On the Road with Calen Bennett and his Ed Ruscha–Inspired Photo Series, “The West”

Jul 12, 2016 12:26AM

The French word flâneur has no exact translation into English. Charles Baudelaire, for his part, saw the flâneur as a “passionate spectator” who strolled the crowded streets and bustling arcades of 19th-century Paris. Later, in On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag wrote, “Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.’ ”

Whatever the definition, American photographer Calen Bennett knows he qualifies. Bennett is a wanderer whose series have taken titles like “Sunset Blvd,” “Jewish Cuba,” and “Ocean Drive Intersections, Miami Beach.” There’s something pleasantly old-fashioned about his work, a selection of which will be on view this September at the Jewish Museum of Florida. Bennett eschews the myriad technologies available to contemporary photographers, instead shooting only on 35mm film.

The subject in his newest body of work, “The West,” is self-explanatory. Yet, per usual for the Miami-based photographer, this subtly absorbing series isn’t just a travelogue. Bennett isn’t particularly interested in human presence, but rather in finding a theme or motif within a certain landscape: synagogues in Cuba, for instance, or street intersections in Miami and cheerful colors in Disney World. With that mission in mind, “The West” documents a cross-country road trip with an unexpected focus: The car, Bennett has noted, is often left out of road trip documentation, but “I made sure it would not be forgotten.”

Indeed, the car—its dashboard, roof, windows, and mirrors—serves as the frame and, in a way, the off-center subject for an array of spectacular scenery. Natural wonders and gleaming cityscapes ascend beyond the windshield, while a rearview mirror hovers, blurry and out of focus, as the road unspools ahead. Elsewhere, hills roll into the distance, the panorama specked with the dust of a dirty window.

Inspired by contemporary masters like Ed Ruscha, Joel Mayerwitz, and Stephen Shore, Bennett’s style merges documentary and conceptual photography. Like Ruscha, who famously portrayed all-American scenes—e.g., exteriors of gas stations, motels, and apartment buildings—Bennett has an eye for the quiet moment, one often without people. But there’s at least one person in “The West”—you. Bennett’s road trip series is so naturalistic, you might get the urge to roll down the windows.

—Bridget Gleeson

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