Ben Altman: Site/Sight and Memory Mechanism

The first time I saw Ben Altman's work was at Filter Photo Festival in Chicago. Altman had so many projects that we had to whittle it down to just a few in the short 20-minute review session. I learned many things in this first brief meeting... one was that he was from upstate New York, like me. And he had a project that bordered on obsession. Ok, really it is obsessive. Unlike me, the photographer was working on a long term project documenting his Land Art style meditation on mass graves, performed in his back yard near Ithaca. Now, this is not a light subject to jump into in the first paragraph, but it links with another of Altman's series, also not for the faint of heart.

First though, "The More That Is Taken Away" is, in the artist's words, "a multi-year backyard meditation on genocide and the mass grave as spectacle, performed in three acts. For the first part I cleared and marked out a rectangle, nine by sixty feet. Within this outline I cut and formed trenches, ramps, and steps, using hand tools - and sometimes just my hands. I worked unaided in all kinds of weather. The shapes evolved ad-hoc. After nearly a year I began to remove the internal forms, which now exist only as images, leaving a pit almost five feet deep. During the first year I lost weight, to the minimum recommended for my height. Each year I have repaired winter deterioration and worked on further shaping. The project includes a crude watchtower built from salvaged lumber. I photographed the earthwork as it developed, as time and weather changed it, and as I repaired and rebuilt it. I recorded the entire action in HD video and sound."
"The second stage was one of photographing myself repeatedly in the pit over the winter months, together with video of arriving and undressing, also repeated many times along the length of the excavation. To begin this stage, I shaved off my long hair, which grew back over the period of the performance. I also lost weight again, having regained what I lost earlier. Both processes provided a time-line to this stage. I use 8x10 format for the still photographs."
"The third stage is to fill in the pit, burying life-size prints of the self-portraits, and to landscape the site."

Act 1, Year Four, November #2

Act 2, #15. Year 4, November; and Act 2, #2. Year 4, November

Well, since we can't go to Altman's home to look out at his land and the pit (I'm guessing he doesn't have neighbors who are watching him and wondering what is happening), he is having a video and photography installation of "The More That Is Taken Away" at Ithaca College's Handwerker Gallery opening at the end of October 2016. Photographs from this project are also scheduled for a Jan/Feb 2017 show at the Sol Mednick Gallery at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, run by Harris Fogel

Also while in Chicago, I had a chance to view Altman's project, "Site/Sight." When I initially started looking at these images, I thought, "Oh, it's another portfolio of people using their phones." And then I looked more closely. No, they weren't just tourists photographing iconic sights. All of these people were at memorials and sites that commemorate episodes of mass violence. Altman saw this happening and pulled out his 1940s 4x5 press camera. The people in his images are strangers and mostly unaware of Ben, despite his large camera. What is fascinating to me about the pictures is the vintage lens and the shallow depth of field he uses…the background is out of focus and often vignetted, in some cases it looks like it's swirling (I have an old Linhof Technika from the early 40s with an uncoated lens and I've seen the magic that can occur). The difference between the stark, crisp reality on the tiny screens of the subjects' phones and small digital cameras and the dream-like quality of the rest of the picture frame is captivating. And disturbing. Like here is something beautiful, but wait, no, the photographer (Altman) is purposefully blurring the images so we can't see the distinctness of place. As Altman is photographing with large format color film and printing large enough (22 x 27 inches) that the hands and phones are close to life size, the images are beautiful and lush and yet the images at the end are unsettling. Again to quote the artist:
"Raising a device between oneself and a site of atrocity can be seen as distancing and reductive. However, an impulse to manage and diffuse what these places mean is understandable and perhaps necessary. The memorials themselves invite engagement but also obstruct it, depicting the appalling, chaotic events they represent with unwarranted coherence or with the blankness of preserved artifacts. There may even be a gift shop. The sites and the photography each suggest questions: how to see these places; how to empathize with the unknowable experiences of the people who were caught up in the events; how to understand the ways in which past horrors configure our present world; how to live with our knowledge."

Entrance to Auschwitz II-Birkenau Death Camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial and Museum. Oświęcim, Republic of Poland

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Berlin, Federal Republic of Germany

Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide. Potočari, Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Washington D.C., United States of America

Ryozen Kannon Memorial to the Dead of the Pacific War. Kyoto, Japan

Goddess of Peace Statue and Peace Park with Reflecting Pool, Memorial Hall to the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre (Rape of Nanking). Nanjing, People's Republic of China

Tree Used for Smashing the Heads of Children, Cheoung Ek Killing Fields. Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia

Cenotaph for the Atomic Bomb Victims, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Hiroshima, Japan

Eternal Flame Memorial to the Military and Civilian Victims of the Second World War in Sarajevo. Sarajevo, Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina

National September 11 Memorial and Museum. New York, United States of America

Czech National Cemetery, Theresienstadt Concentration Camp Small Fortress. Terezin, Czech Republic

The Columbine Memorial. Littleton, Colorado, United States of America

Field of Empty Chairs , The Oklahoma City National Memorial. Oklahoma City, United States of America

WWI Cemetery for German Soldiers. Neuville St. Vaast, Belgium

The Ring of Remembrance WWI Memorial and French National Cemetery Carillon. Notre Dame de Lorrette, France

Guard Tower, Majdanek Concentration Camp. Majdanek State Museum, Lublin, Republic of Poland

Stairway of Death, Mauthausen Concentration Camp Quarry. The Mauthausen Memorial, Austria

Deservedly, this work is being shown in numerous places.

In addition to a recent solo exhibition at Light Work in Syracuse, the project was chosen for the Houston Center for Photography's 2015 Fellowship. After that exhibition, the show traveled to Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles.

On a different note, Ben Altman seems to have a diverse collection of film cameras and he has one for every occasion. I was delighted and surprised to find him enter RayKo's annual plastic camera show a few years ago with some images from his project, "Memory Mechanism." These are large panoramic, multiple exposure Holga camera film strips printed as perfect platinum/palladium prints. I liked that the chaotic images of family reunions and rituals were printed in the most noble of printing processes.

Altman's family and friends are spread over several continents and multiple marriages. People gather from their disparate lives for weddings, funerals, going-away parties, or a visit to an ancestral village. Altman photographs these rites of passage, and smaller occasions and reunions with toy cameras, most notably the medium-format Holga. The final images are sometimes a long section of a roll of film, sometimes a shorter contiguous portion of a sequence of exposures. They are panoramas created by incomplete frame advances (easy to accomplish with that plastic dial that you have to wind to advance the film) and accidental double exposures. The image falls away at the edges, so the overlap of one frame on the next provides blending and more-or-less correct exposure across the film. Memories are incomplete, overlapping, and obscure. And so are Altman's resulting images, though the moments captured and combined in them are electric and charged, bride and groom walking right through the crowd and sky and castle in a multiple exposure dream. By far, one of the most creative and exceptional uses of the plastic camera I've seen. I'm looking forward to seeing what this prolific photographer turns his camera towards next!

Moving-to-America Party for Nephew Robbie. Wiltshire, UK, 2006

Barbecue with Old Friends. South Devon, UK, 2011

Sixtieth Birthday Party for High-School Friend. Bristol, UK, 2011

Life Celebration Party. South Devon, UK, 2011

Funeral Reception. Manhattan, NY. 2010

Cleaning Family Gravestones on Thanksgiving Weekend. Cinncinatus, NY, 2009

Dinner at Beach House with Old Friends. Bay of Islands, New Zealand, 2013

Stepson's Wedding. Oakland, California, 2007

Wedding Reception. Manhattan, NY, 2012

Nephew Min's Wedding. Hampshire, UK, 2006

Son Toby's Wedding to Emily Barton. Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2014,

All about Ben Altman:

Ben Altman's work was selected for the Houston Center for Photography's 2015 Fellowship, the 2015 Critical Mass Top 50 and other recent awards and grants. He has exhibited at galleries, museums, and festivals in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, North Carolina, Indiana, Rhode Island, Texas, many in New York State, and in UK and Poland. His work is available from Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles, CA.

A half-Jewish naturalized U.S. citizen of British origin, Altman trained as an artist by studying Physics, towing icebergs, racing sailboats, and working in commercial photography. His work explores intersections of history, politics, home, and the contemporary world. He uses photographs, video, installation, and participation.

  All about Ben Altman
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