Thomas Benjamin’s background in architecture undoubtedly comes through in his layered, intricate, and structural landscapes and industrial scenes. A former student of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture (now The School of Architecture at Taliesin), Benjamin followed his brother to the University of New Mexico and into photography. “All of a sudden I was getting good grades,” he says of the switch, laughing. “Photography felt natural.”
Benjamin says he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t making art, be it visually or through music (he has played bass semi-professionally since high school): “I’ve always been artistic—I’ve always loved drawing, particularly architectural drawing and design. I knew at an early age that I wanted to create.”
After his time in Albuquerque, he pursued a multimedia major in photography and painting at the University of Illinois. From there, he applied to the School of the Art Institute, interviewing with iconic Chicago artist Ray Yoshida. Benjamin received his masters from the famed institution in photography and painting. This duality he explored at both schools, this hybrid approach, would set the tone for his life’s work: “Ever since exploring the dialogue between photography and painting, I’ve learned one doesn’t need to exert power or dominance over the other. I try to create equality between the two—I let them inform each other.”
A product of his SAIC thesis exhibit was his first big show, taking place at the John Michael Kohler Art Center. Later, he was shown at the Joy Horwich Gallery (which also represented Judy Chicago), a relationship that continued for years. The following decades included a move to North Carolina, where he served as professor of photography of the Art Institute of Charlotte for five years, and back to Illinois to care for his 93-year-old father (a long time resident of Lake Bluff and publisher for Cenflo, Inc. since 1953), who was dying of cancer.
The self-described “Northsider from birth” who grew up in Lake Bluff and was part of Lake Forest High School’s Class of ’81, now lives in Florida, a move which has greatly informed his current work: “I paint what I see,” he explains. In this current iteration, he is able to devote himself to his art and music full time and says he is relishing in it.
Benjamin counts the Impressionists among his greatest influences, particularly Manet, Monet, and Degas: “These guys, this collective of great minds, sitting around a table talking about painting and philosophy and life—I feel really connected to that. How they turned the art world onto its head—they were seeing the world in an incredibly new way thanks to photography. It changed painting forever. It’s changed the way we see things.” He also counts the work of Van Gogh and Seurat among his other inspirations, saying, “I used to sit in front of A Sunday on La Grande Jatte for hours. How the dot created an image, that’s comparable to photography.”
Benjamin’s work is not only the conversation between photography and painting but between man, technology, and nature. His process begins with photography: he takes hundreds of images, from factory to forest, sometimes using a pinhole lens to create a dreamlike image. He then reinterprets the scene, combining images, piecing and blending them together, manipulating what is seen by using Photoshop. The result is an altered reality and change of perspective.
After printing the final product, he paints on the photograph with oil paint, using rags not brushes, so as not to leave a mark: “I try to avoid marks—the mark doesn’t make the image, the image makes the mark,” he says. He plays with transparency versus opaqueness, control, and respect, letting the image tell him what it wants him to paint and what it wants him to leave untouched.
“Photographs capture detail,” Benjamin relates, “but humans add emotions.”