Photo hall of fame will honor Anne Geddes, Harry Benson, Kenny Rogers — yes, that one
Harry Benson almost drove past the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968.
It was a cool Los Angeles evening, and Benson had scheduled dinner with friends. At the last moment, the veteran photographer decided to go inside.
Robert Kennedy strolled through the hotel kitchen, fresh from a victory in the California primary for the presidency.
Shots rang out. Benson jumped onto a stove, while Ethel Kennedy, the candidate’s wife, threw her hand in front of Benson’s camera.
Of all the photos that anybody took the night Robert Kennedy was shot, this one captured both the national tragedy and the Kennedy family’s pain.
Benson is one of nine photographers who will be inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame on Friday at a ceremony in St. Louis, where the group is headquartered. The others are Ernest H. Brooks, Edward S. Curtis, William Eggleston, Anne Geddes, Ryszard Horowitz, James Nachtwey, Cindy Sherman and Jerry Uelsmann.
Kenny Rogers will receive the inaugural IPHF Lifetime Achievement Award. Yes, that Kenny Rogers. In addition to being a singer, songwriter, record producer, actor and author, Rogers is actually quite the photographer. (All but Eggleston, Sherman and Uelsmann are scheduled to appear at Friday’s ceremony.)
“I’m an impulsive obsessive,” Rogers says by email. “I impulsively get involved with things, and I obsess with them to see how well I can do.”
He specializes in portraits and landscapes and was taught by Ansel Adams’ assistant, John Sexton.
The work of all 10 honorees will be featured from Nov. 18 to Feb. 10 at the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in Grand Center.
While the honorees share the same medium, their subject matter could not be more different.
“No two photographers are the same, and it never ceases to amaze me how distinct each of these photographers are in what they do,” says IPHF executive director Patty Wente.
Benson captured the Beatles on their first trip to America. He shadowed Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement and has made portraits of every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. His newest work, “Persons of Interest,” is a retrospective featuring photos of Amy Winehouse, Andy Warhol and, in his own words, “Any piece of s— that came up.”
Horowitz is the most surreal of the group. His pioneering work in photo layering and composition, by hand and digitally, blurred the line between photography and painting.
Curtis documented the American West through Native Americans. Nachtwey braved war zones for his groundbreaking photography. Sherman served as both photographer and model for her subversive portraits on identity.
In 2016, the IPHF celebrated the likes of Apple chairman and CEO Steve Jobs and John and Thomas Knoll, inventors of Photoshop, for their contributions to the form.
What links them all together, Geddes says, is “what’s at the core of each person and that they’re using the camera to be storytellers themselves. If you have 12 paint colors and 12 artists, you’re going to get something completely different. The camera is just a tool.”
The chance to tell stories is what attracted Geddes to start shooting at age 25, comparatively late.
She photographed private portraits for the first 10 years, framing other people’s narratives. Gradually, she pursued her own artistic work. She loved working with infants, so she sought to share her emotional passion.
“Babies transform women into mothers and men into fathers,” Geddes says. “They represent all of those words that we would bring to mind: purity and awareness of the human condition. If there’s a baby in the room, people are always smiling.”
Most know Geddes from her published calendars and coffee table books, joyful photos of babies dressed as fruit and flowers.
“Mother Nature never gets her colors wrong,” she says.
But she’s also done more somber work. “Protecting our Tomorrows” is a portrait series of infants, young children and adults who have suffered from meningococcal disease, which often requires amputation. The images are heartbreaking but beautiful.
To her, flower pots and ailments both fit into the story she tries to tell.
“Protect, nurture, love has always been my mantra for the past 30 years, and that’s what I keep reinforcing in my message,” Geddes says.
Not all photographers embrace continuity. Like many avant garde artists, Horowitz’s work is up for interpretation, and he likes it that way.
“People will see different things in what I present to them, and they will not always agree with me,” he says. “I like the contradiction.”
His photos are surreal and often Dali-esque. They are created by layering images on top of one another. Early in his career, he performed his work in darkrooms, painstakingly retouching and exposing. He was also one of the first to employ digital photo manipulation.
Horowitz studied at the High School of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland, before majoring in painting at the Academy of Fine Arts.
Many of his compositions feature classical influences. For example, “Lips” (1986), which features the outline of a woman, is one installment in a long history of silhouette portraiture.
“What I do is very classical in the sense,” Horowitz says. “Things such as composition and color and idea and lighting. I learn all these things from studying fine art.
“It’s very much the way I see things — the way I feel about things.”
A studio or darkroom are well equipped for active self-expression. But for folks in the field like Nachtway and Benson, it’s all about reaction.
“Photojournalism is not like (a studio),” Benson says. “The moment can never come back. A good photograph cannot be treated and be repeated. It’s a glimpse and gone forever.”
That’s what made that night at the Ambassador Hotel such a challenge. Benson knew and admired Robert Kennedy. Benson still visits Ethel every year or so. But in the moment, Benson had to act.
“This is it,” Benson remembers thinking. “Another Kennedy has been shot in front of me. I’ve got to get this right.”
When he was finished up on the stovetop, he stuffed his film reel into his sock, in case the police tried to seize it. Memories of John F. Kennedy were still fresh.
“People were screaming and shouting ‘Not another Dallas’ and banging their heads against the wall,” Benson recalls.
Only a handful of photos of the Robert Kennedy assassination exist.
“I’m speaking through my photographs,” he says. “Because photographs don’t lie.”
At a talk years later, someone asked Benson if he had nightmares about Kennedy. He said no.
“I would have had nightmares if I hadn’t had taken it,” he says.