Benji Hartfield - featured portfolio
Essay by Max Oettli for PhotoForum
Benji Hartfield (b.1999) is a multi-disciplinary artist employing a range of photographic mediums as well as sculpture, installation, painting and projection. His studio is located in Island Bay, Wellington.
In 2017 Benji was awarded the NZQA Top Scholar in Photography for his photographic series Time, Existence, Ephemerality (2017).
School (2017) is the accumulation of over 500 images made during Benji’s time as a student at Scots College. The selected images are chosen to emphasise the notion of Scots as a boys’ school (especially considering it is becoming co-educational next year), depicting themes such as the transition between boyhood and adolescence, the testing of social boundaries in context, boys’ physical engagement with others, and the expression of masculinity, identity and vulnerability.
The Honourable Schoolboy
Benji Hartfield: Late of Scots College: Has promise, should go far. He shows me a handful of photos from the private boys’ school with Calvinistic leanings in Strathmore, Wellington, bearing that austere name. In his last year there his camera was constantly with him..
Interests must be declared as they say in the House down the road: I am the happy product (centuries ago) of a co-ed suburban public school in Hamilton and always felt rather sorry for the lonely lads in boys high, let alone the inmates of the Marist brothers school…
We chat for a long time Benji and I, and when he can get a word in edgeways he starts on explanations and elucidations on the stuff we’re sharing. Rich pickings here, but mixed like the nibbles at a gallery opening to be picked around in..
Some are best avoided, not overly nourishing and a little overloaded, others are concentrated snaps of scrumptious goodness.
He talks about the influx of girls into the centennial boys own paradise as of next year, which has the headmaster wisecracking nervously about the needs and services ladies might require, arousing indignation in the local press. As a corollary I learn that the four Colleges at Oxford University set up as women’s halls of residency are fighting a rearguard action to not allow blokes in. All seems a little complicated in the world of gender.. We won’t even go to the diverse middlesex folx..
So what do they get up to, these merry and studious lads? We’re looking at Benji’s photos for evidence. Many depict to what I suppose we can still call horseplay without getting our knuckles rapped, picturesque boyish rituals such as the annual “undies” race (a racy photo of a well hung lad who can’t spell), and, yes, the Milk day when you drink milk until someone chunders it back. That latter ritual is illustrated by a rather pissed off teacher playing a garden hose over a deck to wash the vomit away (why a teacher for heavens sake??) watched by grinning boys forming a kind of three dimensional elliptical composition with a skinhead leering in the foreground.. an iPhone suspended in the bottom right of the composition..
Benji was using the obsolete and rather ritualistic technology which we all grew up with until a generation ago, film-based photography. “Although I did employ film for the majority of these photographs made at school”, he tells me however, that there are exposures made digitally too. He wouldn’t go so far as to say that he is ‘devoted to the obsolete’. These days his images are made predominantly by digital means. It was in school that he first encountered photography, thus his use of film is exploratory of the medium’s nature and capacities. Best way to learn.
Tells me the only time he was ever punished with a detention was when he turned a handicapped loo in Scots into a darkroom. His punishment? Sweeping autumn leaves..
He often worked with a point and shoot which was kept in his blazer pocket at all times, using the built in flash with devastating effect to come up with that Weegee syntax which makes everything rather scary and like Uncle Walter would say vaguely forensic. He is innocent of Arthur Fellig’s immortal work, and apparently of his namesake Walter Benjamin too.
Some of the boyish pranks the boys get up to look rather scary: a photo of a guy in evening dress lying on the floor with white flashed out hands gesticulating over him is the stuff of nightmares. Two more flash photos of lads at sporting events ask other unresolved questions, there is a story here and somehow we are not privy to it, insider stuff going on, what did boy A do to boy B, is this transactional or relational or simply a play-fight?
The closer Benji gets the better it gets. I quote Robert Capa’s maxim “If it’s no good you ain’t close enough” (he actually got a little too close and that was the end of Mr Capa). A head pops out of a swimming pool: a saturated edgy colour picture of a very sudden confrontation at that vulnerable moment when you emerge from the blue chlorinated womb of the chill pool. Something weird is going on with the colours; we have a cool Hockney blue, a skin tone and then a kind of ochre build-up along his eyes and shoulders, and that’s all, folks as far as colour goes.. Begins to look a little like Nolde, Kirchner perhaps. Accidental or incidental German expressionismus, ja.
Another young lad, rendered in greyscale this time, in a head and bare chest framing is shivering with cold, his coxcomb of wet hair forming a confusing pattern. An image which makes one think of punishment, of Archie Baxter tied to his lonely pole in the rain. The boy has wiped his freckled face of all expression. Uncomfortable confrontations which show what Benji does best: “Boys, depicted in various states of expression and doing” as he puts it in his intro.
Another one of his own chest and neck is possibly the most accomplished piece in the collection, somewhere between Caravaggio and (again) an almost medical or forensic look at the body. The punctum as father Roland would say, is the triple scratch near his shoulder. Here again the colour is used to superb effect, all in over-lit shades of pink with a kind of moody green black defining the background.
Of the pictures of spectators at sporting events, one works particularly well compositionally, with the repeated pattern of hands and cellphones against the gray sky.
A final picture is possibly the best of the set: a view down on the school grounds with a filigree pattern of shadows and paving leading us to the figure of a solitary boy heading for a door. Benji tells me that this is a recall of himself when he first walked into this micro universe.
What crimes are being committed in this lovely privileged world, are people looking glum, scared or haunted or is it just an accident of the fleeting moment when the flash went off, the shutter was tripped? Or is the very fact of being, living human lives a crime in our age, when in all probability Scots College will be under water in a few decades. Is some grim old Old Testament God about to punish us for our iniquity and wastefulness, our callous murder of the environment and the creatures that inhabit it. Or (gulp) is Israél Folau right after all? Questions beg questions..
Possibly I’m reading too much into what is essentially a very simple set of work, which does pretty much what Benji tells us in his intro. We are the privileged observers of a few visible manifestations of the last years of a boys school. Is this enough, should we need more? How does the other half live? Or the half of the half of the half..
We catch a glimpse of this world, and are left with plenty of space to question and reflect.
Benji tells us he’s hoping to study at an art school in Europe next year. Great idea. Far to go.
Max Oettli, Thorndon 12.05.019
Born in Switzerland in 1947 and educated at Auckland and Geneva Universities, Max Oettli is a photographer writer, and teacher. His last appointment was as Principal Lecturer, photography at the Dunedin School of Art. He lives between Wellington and Geneva.
Recently he deposited and catalogued his New Zealand photographs 1966-76 at the Alexander Turnbull Library. A major show of his work is in preparation at the Auckland Art Gallery, and he is in two group shows in Wellington from mid June on, at Photospace and at Te Papa (The New Photography).
Titles of Photographs: (in order) for those viewing on hand-held devices.
1 Kishan, 2016
2 Students drinking from the tap in the CPAC bathroom, 2016
3 Inside the school gymnasium, 2017
4 Milen Patel, Ben Soper (during inter-House basketball), 2017
5 Yosuke, after the Lindisfarne fixture, 2016
6 Max, Luke, Ben, Harry, Blake, Kody, 2017
7 Joseph Plunket (with fists), 2017
8 The Senior Common Room Deck, 2016
9 Mario after being megged in the Quad, 2017
10 Tom Simpson at Monorgan Road bus stop, 2017
11 Max Batchelor, after morning football training, 2017
12 Richard Field-Dodgson (RFD) in his biology class, 2016
13 Sam, Max, Seb, in RFD's biology class, 2016
14 Manraj Singh Rahi, at rugby match (on the front field), 2017
15 Scots College Supporters Club (SCSC) at rugby match, 2017
16 Art class excursion to the City Gallery (Tom, Mr Jarry, Maika), 2017
17 Self Portrait (before the first day of being a Senior), February 2017
18 Josh Osbourne Nemani, in mathematics class, 2017
19 RFD with students on the Senior Common Room Deck, 2016
20 Keegan Adams at Seatoun Wharf, 2017
21 Oli Malthus at the Marsden Ball, 2017
22 Russell Holmes and Werdna Maligi, before House Music, 2017
23 Howard Zhou, Oli Malthus at the school gymnasium before assembly, 2017
24 Senior Common Room bathroom sink (with disposable shaver), 2017
25 Tullamore during the Undie Run, November 2017
26 Mr West, Chisnall, Max, Quinn, Tullamore (post Undie Run), November 2017
27 Austin, Adam, Thorben (outside science classrooms at interval), 2017
28 Portrait of Oli Malthus, 2017
29 Keegan Adams in PE gear, 2017
30 Sam Wilkinson and Ben Tholen, 2017
31 Boy walking across the Quad, 2017