Though Clare Benson appears in many of the striking images in her series The Shepherd’s Daughter, she doesn’t consider them self-portraits. The series started when she began substituting herself for her father in the photos from the 1970s.
Daily Yonder: Where did you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your background.
Clare Benson: Much of my childhood was spent on a forest covered island in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Drummond Island, where my father and generations of ancestors came from. But I wasn't born there, so perhaps I should back-track a bit. I was born in Indiana where I lived with my mother, two older sisters, and one younger brother until I was ten years old. We lived in a suburban area of Indianapolis, and would take road trips to Michigan for summers and extended holidays. My mother had family ties that kept her attached to Indianapolis, but she had these detailed fantasies of moving to the country and living off the land. Because of her, I think that nature and the rural landscape began to embody a kind of magic and mythos in my young mind. She was always torn between the city and the country. My siblings and I moved to Michigan to be with our father (when I was ten) as our mother had become seriously ill, and this is where we stayed until each of us slowly went off to college. I spent many formative years in northern Michigan, where my father was known around town as the avid hunter, archer, and hunting guide. He taught me how to shoot a bow, I took a hunters safety course, and the patches of forest in our front and back yard became my stomping ground.
DY: Where do you live now?
CB: I am currently living in the far north of Sweden (about 90 miles north of the Arctic Circle), working on a ten-month project with the help of a Fulbright Fellowship. When I leave here in June, I'll go back to Michigan to continue working. I've moved around quite a bit in recent years, living in Arizona for graduate school, with a six month study abroad stint in Slovakia, and Los Angeles for a short time after that.
DY: Tell us about the series The Shepherd's Daughter. How and why did you start it? Where were these pictures taken?
CB: For a long time I was making work about my relationship with my mother, my memories of her death, and my desire to understand her life. In 2011, I shifted the focus over to my father. I was fascinated at first by what seemed to be a kind of obsession he had with hunting. I came across a collection of old slides from the '70s when he was a hunting guide in the Alaskan wilderness, and there was something so rich and honest about the images. I realized that hunting wasn't his obsession, it was his life. The photos are also gorgeous—they have a certain patina that can come only from time; they are rugged and full of adventure. I wanted to know who this person was in the photos, this younger version of my father. And so I started recreating the images, inserting myself as the protagonist (using the taxidermy he had accumulated over the years), attempting to connect with and become part of those stories. That's how it began, and since then the series has continued to develop organically, bringing in other influences and inspiration. Many of the images were taken in Michigan, though some were taken in the mountains of Arizona and in Slovakia because that's where I happened to be working at the time.
DY: So you the woman who appears in many of these photos? Why did you choose to include yourself?
CB: I am one of the women who appears in many of the photos. One of my sisters is also in several of them, and my father is included in a couple as well. Part of my reason for doing this was that through this process, I was trying to connect with and understand my father. In that sense, the images become like documents of performance art. Another reason was that using myself in the images seemed easier than asking someone else to do it. The work is clearly autobiographical, and of course it speaks to notions of identity, but I have steered away from referring to any of the images as self-portraits. Even when I am the one in the photos, I think of myself more as a character or archetype; a symbol that represents more than my own individual experience.
DY: Most of the photos we’ve featured in the Viewfinder series are photojournalistic. How do you classify your work?
CB: I would classify it as art photography (or fine art photography), which is mainly to say that I am an artist working with photography as a medium. Many of the images have been staged or directed, some are more documentary, and a few of them seem to exist somewhere in between.
DY: What’s your process like? How much time do you spend planning your photos, how much do you think about their meaning ahead of time, what does it look like when you actually take the pictures?
CB: I'll often get ideas for images when I'm out walking or sometimes in dreams. Once in a while I'll sketch things out, but the photos can still end up being quite different than the original idea. I try not to think about the meaning too much when I'm shooting or to stick too closely to any plan. I do what I've imagined in my mind and then follow my intuition from there. When I see the photos later and put them into the context of the rest of the series, that's when the meaning comes together more for me. When I actually take the photos, it's generally just me, my camera, a tripod, sometimes my sister and/or an assistant. It's not a big production; there isn't any serious equipment or artificial lighting, and I do very little editing in the end. I like to keep things simple, I think it helps to make the images feel more real, no matter how absurd or fantastical the subject may be.
DY: Your pictures in this series are set in rural landscapes and are centered around hunting. Do you consider yourself a rural photographer?
CB: The rural landscape holds a lot of power and meaning for me; it's familiar, it's where I feel the most inspired and grounded, and for this series especially it is an important element. I imagine in the future I will continue to gravitate towards the same type of landscape, as it is deeply connected to many of the themes that guide my work, and even new departures seem to come full circle in the end.