Rockwell Museum Presents FLX KODACHROME: National Geographic Photographer Nathan Benn

Family reunion gathers on porch of Mrs. William Murphy, 13 Cortland Street, Geneva, May 25, 1975
04/13/2021

Vintage 1975 Photos

Photography buffs will remember Kodachrome as one of the oldest brands of color film, known for capturing rich colors and complex lighting. While the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, ceased production of the film in 2010, it was the favorite of National Geographic explorers and photographers in the first decades of the publication’s transition to color.

Beginning in May 1975, Nathan Benn photographed the Finger Lakes over four seasons for National Geographic magazine, focusing his lens on subjects of heritage, stability, industry and the cultural homogeneity of the region in the 1970s. A selection of those photographs will be on view in the spotlight exhibition FLX KODACHROME at The Rockwell Museum in Corning from May 28 – Sept. 7, 2021.

“In 2021, all of the exhibitions and programs at The Rockwell stem from the annual theme of Environments Examined. We are exploring the myriad ways artists engage with, connect to or interrupt natural, built and social environments,” says Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Kirsty Buchanan. “Nathan Benn’s work explores the tangible landscape of the Finger Lakes Region while revealing the social climate that existed during the 1970s.”

Benn’s upbringing with Jewish parents near Miami, Florida, exposed him to issues of racism, cultural segregation and social justice from an early age as the city was welcoming its first Cuban exile refugees. As a kid, his wanderlust was stoked by days spent at the Florida East Coast railroad station watching snowbirds disembark from streamlined passenger trains. Gifted a camera as a teen, Benn snapped photos for his high school paper before working his way through the University of Miami as a photographer for the Miami News and Palm Beach Post; he began his almost 20-year career with National Geographic as an intern in 1972. He now divides his time between homes in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Brooklyn, New York, with his wife Rebecca Abrams, a fine art photographer.

Benn is known for embracing color photography before it was considered a suitable medium for documentary photo-reportage. Over a span of two decades, his assignments were equally divided between domestic and overseas projects; 300 of his photographs were published in National Geographic magazine and hundreds more can be found in numerous National Geographic Society publications. His reportage for National Geographic included the Netherlands, the Dead Sea, Prague, South Korea, Scotland, Florida, Vermont, Massachusetts, the Mississippi River, the Finger Lakes, Hasidic Jews, the Jewish diaspora, medicinal herbs, human physiology, Bible lands archaeology in the Middle East, pre-Columbian archaeology in Peru and skyscrapers.

Benn is drawn particularly to people in their authentic environment; he rarely poses or manipulates subjects. He recalls that his months in the Finger Lakes were personally gratifying, and he enjoyed the unique landscape and friendliness of the people he encountered. At the same time, he found a challenge in capturing real farmers, glassblowers, house painters and retirees of Western New York. For Benn and many documentary photographers, making meaningful images from quotidian life can be more formidable than recording exotic subjects.

FLX KODACHROME includes sweeping aerial landscapes of the Finger Lakes and surrounding small towns, as well as portraits of assembly line workers, glassblowers, winery pickers, auctioneers, parade spectators, scout troops and racing enthusiasts of the ’70s. Visitors will recognize locations such as the Watkins Glen International, Corning Glass Works (now Corning Incorporated), the Columbian Rope Company, American LaFrance, Widmer Wine Cellars, Bully Hill, Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery, the Mark Twain family farm and the boathouses of Canandaigua Lake.

Kate Swanson, interpretation and public engagement educator at The Rockwell, works to enhance featured exhibitions with engaging, interactive elements. Nathan Benn’s photography captures a moment in time in the Finger Lakes of intertwining stories. As part of the exhibition, visitors will have the opportunity to contribute their own written stories or memories that are sparked as they view the photographs, Swanson explains. “Photography is often how we make sense of the identity of a region, whether that’s through treasured vacation photos or images of familiar locales,” she says. “We hope to elicit positive memories from visitors while also pushing folks to consider the complexity of nostalgia and what we remember through rose-colored glasses.”

Meaghan Frank, vice president of Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery, was pleased to preview a candid portrait of her late great-grandfather in the vineyard. She notes that the grape in the photo is most likely Pinot Gris, noted for its tight cluster and deep pink color, almost ready to harvest. “This photo embodies Konstantin’s pride in his life’s work of vineyard research and experimentation,” she says. “He was the first to successfully plant Pinot Gris in America during his first vintage in 1962. His pride is evident in this photo, showing off the fruits of his labor.”

Max Erlacher, a master engraver who worked with Steuben Glass in the ’60s and ’70s, was moved when he saw a capture of fragile Steuben glass contrasted with the makers’ rough hands. “It was such an exciting time,” he says. “I worked with six highly skilled engravers, mostly working on special, limited edition pieces. I remember the Madonna and Child piece so well because of the gentle figures and elegant flow and drapery of the garments. It was a pleasure to go to work each day and watch the magic of the engraving unfold.”

FLX KODACHROME will be complemented by contemporary photography of the Finger Lakes Region in the special exhibition, From the Shadows: The Photography of Chris Walters, also on view at The Rockwell this summer (on view June 11 – Dec. 31, 2021). The theme of Environments Examined is expanded through AIDS’ Dark Terrain: Woodblock Prints of Robin Tichane (on view now through January 2022), as well as a unique ANTIGRAVITY installation by Elaine K. Ng (on view now through February 2022).

A proud Smithsonian Affiliate, The Rockwell Museum’s permanent galleries represent a visual narrative of the ever-evolving American experience. The museum aims to provoke curiosity, ignite imagination, challenge perspectives and foster conversation with visitors through the works of American artists. Families will enjoy engaging gallery activities and the KIDS ROCKWELL Art Lab, located just around the corner.

See FLX KODACHROME this summer at The Rockwell starting May 28. Learn more and plan your visit at rockwellmuseum.org.

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