still is, a master of carbon and platinum palladium. Vaughn and Bruce were buddies and took the time to teach me platinum palladium. That was an incredible experience for me. It inspired me to transition from 120 format to 8×10.
My MFA is from the University of Houston. Grad school was three years of work, critiques and research. I thrived there. Suzanne Bloom was my mentor. David Jacobs, Bill Thomas, Delilah Montoya, Stephan Hillerbrand and Anderson Wrangle were also in the department. There are just some teachers that go above and beyond what is required. I was lucky. I’ve also taken wet plate workshops with the Ostermans, Brent Hamilton and John Coffer. I wanted to understand the wet plate process, and now I do.
Why do you create?
When the world marks you, you mark it back. It’s a response. For me it started when I was a kid. Creating was a way of responding to the weirdness I saw in the world around me. Drawing and writing in my room were methods for coping. I remember asking my dad “Why am I here?” I was nine years old and already on a vision quest. He laughed and replied, “Well, that’s what we’re all trying to figure out.” He gave me art supplies from work and bought me a drawing desk. I remember the rush I’d feel looking at a blank sheet of paper with the sharpened pencils beside it. The anticipation of a mark on that white surface was thrilling. Keeping journals and drawing have been a consistent part of who I am.
In 1977 I was accepted into the School of Visual Arts, straight out of high school, but I fled the East Coast. I needed to find forests with living things in them. The answer to my question had to be found, and it wasn’t going to happen in Jersey, where my options were to marry a Rocky Balboa clone or fall into the drug culture of the seventies in the Big Apple. A mark is a response to the world around you, and I wanted to expand that world. So I went to the West Coast.
Who has had an influence on your creative process?
Well, there is little control over “influence.” My dad would be first on the list. He was a commercial artist in NYC, barely making ends meet. When I was about fifteen he opened a funky little record store in the village on East 13th Street. He was so wonderfully connected to music – in such a pure way. I remember him tinkering for hours in the basement building hi-fi systems. There was always music in my house. Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Chopin, Mozart, Björling, Tibaldi, Nina and Billie, Brubeck, Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sinatra – endless wonderful music.
I thought every kid had a hi-fi system in their living room with a wall of spectacular vinyl. I knew every lyric to West Side Story. I’d cry listening to La Boheme, when Mimi sings about overlooking the city and owning the first rays of sun. Puccini filled my little heart. Music was my first inspiration, it activated my imagination.
My parents had subscriptions to National Geographic and LIFE magazine. My dad was an amateur photographer and owned a Nikon.
He had a great collection of books, including The Family of Man. That book really opened up a whole new world for me. I would spend hours looking at those images, reading the poetry beside them. I was just a child trying to make sense of the world.
In grad school the book Geography of Woman by Natalie Angier had a direct impact on my work. Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series really broadened my view of what is possible, in terms of the artistic process. She is raw, dynamic and absolutely unafraid. It would be interesting to see the kind of work she would be making today if she had not had that unfortunate death.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
Kollwitz’s Mother With Dead Child is an image burned in my memory. It haunts me. But I think good works of art should haunt you – they should flutter and thump in your chest. Another image is Salgado’s epic Sierra Pelada Gold Mine. It just blows my mind every time I look at it. Iturbide’s Mujer, Angel, Sonora Desert is almost like a film still. Her work is so extraordinary and magical.
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?
When I was in grad school I was challenged to be more conceptual. So I did a piece titled Receptacle. It was based on a calculation of how much blood my body had released through menstruation and birth. It was more scientific and not graphic by any means. The final image was a grid of jars with various text throughout. I worked on this for an eternity, and when it was complete I hung it for a critique. Two of my professors, a man and a woman, went back and forth a good ten minutes discussing particular aspects of the work. It got pretty heated. I stayed quiet, surprised at the things being said. It taught me two important lessons. First, a man can sometimes be more intuitive regarding women’s issues, and second – you cannot legislate interpretation.
What makes a good day for you creatively speaking?
A good day is an overcast day with the promise of a storm. On this day there is nobody around and there are no interruptions. I have my Spotify playlist queued, and a cup of coffee is in my hand. Film backs are loaded…
If you could spend a day with any other photographer or artist living or passed who would it be?
It would have to be Anne Brigman. There’s no one like her. When I hike Desolation Wilderness I think of what a badass she was, so incredibly ahead of her time. I’d also like to meet Daguerre and get the real scoop on his mercury vapor “accident.” And let’s be honest here, who wouldn’t want to share an absinthe with VanGogh and those naughty post-impressionists? I’m talking REAL absinthe – the toxic kind. I’d also love to spend time with Hannah Höch learning about her brilliant process. And perhaps a cup of coffee with Meatyard, because that optometrist is just so interesting to me.
How important is the photographic community to you?
I am not connected to a physical photographic community. Unless I go to a portfolio review or an opening reception, I am pretty much alone. Actually, I prefer being alone and don’t require dialogue. Maybe having nine children has something to do with that. When I was teaching I enjoyed being a part of the whole academic community, but the exclusivity of that environment often neglects the meat and potatoes of life. I happen to really like meat and potatoes. I stay connected on social media, but it lacks real depth and has a lingo I sometimes find disingenuous. I respect many of the photographers who are doing work right now, like Sara Silks, Honey Lazar, JP Terlizzi and Dale Niles. I have the utmost respect for Hamidah Glasgow who runsCenter for Fine Art Photography, Paula Tognarelli at the Griffin, and Amy Holmes George who just left the Texas Photographic Society (and D. Clarke Evans prior to Amy.) These folks, among others, bust their asses keeping photography vital and showcasing current work. They’re an integral part of a greater photo community that I am very aware of and try to support.
What equipment have you found essential in the making of your work?
Daylight, film and my camera. That’s where the process begins. I love the negative, it’s just so damn sexy. I like the notion that the image is there, but it can’t be seen until I do the sacred chemical canister dance. It’s the tactile ritual that turns me on. Robert Adams once said, “You can remember things in your hands, and you can know things with your hands, that you can’t know with your head.”
Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future?
I’d love to shoot with something larger than an 8×10.
What’s on the horizon?
I taught as an adjunct for twelve years, but I’ve recently retired. I’m turning sixty this year, and it’s time to step aside and allow others a taste of that affluent pie. Occasionally I give workshops and instruct students in my studio. I try to help my kids and grandkids as much as possible, but making art is always a priority. It’s a delicate balance for certain. I have an exhibition in November of Umbilicus at Viewpoint Photographic Art Center in Sacramento, and I am hoping to take a workshop with Holly Roberts this year.
To learn more about the work of Laura Bennett please visit her site at Laura Bennett.