At the artist reception on Wednesday night at Light Work, I fell in love. Yes! This is something that I seem to do easily lately. I am in love with life, so what can I do?
In this case, the objects of my affection are Ben Altman’s photographs, which are hanging in the hallway of this beautiful venue (316 Waverly Ave., Syracuse, NY). They will be there until July 22, 2016, if you want to see them in person.
Here is a link to the whole shebang on the Light Work website –
Altman uses an old-fashioned camera to take photographs of people using their cell phones to photograph memorial sites around the world. He is sort of a voyeur looking over the shoulders of these tourists to create images that have an eerie-beauty to them. The memorial site is blurred but we can see a part of it through the tourists’ viewfinders.
So, you kind of say – ohhh, that’s pretty – then you read the title and you are looking at a picture taken at Auschwitz or one taken at the site of the Oklahoma bombing. It is just this startling feeling of, like, OMG, I just thought a place of utter sadness was so beautiful. Then you feel totally weird for liking it. So you go back and look again with the new knowledge and feel super weird, because it is still so hauntingly beautiful.
And by you, I mean me.
What a profound experience. The photos are very large. They are all the same size, framed the same way, which alerts us to the fact that they are equally important. I just love the concept, the follow through, the process of capturing frame-in-frame shots that are all different, yet remain in harmony.
Here is his artist statement –
“Tourists at iconic sights almost automatically photograph with their smart-phones and cameras. This act becomes more complicated at memorials, sites, and museums that commemorate episodes of mass violence. Over the past few years I have photographed visitors and their screens at many such places. The people in my images are strangers who are mostly unaware of my intention, even though I use a hand-held 1940’s 4×5 press camera. My vintage equipment fits well with thinking about the present in terms of the past.
“Raising a device between oneself and a site of atrocity can be seen as distancing and reductive. However an impulse to manage and diffuse what these places mean is understandable and perhaps necessary. Often the memorials themselves depict the appalling, chaotic events they represent with unwarranted coherence or with the blankness of preserved artifacts. They invite engagement but also obstruct it. The memorials and the photography each suggest questions: how to see these sites; how to empathize with the unknowable experiences of the people who were caught up in the events; how to understand the ways in which past horrors configure our present world; how to live with our knowledge.
— Ben Altman, March 2016″
When I was in Jersey City, NJ, I took a picture at the memorial they have honoring the New Jersey residents who died in the Twin Towers. It is two walls of granite with names on each side and when you walk through towards the waterfront, the Freedom Tower sits between them in your sight line. It is an emotional experience to stand there and witness. As a tourist, I took a picture exactly the way Ben Altman explained in his statement. But my photographs contain my own reflection. I guess in this way, I become one with my empathy and that is a good thing. Altman’s detachment invites the viewer inside in a way that allows us to see the light of beauty in darkness.
For more information on Ben Altman, find his website here.