Richard Benson, 1943–2017

A photographer with a passion for printing.

Yale University Art Gallery/Lee Friedlander

Yale University Art Gallery/Lee Friedlander

Richard Benson, shown here in a 2009 photograph by Lee Friedlander, was dean of the School of Art from 1996 to 2006. View full image

When photographer Richard “Chip” Benson was dean of the School of Art, he helped plan the school’s new home in Green Hall, which opened in 2000. Although digital photography had become the norm by then, Benson insisted that the school have traditional darkrooms. “It’s like sailors studying celestial navigation,” he said at the time. “Even if they never end up using it, it’s important.”

Benson, who died of heart failure on June 22 at age 73, had a complicated relationship with history and technology. He did not believe, as many do, that technology is ruinous to art. Yet he won a MacArthur fellowship in 1986 for his labor-intensive, idiosyncratic way of making photographs—using offset printing to print his photographic negatives with acrylic paint. Owing to a mixture of exhaustion and curiosity, he would later move to digital photography.

Benson was as much a historian of printing as a practitioner. His passion extended to the production of books and exhibitions that documented the development of printing and photography.

His colleagues remember him as deeply generous, brilliant, and collaborative. But he didn’t express his ideas like the usual academic administrator. “He would say things during meetings, out of left field, that you would expect to find only in poetry,” says Kathrin Day Lassila ’81, editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine. (Benson served on the magazine’s board from 2001 to 2006.) Benson’s own education was untraditional: he dropped out of Brown University after a semester to join the United States Navy, where he learned about optical repair and lenses.

A number of Benson’s photographs envision an almost post-human world, of rusted cars and ruined farms, of beached boats and aging oil wells. He experimented with new technologies while capturing the dilapidation of the old, and preserving it, too: he built clocks and steam engines in his backyard. “Whenever something caught his interest,” writes Samuel Messer ’82MFA, associate dean of the School of Art, “he had to make the very best one with his own hands.”

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