Corbis contributor Nathan Benn shot for National Geographic Magazine from 1972-1991, documenting people and places far and near. In October 2013, Powerhouse Books published a collection of Benn’s images shot during those years, most of which were not published in the legendary magazine. This nostalgia evoking coffee-table book, selected by American Photo Magazine as one of the Best Photo Books of the Year (2013): Documentary, features images photographed in the Northeast, Midwest and Southern United States. The images comment on the American social landscape and celebrate regional diversity.
Nathan recently chatted with Corbis and shared his insight on photography, Kodachrome, how this stunning book came to be and more.
What prompted you to delve into the 44 cartons, approximately 350,000 images, of film that you shot during your 20 years at National Geographic?
In 2003 I felt ready to revisit my pictures, but not before. I stopped shooting in 1991 and needed emotional separation from my life as a photographer. I also didn’t have time to edit since I was working full-time on early digital library initiatives that better fit my creative and intellectual interests in the 1990s through 2002. In 2003 I stepped down as Director of Magnum Photos, which was my last salaried job. I finally had time to look at my 350,000 pictures with some critical perspective and with detachment from the editorial confines at National Geographic.
How did you feel sifting through all those images, reminiscing of your days shooting for National Geographic?
My experience was akin to listening to Wagner operas – – extended periods of tedium, punctuated by elusive moments of ecstasy. Since I had never thrown any pictures out, the 44 cartons contained all the films that had passed through my cameras over two decades. We used film liberally at National Geographic and there were usually variations for each subject. It was satisfying to save the best frames and to destroy the misses. What had been 44 cartons now fits in 4 cartons…and there are fewer than 100 pictures in the book.
Tell us how this book came about. How did you come to the idea of presenting this set of images in a book?
By 2009 I had digitized nearly 10,000 pictures and captioned a couple thousand for stock photo distribution. I then began playing with picture combinations and taking my first forays into digital printing. I then started generating book prototypes as experiments on Blurb.com. My first prototypes were National Geographic-type themes, such as Mississippi River or Peruvian archaeology. But that wasn’t satisfying creatively. I came to appreciate that the pictures that remained most interesting to me were usually derived from regional American stories; my favorite images were of everyday people in inconsequential situations. I experimented with several approaches, including a prototype I titled White in White America, a rift on Leonard Freed’s classic book Black in White America. But I also came to realize that my photography style had evolved over time and in response to regional environments. My pictures of Vermont farmers in 1973 look very different from my pictures of Palm Beach socialites in 1981 or retired Pittsburgh steelworkers in 1990. So the book evolved into four regional sections (North East, Heartland, Pittsburg, Florida), each with a distinct aesthetic and diverging editorial approach.
You sorted through 10,000 rolls of film—what is it about the images that made it into this book? How are they special, or what did you want to say with them?
I prefer to leave this to the readers to interpret.
There is something nostalgic about Kodachrome that pulls on our heartstrings. What emotions does this book evoke in you?
Please allow me to clarify that not all the pictures in Kodachrome Memory were shot on Kodachrome film. About 20% were shot on Ektachrome and 80% on Kodachrome. In fact, the cover picture is on High Speed Ektachrome under florescent light. We used “Kodachrome” in the title because the name evokes multiple concepts including 35mm analog photography, obsolescence, disappearance, and nostalgia. The book is not about Kodak film, it is about the disappearance of regionalism, sometimes referred to as the “great flattening” of culture in the digital age. I am selectively nostalgic for pre-digital America (I like family farms and I dislike racial segregation). And I am wholly nostalgic for my youth and the miraculous good fortune that I had to be on the photographic staff at National Geographic for almost two decades.
Kodachrome was the gold standard for color film for decades. What was your reaction when you heard Kodak would cease to produce this iconic and beloved film in 2009?
I turned the corner in 1991, choosing to put down my Leicas and Nikons to develop digital image libraries. In 1998, Eastman Kodak bought the Internet company I started in 1991, and in 2009 Kodak turned off Kodachrome. So I was not directly affected. However, Kodachrome’s demise becomes a cathartic moment of transition away from analog photography. Digital photography is not better or worse. It is different, akin to the transition from tempura to oil paint in the Renaissance. Oil paint made certain effects and illusions possible for the first time, but this does not detract from the ethereal beauty and revolutionary innovation found in pictures by Duccio or Giotto. Photography is now more accessible and more appreciated than ever before in history, but my heroes are Atget, Berenice Abbott, W. Eugene Smith, Cartier-Bresson and Avedon. Their tools are obsolete. But their pictures are not improved upon.
Why have you not taken a picture in over 20 years?
I take pictures of my family with a compact digital camera. Taking pictures with my point-and-shoot and having records of my family can be fun. I did not have fun taking pictures in the 1970-80s. It was hard work. It was physically and emotionally draining. I have enjoyed great satisfaction from the publication of my book, but I was often confused and sometimes depressed when I was taking the pictures. There are many fine photographers today with more talent than I ever had, and the healthiest and wisest choice I can make is to keep out of their way.
View many of the Kodachrome Memory images on Corbis
Purchase “Kodachrome Memory: American Pictures 1972-1990” on Amazon