Benjamin Swett

21: A Life in Photographs

Opening Talk

The show is really five shows, each representing our daughter in a slightly different way. The first, which hangs in the front of this room by the window, is a series of 15 photographs that Rachel took in France, Italy and Portugal during the fall of 2009. They are 35 mm black and white photographs that she shot, developed and printed during her semester at Columbia’s Reid Hall in Paris. The prints are small, most have black edges meaning they are uncropped, and they primarily depict pairs of people (or, in one case, cats) in various mysterious activities and situations. There is something so strange and consistent in the eye that not only saw and framed these photographs but later chose them from her contact sheets to print and keep together in a stack—a stack that I later found in a drawer in her room--that I find myself turning back and back to them again as a puzzle that I will never be able to solve. I think that Rachel had reached a new level as a photographer with these pictures.

A second show here is the show of Rachel the explorer, and by this I mean her visual as well as geographic explorations. Most of the photographs in this room represent this theme in one way or another. Starting around 5th grade, especially after she began studying photography with Tish Webster at Brearley, Rachel, or at least a part of Rachel, quite consciously began looking at the world photographically; and though she never called herself a photographer or an artist—in fact would be mad at me for labeling her as such—when you look back through her work, especially at her contact sheets and digital files, you see someone who sought out patterns, played with ideas, focused in and out, tried things again, and worked to record in an interesting way what seemed to her beautiful, marvelous, strange, familiar, or funny. You also see, looking back through her prints, something we already knew, that Rachel enjoyed working in the darkroom. Save for a few that I had made for her in a lab, all of the silver gelatin prints in the show were hand-made by Rachel in darkrooms at Brearley or at Reid Hall in Paris. On the back of each print, in red, in Rachel’s handwriting, is information about just how she printed it, so she would know how to reproduce it next time, or how to change it if it came out wrong. It is amazing to think how many hours of her life she spent in these darkrooms to make these prints—and not just the final ones here, but often five or six until she had gotten it right.

A third theme of this exhibit is Rachel looking at Rachel.  Looking through her work, one notices how often she pointed the camera back at her own self—perhaps sometimes simply as the only available subject, but more often, I think, in a more deliberate spirit of curiosity and self-definition. Whether in quieter contemplative self-portraits in mirrors or with the camera pointed back from her outstretched hand or from the end of a cable release, or even in the boisterous group shots that she made with her friends or the still-lives that she set up in her bedroom, Rachel described her own self again and again with a camera; and whatever she may have had in mind when she took the pictures, looking at them now we see both much more than she ever could have intended, yet also the spirited, even impish girl she so often did intend. Hey, don’t forget, the photographs seem to be saying, Rachel was here.

Fourth of course are my own pictures of Rachel over the years, which I began taking before she was born and continued to take throughout her life, whether just of her or of her as part of a larger group portrait. My own father was a photographer and did much the same for us, and later my mother and sister took up photography, and of course my brother-in-law, Rachel's Uncle, Irving Barrett, is an artist who often makes use of a camera, so Rachel was constantly surrounded by snapping cameras, and I imagine that part of why she took it up herself was simply to fight back a little. Some of the pictures Rachel would not be happy I had included here, but each has a story and each tells something about our daughter at a certain stage of her life. I will just point out the picture of Rachel on the subway, which was taken after the two of us had gone to retrieve my Hasselblad from the Transit Authority dispatching station in Pelham Bay Park. I had managed to leave my camera on the subway, and if Rachel, then aged 9, had not immediately understood the gravity of the situation when the subway dispatcher called, and insisted that he leave his number, twice, on our still-running answering machine, I would never have gotten the camera back and would today be a cabdriver, as I had decided I would become as I trudged home from the subway station having thought I had lost the camera forever.

Finally, we have included in the show works by other artists who either depicted Rachel at various times in her life or had her in mind when they were creating different works. The idea came from our family’s desire to show Matthew Gaddis’s 1993 movie Zebra, a short fiction film of which Rachel, aged 4, is the star, in which she was very proud to be seen, and which she showed to all her friends.  Katherine, whose series of poems about Rachel gave a title to this exhibit, figured out a way to present some of the poems in printer’s trays, and various other artists started telling us of the presence of Rachel in their work.  It is wonderful to be able to present work here by Zoe Davis, Irving Barrett, Anne Lafond, Jill Krements, John Nordell, Lyn Swett Miller, Sarah Swett, Joni Wehrli, and Willie Swett. One additional piece that can only be experienced by those of you here right now is Bach’s 1st Cello Suite, some movements of which Nicky Swett will play in a few moments..

I’d like to thank Melissa Holden for coming up with the idea for this show, and the Board of the Catskill Art Society for supporting it. I am indebted to Joni Wehrli, Harry Wilks, Kathryn Tufano, Katherine Barrett Swett, and Nicky and Willie Swett for helping to shape the show and make it what it is. For their incredibly hard work framing and hanging pictures, adjusting the lighting, sweeping the floor, putting up labels and signs, and all the other little things entailed in putting together this story of Rachel in photographs, I would also like to thank Rick Pereira, Michel Negroponte, John Nordell, Anne Lafond, Charlie Irace, and, again, Katherine, Nicky, and Willie. To Katherine Tufano, director of this beautiful gallery that has become such an important part of the life of Livingston Manor and the Western Catskills—I know that Rachel, for whom this was her favorite part of the world, would join me in saying thank you for putting so much of your life into making this show and this gallery what they are.

--Benjamin Swett