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james benning

James Benning

Quite some time ago – must have been 10 years, maybe 11 – I had the dubious self-appointed responsibility to let James Benning know that his lab fresh new print of El Valley Centro* screening at the Rotterdam Film Festival had already been ruined after a whole 2 projections.  I’d gone to the first one with my daughter Clara, then only 2 or so, and she’d been a bit noisy so I left.  James’ films are often pretty quiet, and ask for concentration, not children’s cries.  A day or two later I went back to see the second projection, and now, running almost smack down the middle, was a through-the-emulsion scratch through the whole film.  His films would take such a scratch even worse that a child’s cry.  I found him later in the day and let him know the bad and pressed him to get the festival to replace the print, which he did and they did.  But I also pressed him to consider shifting to DV, which I’d been using since 1996.  I thought it would be suitable visually, though I had thought for some time it was a pity he couldn’t shoot in 35mm, though that was economically utterly absurd and impossible.  But I thought 16mm was as well – spending $10,000 in lab fees for films that would never sell to anyone, and could get ruined on one showing.  Some years later on seeing 13 Lakes I genuinely thought that my Sony PD10-Pal version (native wide-screen) would look as sharp as his film did, and shooting on DV would drive the costs (excluding his travels) down to $10 or so.  And no scratches, dirt, gate wobble, or change-overs as well.  And much much better sound.

10 Skies

A year and some ago, at the JeonJu film festival here in Korea where he was presenting RR and Casting a Glance, I saw him again, and he said he’d made his last celluloid film and would be shifting to the new SONY XDcam HD camera.  I was glad to hear that he’d finally made the shift, in part for the economics, but also for the aesthetics – this camera is equal to 35mm and better, and perfect for James’ pristine type of imagery.  Naturally I was curious what this new format would do in his hands, and whether it would change things for him in some way.  While I occasionally write him, his responses are New England terse, never mind he comes from Milwaukee originally.  He told me he’d gotten the camera and shot something in Germany with it.   So I was interested to find this on the internet, with him talking about shooting with the XD in HD:

I began filming on November 3, 2008 in a wooded area adjacent to the Dusseldorf International Airport. There was no wind. It was absolutely still, not one leaf was moving. The high definition captured every tiny twig, while the 16 x 9 aspect ratio allowed for a broader field of vision (lessening the need for a wider angle lens) meaning less distortion. I found the frame and pushed the start button filling two SxS cards with one take – a 114 minute shot. During that time 40 planes landed. The frame remained absolutely still, no registration movement, no dancing grain – a bit like projected slides (if you can recall slide projectors). I wasn’t sure this stillness would be acceptable, but then a plane passed through the frame providing momentary movement. Ten seconds later a wind vortex produced by the passing plane sang through the frame and disturbed one loose branch hanging from a nearby tree. It wavered slightly, and then a bit later a roaring wind followed. The frame exploded with movement. All of the trees swayed raining down their leaves. Then the wind passed and the frame slowly returned to stillness. When the next plane landed it started all over again. Each plane brought varying amounts of movement depending on its size and distance from the camera. When I looked at the footage on my computer that night I realized I had recorded an action that would have been impossible to capture on film.

— James Benning, “Knit & Purl”, Val Verde, August 2009, Cinema Scope 40, p. 39.

13lakes0113 Lakes

Leave it to James to opt for a near two hour take (he could get 32 gig cards and run it to 4 I think), and I suspect in due time he will (especially after I tell him how to make much cheaper SxS cards than Sony offers).   Here he says his shot would have been impossible to do on film, which isn’t quite true, though one would have to make a special magazine to hold all the footage and bargain with Kodak to make a piece of film X thousands of feet long.  But of course one wouldn’t go through all that hassle.  But then my query for James regarding his shot above – even giving that it would be impossible to capture on film – is, why would you do it?  Or, assuming it wasn’t just for his amusement, would you really ask someone to sit for 2 hours to watch it?   I suspect his answer will be “yes”.      [For a glimpse to another aspect of Benning, see this.]

Well, I wait to see his first film in HD, both to see what he does with the imagery, and hear what he does with the quantum leap in sound quality.  I kinda know what he’ll do with the duration possibilities…..  Whatever he does, I hope it turns up at JeanJu this year.  I have heard a rumor (?) that it is – or something of his is – an homage to Ernie Gehr which I’d be eager to see.  Also would like to see Ernie’s work of the last, um, whatever it’s been since he shifted to DV some years back.

GehrSWSmbErnie Gehr, SideWalkShuttle

Meantime for anyone near New York City there’s still a handful of days to run down to 179 East Broadway to see Leighton Pierce’s Agency of Time at the ViolaBankGallery.  Worth a big detour.

age o timecrpd



  1. Jon, following on the Benning piece and his experience with the EX-3, here’s an interview with Ernie Gehr you may find useful. He describes working on the waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn, with his Sony SD cam.

    • I put your site on my blogroll and thanks – love the stuff you find and publish.

  2. Given that you found Matthew’s research interesting enough to re-cite here, why not pop in a link too? Fellow travelers and all that…

    Here, I’ll do it for you:


    • Thanks. There’s a zillion links I should make to lots of things but I don’t seem to have a zillion of times. Thanks for giving link.

  3. Very glad you found the passage I typed up and a use for it, Jon. Benning’s HD direction is very intriguing, but I do wish that it had emerged purely from aesthetic rather than financial concerns. No worries about hyperlinking – internet etiquette can be a tricky thing! (Thanks also, E.)

    Also, this is probably the wrong place to ask, but I’ve always wanted to see your Slow Moves – do you circulate it at all?

    • I think James’ shift wasn’t only economic, but also practical – I quit dealing with labs 13 years ago, not just because of the money, but because of the horrible job they did at their job: the labs long ago ceased wanting to do film business and they did a lousy job to discourage you from wanting it too. I think James had more than enough torture from the labs. And I would bet he’d say his XDcam3 HD is much better in all respects than 16mm film – certainly the imagery is, and the sound cannot begin to be compared.

      I’ve never been known to be very good at etiquette of any kind, alas….

      Slow Moves DVDs from me, $30 + $3 shipping. Contact me via address for further info.

  4. Yes, Pedro Costa was complaining about this at the Tate Modern retro in London recently too, especially with regard to how Kodak have ceased to produce or develop (actual) b&w stock – they’re simply not interested anymore…

    Benning talks about practicalities of film vs. digital here too:

    “As far as I know, yes. I don’t want to shoot 35mm as I don’t want to get into that kind of money. I’ve always been against spending lots of money on projects, and I sometimes think that if a lot of my films were 35mm or 70mm they might turn into a coffee-table book. There’s something about the small gauge that makes them more real for me. But now, yeah, I’m disturbed that I’m being forced out of my craft by new technologies that are developing that are getting more attention, that means there’s less attention on what I’ve been working in. And nobody’s aspiring to be a good 16mm projectionist except James Bond in Chicago, there’s nobody else who even can fix them. And the labs, they make believe they still do good work but they don’t pay attention to it at all.”

    Thanks for the info re: Slow Moves – e-mail on the way!

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