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Making Things Clear

Richard Benson Middletown, RI 2006

Thinking, gratefully, about the wisdom of the late Richard Benson, photographer and printer, MacArthur Fellow, and former dean of the Yale School of Art, where I interviewed him in 2003 for my book, MONUMENTS (Random House, 2007). As we spoke about a writer’s obligation to readers, I shared my fear that my words wouldn’t adequately convey the emotional and psychological weight of memorials. Benson’s reply was liberating, bedrock advice that has guided my writing ever since:

“Your job is to make things clear. To be very clear headed. It’s not about what I think, it’s about what’s there. One way we describe things clearly is that we don’t get all emotional about them.

We don’t try to manipulate readers’ feelings and bring them to some new emotional or ethical understanding. Now people can get emotional, but we can’t when we’re the makers. We have

to be concerned about what’s there.”

It takes time and effort to be clear-eyed, to write history in a plainspoken way. But I’ve come to realize, especially since Benson articulated it for me, that it is my spiritual practice and how I serve others.

Photo: © Richard Benson, Middletown, Rhode Island (2006). Courtesy: Pace/MacGill Gallery

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