Titled “Atomic Age,” this collection of photographs from the past 30 years addresses that topic, as well as a number of political topics that get dragged along with it, some miscellaneous photographic opportunities. And it’s all rounded out with more personal subjects.
The early days of the atomic age have a familiar, even nostalgic feel for people who experienced it first-hand or grew up in its immediate aftermath. Big fat bombs. National pride. Desert testing sites. Ending the war.
The fears of the time of nuclear annihilation haven’t materialized, and in his seditious way, Benjamin thinks we have gotten too complacent and now serenely reside under an umbrella of cloud cover that looks startlingly like a mushroom cloud … or maybe a castle? No, that’s a mushroom shape for sure. Or maybe I feel complacent – he never comes right out and says that, of course. You have to let the image do its work.
The political gravity of the atomic age pulled China, Cuba and Vietnam into its orbit, serving as our mid-century axis of evil. Benjamin has visited and photographed these countries on several occasions. For each there is series of portraits of people born in the year of each country’s revolution (China, Cuba) or independence (Vietnam) – Year One, as it were.
The Vietnamese are optimistic, beautiful, free and prospering in the absence of colonial occupation and invasion. The Cubans endure their own leaders and American ostracism while preserving the ideals of revolution, Che style. China emerges – it’s a big complicated place with workers, beautiful women, post revolutionaries and caged birds looking to escape.
Opportunistic photos? The mother and daughter in the Atlantic City casino and socialite Mary Lou Whitney air-kissing a guest at her annual Saratoga gala are pretty scary and, if the subjects weren’t caricatures already, a little bit mean spirited. Ed Koch, the glum couple in Cannes, unattractive people from New Jersey and desolate people sitting at more desolate picnic tables. Neutral observations? Not really. Searing commentary on the folly of our self delusions and alienation of modern life? No, that’s too complicated. It’s just his (subversive) point of view.
The constant across it all are the beautiful, perfectly composed portraits of his professional companion and wife, Donna. Calm, poetic, erotic and highly personal. Identified as being shot in cities around the world, they simply demand that we fill in some context on our own.
Spend a little time with this book. Don’t flip through the pages and categorize them as “like” and “don’t like.” Don’t decide anything at all.
Look at the photos, let the images do their work, put it down and go about your business.
Review by Bowtie
The first book from award-winning photographer Martin Benjamin, “Atomic Age” is available online as well as at the Union College Bookstore (Schenectady), Open Door Bookstore (Schenectady), the Book House (Albany), Photo Images (Glenville) and the Albany Institute of History & Art Gift Shop (Albany).