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Angier History Project
Waban’s Benjamin Korsh: Breaking New Ground in Photography
While Preserving Angier History
Benjamin Korsh, 19, a student at UMASS/Boston, moved to Waban at age 2. He attended Newton schools, graduating from Newton South in 2012. His time at Angier School made a lasting impression on Korsh, who two years ago conceived the idea of creating large-scale artistic photographs of Angier classrooms before the school building is torn down this spring. With the permission of Angier principal Loreta Lamberti, after the students and teachers leave at night, Korsh painstakingly removes and rearranges objects in the schoolroom before he is content to take the photograph, spending 15 to 20 hours or more on each photograph. He also plays a pivotal role on the Preserving Angier History project, capturing the school’s interior space in a series of documentary photos and video.
Photo:Ellen Sargent Korsh Photography
Tell us about your project.
It’s a little complicated [laughs]. I chose [to photograph] a number of iconic rooms in the school. By “iconic” I mean rooms that you think of when you think of an elementary school in general and also rooms that are particular to Angier, such as the library, the gym. On each floor I’m photographing a room. Over the course of a year I created a process, which I use to photograph each room. First I choose a single wall. This wall, along with the immovable objects of the room, determines the exact placement of the [Nikon D800] camera. The camera is always parallel on three axes to the wall. For example, in the library, the columns on either side of the stage are five pixels away from the left and right edges of the photograph, the bottom of the stage is two-fifths from the bottom of the photograph (if I can remember), and the bottom side of the left strip light (they hang from the drop ceiling so they are not perfectly aligned) runs through the top left corner of the photograph.
After the camera placement is determined, I recompose everything movable under the same guidelines I used above for the camera: the immovable objects determine the movable objects. I moved everything in the library away -- the books, the shelves, the classroom on the stage. I took everything off the walls. I only wanted one object in the shot, the rug. I worked on this photograph for three weeks, trying to figure out where I wanted to put the rug. I only wanted two visible decisions in the shot -- the lights I left on (only the stage) and the placement of the rug. It’s not any old rug. It has presence that is more unique than one of the bookshelves, let’s say. The rug is what I remember of that experience, sitting on that rug as a kid.
Anything between the camera and that will hug the architecture and be parallel. It determines the placement on a compositional level. I make it as perfect as I can. The camera is always parallel on three axes to the wall. In the library, I centered on the stage. The columns on either side were the same distance away from the left and right edges of the photograph [see Korsh’s Angier Library photograph with this article].
The reason I developed this process is that I go to the school at night and I have to put everything back when before I leave. I have to be able to set it up and break it down in five hours’ time. I need to be able to work on the same photograph over and over till it is done.
What is all of this precision and perfection about?
It’s part of who I am. I was always drawing when I was very, very young. I was too much of a perfectionist. I couldn’t go outside the lines. There isn’t that much of that stuff left, I tore it all up. Now I make my own lines. My approach seems really rigid and it is, but it’s always growing and changing. It’s not that my lines can’t move, I am just always conscious of where they are.
The images are built for multiple audiences. People who went to Angier. People who went to elementary school in general, the photography community, and a specific part of the photography community, people who are interested in this type of photograph.
My camera [the Nikon D800] is the largest 35mm format sensor. It makes really big images. It’s really measured down 0-5 pixels, that precise. There are 36,000 pixels in each photograph. 36 megapixels. The images will be 300 pixels per inch, it will 18” x 24” on a larger piece of paper.
I worked for a year and then ditched everything. I only have one photograph from that time, close to a year. It’s of the old nurse’s office. It’s not as accurate as the good ones. It’s not repeatable. I love it so much that I’m just going to keep it. I use my camera and my computer as one object. I can zoom in on an object on screen on my computer. I use the auto correct, the lens distortion correction in Photoshop, which was controversial to me at the time. But I will prove its legitimacy right here. I’m using the camera and the computer as a single object.
The precision is just who I am. This work really came about from me trying to justify my photographs’ existence, making sure they are as impeccable as possible. Because I have the time and the ability and the equipment and the computer and my tripod, I am pretty much totally beyond my tripod’s capabilities. That’s why I have to go there. Because I can.
I can number [the decisions I made when taking a photograph] and tell you what I did and how I did it. Even if someone doesn’t like the way it looks, it’s as impenetrable as possible. I’m obsessed with composition but it’s not the aesthetic that I am interested in, it’s the relationship one object has formally to another object. Those relationships are interesting to me.
One of the reasons why I move everything. You look at the library and it’s not the library is because I don’t want to take photographs based on the emotions and concepts tied up with the objects in the picture. It’s hard to avoid and probably impossible to avoid. But I don’t want to manipulate people in that way. Maybe an object didn’t get into the shot that was really important to the function of the room. But that doesn’t mean the photograph is false. It’s the way the picture is made, not the way it looks.
How did the project begin?
I heard the school was coming down. At that time my senior year in high school was ending. I had just become a photographer. I emailed [Angier principal Loreta Lamberti] and we went back and forth. I started applying what I learned to Angier.
I loved Angier then but not like I do now. After working with it for two years, I don’t know what I will do when it’s not there. I can’t even think about it. But I don’t want that to get in the way of the pictures. I go there at least twice a week and put in four or five hours each time I go. I probably have been everywhere in the building except the roof, which I will do.
Watch for an exhibition of Benjamin Korsh’s art photographs of Angier School in Fall 2014 at the Waban Library Center. In the meantime, please click on the “Donate” link on the Waban Improvement Society home page to help sponsor Korsh’s work and the Preserving Angier History project.–Lauren Gibbons Paul