Nathan Benn embraced color photography before it was considered an acceptable medium for serious documentary expression; he synthesized the intentions of post-World War progressive photo-reportage with modernist aesthetics. The National Geographic Society photographic division recruited Benn, a native of South Florida, immediately upon his 1972 graduation from the University of Miami. Three hundred of his photographs were published in National Geographic Magazine and hundreds more can be found in numerous NGS books. The Shelburne Museum opened the first solo exhibition of Benn’s photographs in January 2015. His prints are in the permanent collections of the Rijksmuseum, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Chrysler Museum, Peabody Essex Museum, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Library of Congress, National Portrait Gallery, Shelburne Museum, and George Eastman House.
Benn’s assignments were equally divided between domestic and overseas projects. He typically photographed people in their authentic environment, rarely posing or manipulating the subjects. His reportage for National Geographic included the Netherlands, Dead Sea, Prague, South Korea, Scotland, Vermont, Massachusetts, Florida, Mississippi River, Finger Lakes, Dead Sea, Prague, Hasidic Jews, Jewish Diaspora, medicinal herbs, human physiology, Bible lands archaeology in the Middle East, pre-Columbian archaeology in Peru, and skyscrapers.
While revisiting his archive over the past decade, Benn discovered hundreds of unpublished pictures that vividly depict American culture and diversity. Kodachrome Memory: American Pictures 1972-1990, Benn’s monograph published in 2013 by PowerHouse Books, features over 100 photographs organized by geographic regions and affinities. American Photo magazine honored the monograph as one of the best books of the 2013. Richard Buckley, author of the book’s foreword, writes:
The seeming inconsequential subject of Benn’s photographs – which are keenly observed and evocative of a time and place – act as metaphors for American culture and values. Although much of Benn’s work was done for a magazine and not gallery walls, his use of color throughout holds its own with artists of the period such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore.
Thomas Denenberg, Director of the Shelburne Museum, writes:
Although the photographs are documentary in intent, a close look at the work also reveals elements of an almost painterly abstraction. Benn offers more than just visual information or social commentary. His emphasis on buildings and textures essentializes the photographs and invites the viewer into the frame creating a dialogue about time and place.
After nearly 20 years as a National Geographic photographer, Benn put down his cameras in 1991 to focus on nascent digital media technology; this lead to his creation of the first online digital asset management and media licensing enterprise, Picture Network International (PNI). Launched in 1993, PNI’s Internet platform and marketplace revolutionized the stock photography industry. Eastman Kodak acquired PNI in 1998. Kodak later sold the assets to Getty Images and Bill Gates.
In early 2000 Benn was recruited as Director of Magnum Photos, the renowned photographer cooperative founded in 1948 by Henri-Cartier Bresson, David Seymour, George Rodger, and Robert Capa. Under Benn’s leadership from 2000 to 2003 Magnum transitioned from an analog enterprise to a best-of-class digital platform. The cooperative also published award-wining books including RFK Funeral Train and New York September 11 by Magnum Photographers.
In 2001 Benn curated and designed the exhibition New York September 11 by Magnum Photographers, which drew a record 350,000 visitors to the New-York Historical Society. In 2003 Benn was elected Trustee at George Eastman House International Museum for Photography and Film; he was elected Trustee Emeritus in 2012. Benn lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, a fine art photographer, and teenage son. His long-term interests include world history, Old Master and Renaissance pictures, and Early American furniture.