Benjamin Jaffe

Artist Statement

"I am particularly interested in the temporal existence that we are all passing through. Huge glass and steel or concrete and granite structures seem to be permanent yet when we look at the ancient pyramids or ruins from previous civilizations we realize that even the sturdiest of constructions can only sustain so much before crumbling to the elements of time."

"I have attempted to capture this feeling by showing modern ruins as if stumbled upon by some future intrepid voyager. These images are an attempt to understand our place in the universe as well as human behavior.

The full spectrum of social debate can be argued, but I am actually attempting to communicate something on a more spiritual level. The subject to me is not just about our environment, it is about human beings; What we subject one another to,what we are capable of withstanding, and finally what we leave behind." - Benjamin Jaffe (Courtesy of Art

PD: In a didactic context this is Realism perhaps, with photography as the tool for the purpose of your art: depicting the real world and its possibilities; the stark, side-by-side details of "what-is" and "what-if".

While some might  label these works apocalyptic, your  Artist Statement suggests a more subtle reading. Help us to understand your process of collecting elements, building pictorial 'phrases' and composing the intended graphic message.

Benjamin: I would hesitate to classify my work as realism in the sense that these images, as they appear in my finished work at least, do not actually exist outside of my own imagination. However they do represent reality as I perceive it, or in other words I attempt to tell a story or to depict a real sense of a place in a single image. My images have in all honesty been labeled ‘apocalyptic’ in almost every press commentary. But is that really an art style? If so then I would have to say apocalypse now, for all of these images were taken in the last few years, they do exist if only in pieces today.

I do understand where this definition derives from. The places on my canvas seem too desolate to exist, yet they do. So I guess my only problem with that label is that it implies a future that has not yet arrived, but in fact it has. I don’t want to come off too pessimistic about the fate of mankind. Underneath all of my work is a sense of wonder in what human beings create. In the magic that we feel standing at the foot of a Mayan Pyramid both of these thoughts enter our minds at the same time: First we are amazed at the shear magnitude and magnificence of what was created so long ago, but concurrently we wonder what went so terribly wrong that it all vanished so mysteriously.

I am filled with those same questions when I stand amongst the crumbling ruins of today: Who made this? Where did they go? Why did they leave this behind? These questions come from being the son of a research scientist. My father instilled an indomitable sense of curiosity in me from a young age. The world of Science is in fact very close to the world of Art though most in each field would argue differently.

They are both methods that we use to explain our environment and answer the difficult questions.

PD: Bill Jay (1940-2009) in Titles and Trends wrote comprehensively about the utility and purpose of captions, from being simple documentation to becoming part of the expression of meaning in a photograph. What does "Beyond People" refer us to?

Having been a child of the 60’s I was raised in that category Bill Jay referred to as the “Untitled” generation. It was an era filled with revolutionary concepts in the Art world; Conceptual Art was coming into it’s own, Abstraction was in its golden era, and my own generation created Punk and Hip Hop which both seemed to give the finger to all rules especially those of the establishment. But while I respect the abstract artist who wants each viewer to see something personal in the work, or even the conceptual artist who feels that the interaction of the audience is part of the work itself, I tend to fall into the more romantic group of poets.

My inspiration on this matter is fellow Chicago Artist Ivan Albright, who believed that the title was a chance to write a poem and hopefully a poem that would gain the viewer some insight into his intentions as auteur. 
I often give two parts to my titles: first the real title or poem, followed by a description of the main subject. In the piece that you have chosen (BP – Beyond People). The title is a play on words. I created this piece for a show at the Framing Mode Art Gallery in Chicago that had a Political Theme:

British Petroleum had convinced the politicians in Indiana to raise the level of toxins that they could dump into Lake Michigan. Chicago and much of Wisconsin and Michigan exploded with a grass roots rage at the notion that one state could unilaterally ruin our shared Lake. It was a coincidence that I was working on this piece at the time but I always try to let the muse speak to me and in this case she was shouting! The location of this artwork is the British Petroleum retaining tanks along the Chicago Canal. It just so happens that it is directly adjacent to a Park, and the green muck in the foreground is actually in the park.

When I saw the advertisement proclaiming “BP Beyond Petroleum” I thought yeah right more like Beyond People!

PD: So far your scenarios of our future do not picture us (humanity) directly. When will  people be featured in your metaphysical style of painting?

Benjamin: I recently did a piece for a photography show that required all participants to shoot their 24 images on the same day within 24 hours.  I started in my old neighborhood and decided to make the nightclub 'The Double Door' my focus.

Detail of When You're In....." showing the chalkboard
I noticed by the front door a chalkboard proclaiming "Once you're in, you're in. Once you're out, you're out. The statement was referring to the patrons going in and out of the club but I saw it as a cynical statement about success and popularity.

Later, I photographed a homeless"can man" by the name of Willem - I felt the two subjects [would go] well together, especially with the chalkboard title. My only problem was the word 'Once' as I felt it had a permanent connotation regarding my subject that made me uncomfortable.So the final version reads "When you're in you're in. When you're out you're out." The new title is a commentary on homelessness and the callousness with which we treat one another.

'When you're in, you're in. When you're out, you're out.'
Willem outside the Double Door

'What will grow crooked cannot be made straight.
 Junior outside Alice's Barb

Benjamin: This image was my first attempt to place a human subject into one of my decaying urban environments. Junior is a panhandler who has a very jovial personality. I placed him outside Alice's Barbq which has been on 43rd street for almost three decades and is an example of the real Southside Chicago flavor that I've been trying to capture.

PD:  This one has an air of hopefulness Benjamin, as if to say "life will be what we will make it". 

I look forward to more exhibitions and discussions here on Photo Dialogue.         >>>