This month we’re featuring Bennett Lowenthal for the Capitol Hill Art League’s Mind of the Artist feature. Read his story and check out his artwork below.
Excerpts from a recent colloquy between the writer Fareed Ombee and the photographer Bennett
… F.O.: So, I gather you are going to be asked to reveal something about yourself under the
rubric of “Mind of the Artist” for the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop?
B.Y.L.: Nothing escapes you, Fareed.
F.O.: Since when are you an artist? I thought you were just a photographer.
B.Y.L.: [Laughs.] Amongst all my photographs, I suppose there might be a few that could claim
art as a side hustle.
F.O.: Remind me of how you began as a photographer. And what does photography mean to
you now, compared to back then?
B.Y.L.: I was not one of those kids in high school who was into photography. You know, the
kids who knew about cameras and darkrooms. Had I not stumbled into majoring in art history at
Yale, I wonder if I would have ever thought to take a course in photography. Because I had no
background in studio art, photography appealed to me as the so-called “royal road to drawing”,
something a gazillion people have likewise thought, ever since the nineteenth century.
F.O.: But what kept you going after that?
B.Y.L.: Life is with people. Without them, I would never have begun to exhibit or think in
terms of bodies of work. I like to point to a couple of remarks by a couple of famous
photographers. Garry Winogrand and Pedro Meyer. “I photograph to find out what something
will look like photographed.” That’s Winogrand. And Meyer, his summation was: “I photograph to remember.” I would guess that those two motivations account for about 95
percent of the time I ever released the shutter. [Laughs.] Don’t ask me about the five percent.
F.O.: How’s your catalogue coming along?
B.Y.L.: You mean the “Themes” catalogue? It’s growing, still. I tend to it, like a garden.
F.O.: That’s beautiful, man.
B.Y.L.: And, as you know, it has never been organized by geography. That would have been
too cliché for a Foreign Service Officer. And travelogue is so easy that it’s hard. If a titan like
William Klein could only manage three or four cities, imagine trying to do that for more than
F.O.: I remember that your solo shows in Zagreb and Istanbul and Naples all had themes. When
are you going to do something like that in Washington?
B.Y.L.: It’s on the list. When you gonna start hypin’ me, Fareed?
F.O.: Tell me why you never went digital.
B.Y.L: Well, you know that’s not exactly a true statement. The one bridge I couldn’t really
bring myself to cross was digital capture. Using digital cameras.
F.O.: Did you ever try?
B.Y.L.: Of course, I did. At the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and later at a
couple of schools in Chicago, I waded in. But my lifelong loathing of computers was just too
visceral. Whereas I always enjoyed handling my film cameras. So, I just kept taking those out
into the world with me. Along with my eyes. And my ears, and my mouth.
F.O.: What’s out there that you haven’t photographed yet but want to?
B.Y.L.: Well, there are the unrealized photo projects. Those big coffee table books that are
getting ever less likely to see the light of day. The Great Jewish Rodeo Clowns. The Collected
Receptions of Pettis Norman.
And then there are plenty of smaller things I’d like to do in the studio.
F.O.: Like, for example, nudes?
B.Y.L.: [Laughs] I’ve photographed animals nude.
F.O.: Bravo! So bold! Maybe you can become a paparazzo to the animal world. Sneaking
around and lurking in order to catch them in flagrante.
B.Y.L.: That reminds of perhaps the greatest photograph I never took. Two donkeys going at it.
On a trail. In the foothills of the Hindu Kush. There was a group of Afghan kids – little boys
and girls – pointing and giggling. It would have been a fabulous photograph. But I didn’t dare
even point the camera, let alone shoot.
B.Y.L.: I’ve thought about organizing an exhibition for photographers and our best
unphotographed images. Maybe it would be more like performance art. We could hire a
courtroom sketch artist. Who would listen to our stories and try to recreate what it was we
claimed to have seen.
Would you come to something like that?
F.O.: Yeah, maybe. If I ran out of Sominex. …