Downright Radical Beauty

Lesson Plan

Lesson

After discussing and analyzing the subject matter in Robert Benjamin’s photos, students will begin to note the everyday beauty, or “non-events,” that are all around them. They will capture what they notice in photographs.

Intended Age Group

Secondary (grades 6-12)

Length of Lesson

Two 50 minute lessons

Standards Area

Visual Arts

Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • discuss and interpret the concept of beauty in a work of art; and
  • use current and available technology to express meaning in a work of art.

Lesson

Day 1:

  1. Show students the photograph Nellie and Her Italian Soda, Boulder by Robert Benjamin. Ask them to describe what they see. Prompt them with the following questions: Who and what is in the photograph? What colors do you see? How is light used in the composition? What is in the foreground, middle ground, and background of the image? What do you feel when looking at this photo? Is it familiar? Have you ever had an Italian soda, maybe even in Boulder? What did it taste like? Does looking at this picture make you thirsty? What do you think Nellie, the photographer’s daughter, had been doing before she drank the soda? What makes you think that? Could her jersey be a clue?
  2. Share information from the About the Art section with students. Explain that Robert Benjamin is a photographer who lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. He is not formally trained and has no commercial or academic agenda; he describes himself as “a dad with a camera.” This dad with a camera happens to also be a highly respected modern photographer. He says that his photos are about the quiet side of life, that they are “non-events.” He doesn’t photograph anything that he is not familiar with. His photos are about “love, family, and a combination of color and light.” He also says, “These pictures, to me, are a little bit like poems. To me, a poet takes what’s familiar and gives it back to you in a way that’s taught you something about what’s familiar.” What he shows in his photographs “is love and beauty together. It’s downright radical.”
  3. Ask students to look around and make note of things that embody the elements Benjamin talks about: love, family, and a combination of color and light. Tell them to look for everyday occurrences, “non-events,” that make their lives what they are.
  4. Distribute cameras to the students and instruct them to take 3 or 4 photos that represent an everyday occurrence they find beautiful or meaningful.

Day 2:

  1. Benjamin does not work in digital, but rather prints his photos from film. If possible, take students to a computer lab so that they can download their photos and use an image-editing program to experiment with color, light, and contrast before deciding on their final image. When students are finished editing their images, ask them to select their favorite and give it a title.
  2. If possible, print students’ images and hold a class critique.

Materials

  • About the Art section on Nellie and Her Italian Soda, Boulder
  • Color copies of Nellie and Her Italian Soda, Boulder for students to share, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
  • Cameras for students to use (digital, film, cell phone and mp3 player cameras, etc.)
  • If possible, access to photo-editing software such as iPhoto or Photoshop, or freeware such as BeFunky, fotoflexer, or others.
  • If possible, the ability to print photos for display

Standards

CO Standards

  • Social Studies
    • History
      • Analyze the concepts of continuity and change and effect
  • Visual Arts
    • Invent and Discover to Create
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
    • Envision and Critique to Reflect
  • Language Arts
    • Research and Reasoning

21st Century Skills

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art

Nellie and Her Italian Soda, Boulder

Nellie and Her Italian Soda, Boulder

1993; Print Date: 2009

Robert Benjamin

Who Made It?

Born in Chicago in 1947, Robert Benjamin lived in Paris for several years in his twenties before moving to New York City. There he was introduced to the work of photographers he admired, like Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand, and William Eggleston. He bought his first camera and started to make photographs of the subject he found most interesting and accessible—his own life. He has since lived and worked in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Sarasota, Florida; Seattle, Washington; and the Colorado Front Range. He currently lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.

With no formal training, and no academic or commercial agenda, Benjamin cherishes the freedom to function independently. “I’m just a dad with a camera,” says Benjamin. “I started photography for the same reason any artist does, but I didn’t have the same influences, I didn’t have to please anyone but myself.” Since 1970, he has photographed or worked in a darkroom processing photos nearly every day, while earning his living outside the photography field (mostly in retail sales). He has never been represented by a gallery, and has refused to participate in museum or gallery exhibitions, but he sometimes trades his prints with America’s leading artists, who consider him a peer. After decades of saying no, his friend and DAM photography curator Eric Paddock convinced him to allow the Denver Art Museum to mount his first solo exhibition, Notes from a Quiet Life, in early 2011.

What Inspired It?

Of his photographs, Benjamin says, “I wasn’t trying to achieve anything other than satisfy my own sense of beauty. I made [my photos] to satisfy something I had never seen before in other photography; I knew of no other photographer that’s photographed his family from birth to death. I was tired of seeing contrived project pictures and angst and social comments about the world ending. That’s all easy to me. To accept love and to accept mystery is not as easy.” Benjamin describes his photos as being “about four different things: they’re about love, they’re about family, and they’re a combination of color and light.”

Benjamin’s kids grew up completely comfortable with the fact that Dad always had a camera in his hand. But while Benjamin’s subjects are often members of his family, his choice of subject and moment is more about what he sees formally. Referring to this photo of his daughter Nellie, he says, “For me it’s simply a good color photo… The fact that it’s my daughter is secondary.” He goes on to say, “To me, that’s an extraordinary picture…everything about it is beautiful. And that’s why I want people to look at it. Not just her, but every edge is beautiful. Every color is just glowing…”

Benjamin is very partial to both the process he used to print his photographs and the paper on which he printed them, because of the quality of color he is able to achieve. This paper was discontinued by the manufacturer in 2009, so it is unclear whether Benjamin will ever find a way to make more prints that meet his requirements, or if he will simply discontinue printing his work. “These are called C prints…they are prints off of negatives. If you took your film to a one hour lab in the old days, it’s the same process I’m using. They look a little different because I had bigger paper, and I could make it myself. That process is now a casualty of technology, it’s pretty much gone. And it was a unique process, very beautiful. It allowed me to make the colors I want appear on paper, which I could probably not do digitally, which I could not do with slides, so it was a very intimate and very personal process…Digital cannot hold these tones, there’s no question about that. So my sense of beauty was tied into the process.”

Details

Subject Matter
Subject Matter

Benjamin acknowledges that to him, the most beautiful moments in life are “kind of non-events.” He says, “These pictures, to me, are a little bit like poems. To me, a poet takes what’s familiar and gives it back to you in a way that’s taught you something about what’s familiar.” His photos encourage people to see the beauty in everyday life. “I think everyone sees beauty every day, they just don’t always stop and acknowledge it. I think you have to acknowledge it.”

Color
Color

The photograph is dominated by two strong, complementary colors—the striking green soda and Nellie’s red jersey—with the brightest parts meeting each other near the center of the picture. Sunlight filters through the green liquid and grazes across the red shirt. Both areas of color are topped by a band of white—the white created by the highlights at the top of the glass and the white of Nellie’s collar.

Benjamin likes saturated color, and he points out that he doesn’t print his photos to reproduce color that is chromatically accurate, but rather emotionally accurate—that is, the quality of color that feels right to him.

Color Highlights
Color Highlights

Notice the fragments of red light on Nellie’s fingertips to the left of the glass, and the greenish reflection on the bridge of her nose. Each provides an echo of the larger red and green areas, but they don’t match; they introduce new shades of green and red into the palette.

Natural Light
Natural Light

Benjamin likes shooting with natural light; he doesn’t use a flash. In this picture, the backlighting from the window permeates the two clear drinking glasses and throws Nellie mostly into shadow. It also creates a halo-like effect where Nellie’s hair frames her face on the left and floats away from the back of her head like rays.

Focus
Focus

Benjamin shoots most of his pictures from a distance of about 3–10 feet, and with a narrow depth of field, meaning that when he puts one part of the scene in sharp focus (in this case, Nellie’s face), almost everything closer or farther away will be blurry. Notice that the straw in Nellie’s mouth is in clear focus, but as you follow it down into the glass, it takes on the soft focus of the glass itself, which is a bit closer to the camera than Nellie’s face is.

By leaving the soda out of focus, Benjamin emphasized the color of the liquid and the soft-edged shapes of the different shades of green, rather than describing the contents of the glass

Empty Glass
Empty Glass

Don’t miss the extreme blurring of the empty glass (probably Benjamin’s own) along the left edge, which gives the picture its foreground and creates a sense of depth.

Edges
Edges

When he shoots a photo, Benjamin is very conscious of his distance from the subject and how he’s filling the frame of the photo. A picture that gets it right, for him, usually has “good edges” in terms of light and color. Speaking about this picture, he says, “I like the color that’s in the edges, besides her beautiful green soda.”

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.