An Encounter with Richard Benson and William Garnett

(These two pieces are from e-mails sent to me by Baltimore photographer Jeremy Green. At the time, neither of us thought about publishing herein, but I thought they were so interesting and moving that I had saved them. It occurred to me later that others would enjoy reading them, so here they are, with Mr. Green's permission, of course. The late Richard Benson was at Yale and was renown for his printing work and as a photographer. William Garnett was one of the best known aerial photographers of the Twentieth Century.)

Richard Benson

After lunch with Richard Benson, he sat me down with a box of 11 x 14 B&W prints by Lee Friedlander. They were a collection of self-portraits (shadows, reflections, etc.) that Richard is working on for a book. The box that the prints were in was Agfa Multicontrast Classic.

It was reassuring to me (especially after talking it over with Richard) that variable contrast fiber paper is A-OK in the eyes of these big boys. Richard's favorite paper was Oriental Seagull till it was fazed out. I'm quite happy with the Agfa Multicontrast Classic and will not worry about it any more. I loved the way he said it: "Whatever looks good to you." He's a pretty techy guy when it comes to photographic reproduction, and he stated that modern products have a lot designed into them to compensate for the loss of silver content. He was confident in the current products out there.

I pulled out my recent acquisition, "The Family, Lazarra, Italy" by Paul Strand, and he admired how good the print looked. He showed it around to the people in the office. He affirmed that he had indeed made that print about 20 years ago, and he signed in pencil on the back "Made by me for Paul in Orgeval - Richard Benson". He also pulled out his favorite photography books which were old Paul Strand photogravure first editions of various titles. He offered to lend them to me, but I declined. I was content to sit alone at a table off his office and look through them and the Friedlander prints while he worked.

After my visit I walked around the Yale campus - gosh it was beautiful in the late afternoon New England fall light! Then I hit the highway for home. It was really great.

William Garnett

I drove up to Napa last Saturday to go meet Bill Garnett and take him up on that flight offer. He lives in a modest California-style ranch house shrouded by live oaks and surrounded by vineyards. He has a devoted little wife who understands what it is to be married to a pilot. She was very hospitable.

Bill's other love is that plane, all silver with the flowing lines of an old Buick. I asked him why he had no paint job on it, and his answer was one that comes from a designer - because it would obscure and ruin the natural beauty of the machine. He went to Art Center College of Design a LONG time ago, and he is a Guggenheim Fellow. He taught design at U.C. Berkley (with tenure) during the tumultuous late 60s and early 70s. He was at ground zero of the revolutionary melee of those times, and he was of the establishment.

After some small talk (mostly about shooting/flying techniques), we drove over to the Napa Airport and pulled out his bird from the hanger. After he showed me all the details of a pre-flight check, we took off across the valley we all know from his photographs. I opened the side window and he slowed the plane down for me to shoot a little. The conditions were not optimum, but my negs look pretty good. But I was using a new Nikon, and he uses a medium format Pentax for that stunning quality.

We landed at a small historic airport near Sacramento and had lunch at a "Flyer's Club" he belongs to. We sat and talked for a long time. I think he misses company. I shot a portrait of Bill with his plane, and then we took off for home. He let me fly for a little while (my first experience). At his home he signed my book and his wife brought out some snacks that seemed very old rural California (like elderberries on top of pastry). They offered me dinner and I respectfully declined. I drove back to San Francisco in the dark having been there since 11:00 A.M. I really had a great time with that old man.

Jeremy Green

William Garnett portrait
Photograph by Jeremy Green, 1997