TELLURIDE – A young girl poses with her favorite doll, a bride receives a ring from her groom, a Ute woman holds her swaddled infant, and a matronly pianist sits at her instrument in a luxuriously appointed Victorian parlor.
Each of the scenes marks a moment in the lives of diverse women – young and old, modest and of means, indigenous and introduced, but each hails from Telluride and the San Juan mountains during a distant era.
The images are some of 15 works – accompanied by Victorian-era hats, clothing and accessories now on display at the Telluride Historical Museum until April – that form part of renowned local black and white landscape photographer Eileen Benjamin’s new “Fabric of a Woman” multi-media collection.
“It’s about all the things that we are as women,” Benjamin described.
“Nothing has changed over time, it’s a celebration of women.”
At first glance each piece appears as if it could be an old-fashioned picture of unsmiling subjects (victims of the slow aperture speeds customary during photography’s infancy) pasted against a decorative background.
But a closer look reveals faint images of lace, velvet, dried flowers and even turquoise that appear to rise from within each image to form a tapestry of old and new objects woven together by Benjamin with modern, digital technology.
“It’s a total departure on many levels,” Benjamin explained of the pieces, each of which integrates papermaking and collage with photography and represents her first shift away from the oeuvre for which she has received much acclaim.
“The project has been labor intensive, but it’s probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever done,” said Benjamin, who has published three books of her black and white photography.
The concept for the collection came to Benjamin about nine years ago when she began working with textiles for her own enjoyment, followed a few years later by a course in papermaking she took at the Ah Haa School.
The resulting works were achieved through a painstaking dual process, the first part of which involved hours of photo archive research as Benjamin searched for the images she wanted to use – images that would tell “the story of a woman.” She then scanned the pictures and used modern photo retouching to make the sometimes worn and blemished images look new.
At the same time Benjamin sought out both old and new fabrics and other organic objects she felt best enhanced the images, and layered them between two layers of paper pulp to create complex collages that help tell the women’s stories.
“I want to represent them in the most dignified, beautiful way I can,” she explained.
Once the paper dried completely Benjamin photographed it, and then set about integrating the paper and picture images into one tableau enhanced by computer-generated borders reminiscent of sweeping strokes from watercolor saturated paintbrushes.
The local women on display in the museum collection are part of a larger project Benjamin has undertaken, capturing images of women from around the United States that she hopes will eventually become the basis of her next book.
Benjamin has dedicated the work to her late mother.
“I’m doing this work to give something back to my mother,” she explained. “I am who I am today because of her.”
While Benjamin is pleased with the new direction of her work and its creative challenges, she admitted to some trepidation over how it will be received by the public.
“I don’t want to just be known for black and white photography,” she said.
“I’m both a photographer and an artist, they’re both creative talents.”
Eileen Benjamin’s “Fabric of a Woman” exhibition is on display at the Telluride Historical Museum through the end of the ski season in early April. Following the exhibition the pieces will be available for sale directly through Benjamin, who may be reached at 728-4184. For more information about Benjamin visit www.eileenbenjamin.com.