A few thoughts on Transitional States: An Aesthetic of Neglect

Alex Benison’s photographs make you pause while considering the transitional nature of our world

by Allen Best

The Denver Photo Art Gallery, located on Santa Fe Drive just south of the Auraria campus, on the edge of downtown Denver, has a wonderful exhibit up through Saturday. The exhibit is called “Transitional States: An Aesthetic of Neglect,” by Alex Benison.

In prowling through old, now abandoned buildings on the Great Plains and in the one-time mining town of Gilman, Colo., Benison has seen what many of us drawn to similar places have seen: the wispy melancholy of the past in the form of shattered glass, plaster peeled from walls, ceilings admitting sunlight. It’s a very human instinct to pause, to breathe in the great immensity of elapsed time, to momentarily wonder about the humans that had preceded us to these places.

I’ve felt this impulse often when coming across old mining buildings high on mountains. Once, high on the slopes of Blanca Peak, Colorado’s fourth highest mountain, I found a miners’ cabin, never a place of luxury, but still so well-preserved that there were plates on the table and issues of magazines. This was, I believe, in 1992, and the magazines were dated from the 1920s. 

In hiking canyons of Utah, I’ve also come across ears of corn left in the small cliff dwellings by the ancestral Pueblo, perhaps 800 years ago, and in the quiet of a May evening, the nearest road a dozen miles away, wondered about the bond over these many centuries between them and I, we and us. In recent years, prowling the Great Plains more frequently, I think about the same thing with a newer generation of farmers. If anything, this more modern antiquity startles me more, for many of these old farmhouses were probably occupied when I was a child and maybe beyond. To see their decline is to measure my own years.

From these places, I have also been drawn to the windows and doors, literal and metaphoric, between the mostly black-and-white past and the vibrant present. In a sense, that is the central theme of Benison’s 17 photos and hence his title: Transitional States. 

Near Murdo, South Dakota, we see this interior neglect at an old farmhouse and out the window, now absent glass, the prairie verdant with spring moisture and a lone tree.

Doors from the past abound in this building at Gilman. Photo from Alex Benison

Doors from the past abound in this building at Gilman. Photo from Alex Benison

In Gilman, two photos was taken at the opposite end of the warm season, aspen trees, lovely in their white bark, their yellow leaves testifying to autumn, standing on the other side of the door threshold separating the vibrant now and the neglected past.

A few photographs are taken from outside, in three of them from locations on the Great Plains, with storm clouds being the primary actors.

Benison is a neuroscientist, with a Ph.D. obtained at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and he says in his explanation at the exhibit that his scientific training informs his photography. “Investigating how sensory vents are represented in the brain has had a profound influence on my photography,” he says.

I go further. I would call it art. The gallery is full of giant images of landscapes, mostly the mountains of Colorado. They capture great beauty and, alas, I think in too often many cases, they exaggerate that beauty through use of software that makes the orange just a little more orange. I vaguely am reminded of the DayGlo posters of the early 1970s and, perhaps, the dressed-up landscapes of the 19th century by Alfred Bierstadt and other romantic descendants of the Hudson River school of painting. 

Benison does not try to bend reality, only to capture the exceptional images available to any of us. His photo skills are exceptional. I see no real evidence of manipulation. Sometimes through multiple exposures, he manages to recreate what the eye (at least young ones) can see when in darkened buildings placing out into the brightened day. That strikes me as allowable manipulation.

But there’s something more to these photographs, and that’s why is would call it art. He has done more than simple capture, simple representation, basic composition. Peering vicariously through the doors and windows of these abandoned buildings, Benison causes us to look through the lens of time a little differently. That’s art.

The exhibit goes down Saturday night, and I don’t know where or when it will next be presented publicly. I hope soon. You can see digital representations at this website, but I think they fall short of the gallery presentation:

 

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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