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Photographer Tom Benoit Stays in the Zone

Mill Valley resident Tom Benoit began his journey in photography in 1970 and has studied with the likes of Ruth Bernhard and Ansel Adams. He'll be showcasing original silver-gelatin prints at the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival for the first time this year

Born in the small town of Hammond, Indiana, photographer Tom Benoit purchased a home in Mill Valley in 1975 and has been a resident ever since. Benoit, who enjoys the craft, technicality and detail of working with film, personally develops each of his prints in his own darkroom. His images have been used by major companies such as Microsoft, Kodak and United Airlines, and have appeared in numerous magazines and websites.

Benoit talks about how he got into photography, some legendary artists and teachers he met along the way, and his thoughts on light. He's participating for the first time in the this year in .

Mill Valley Patch: When did you first start experimenting with photography?
Tom Benoit: When I moved to Chicago, I started taking seminars at Northwestern University, that’s what really got me going, some of the classes were on the zone system. Then I started developing in my bathroom. I used the bathtub to wash prints. It was pretty funky but it worked.

MVP: How would you explain the "zone system" to a digital-age photographer?
TB: The zone system is a system of exposure and development that allows you to manipulate and control the exposure of the print so you can develop in a way that is coherent with what you have in the mind's eye. You can stretch out the tonal range. In the zone system, you have about eight zones of exposure where you can see texture. You meter the high and low values and if values are too high, you underdevelop to pull them down and vice versa. Ansel Adams used the system par excellence. He’s the guy that developed it and 99 percent of film photographers on the planet use the subtle, delicate sysetem. Takes a lot of craft to get it just right.

MVP: Which teachers influenced you the most during your education as a photographer?
TB: I've studied with a lot of people over the last 35-40 years. Almost anyone you can think of, I’ve been to seminars with. Ruth Bernhard, who is famous for female nudes, used to live on Clay St. in San Francisco. She's was a small 95-pound German woman, and would have seminars with five or six people in a little studio. She was a master of seeing what light does to objects. We would walk around the block with her, and she would say 'look at this, see how the light looks different over there.'
She taught me that if you include something in the frame, you tell the viewer that it's important. Everything you add to the frame either adds or substracts from the image. She would hammer the principle of simplify, simplify, simplify. Ruth was a true master of the visual eye and light, she taught me a lot of things about seeing.

MVP: And from the school of Ansel Adams?
TB: I learned a lot from Ansel Adams' last assistant John Sexton about technique, and the nuts and bolts of the craft. Ruth was a master of seeing light and being able to make things beautiful, composition, and why you should make certain choices. John Sexton was a master artist of darkroom craft. His stuff rivals Ansel Adams' work.

MVP: What do you think about digital photography?
TB: I use digital a little bit for previewing. It’s about the craft. When I put something in the tray and am looking under low light at that print, there's a rush there. I can’t wait to turn on the light. I don’t get that with a print coming out of an HP. They say that a print made with siver gelatin is in the paper while a digital print is on the paper. Anyone can work photoshop to dodge and burn and a print, but it would take 20 or 30 pieces of paper to do that in a dark room. I like that there's lots of trial and error, not many people can do the craft. Ansel Adams once said that 'the negative is the musical score and the print is the performance,' the way you print the negative makes all the differnece. There are some greate printers on the planet, but not many.

MVP: Do you have a favorite piece of art that you own?
TB: I have several favorites, but I think I would have to say Ruth Bernhard's "Nude in the Box. It's absolutely beautiful. I also love "Frozen Lake and Cliffs" by Ansel Adams, what's not to like?

MVP: Where do you like to go to shoot?
TB: I find myself very comfortable in anything that involves shapes and space, like architectural work. When it comes to an interior and exterior I know immediatley where to go. But a landscape in Yosemite, that’s chaos for me. It’s about organizing chaos, and I struggle with it. I’m very aware of every rock and branch. Ansel and John were masters, nature is chaos and you try to organize it into a print.

MVP: What's behind the awesome image of toilet tissue?
TB: Ruth Bernhard was a very strict and stern teacher. One day she asked me to write two paragraphs about an image so descriptive that a blind man could visualize it. For the second part of the assignment I had to make a photograph about light. I didn't write anything, I wasn't very good at that anyway, so when she came to me and realized I didn't write anything, she jumped on me and ragged on me. Then she asked to see the image, after she saw it, she said I was forgiven (laughs). The image is toilet paper on top of a card board box with holes punched in it and a light bulb inside.

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