True lies 

Benjamin Lee Sperry embraces the quirks of photography in I pass by

When artist Benjamin Lee Sperry quotes William Faulkner to me with "The best fiction is far more true than any journalism," I cringe a little—you know, as a journalist. I've always wanted to brawl with Faulkner for that, but I also get the point. People often mistake fiction for something superfluous to the "real world" when, in fact, it's a mapping of the human experience that's just as valid as non-fiction, and perhaps more versatile. Sperry, a Philadelphia-based photographer, understands this idea from behind a camera—in particular from behind any one of the 30-some antique cameras that he's picked up from thrift shops.

We all know the argument by now that any photograph on a basic level is subjective, because the photographer chooses the subject and angle. But Sperry is on the more experimental end of photography: He uses analog cameras prone to oddities and, also, he manipulates the image from first click to final rendering as a silkscreen on canvas.

"I'm not Photoshopping," he says, "but I'm definitely selling the lie that the camera tells."

And by lie, he means fiction. And by fiction, he means just another truth.

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  • Benjamin Lee Sperry’s “the summer headdress,” is a silkscreen photograph from his First Friday exhibit I pass by.

Some of Sperry's silkscreen photographs will be shown in an exhibit called I pass by at The Brink Gallery in Missoula for First Friday and through the rest of February. The images have the murky black-and-white style of X-rays or ultra-sounds, but with more mystery. His piece "and let the scenery easily enter my body" could be a mutation from a Rorschach test. Maybe you see a person's head bursting through a winter river. Or a black sun rising over a nuclear holocaust. You could, for instance, see a mask in one corner and down toward the bottom of the canvas, a horned creature walking upright through a forest. That's what I see; Sperry loves to keep the interpretation up for grabs. Other pieces take less guesswork. "the summer headdress," at first glance, evokes the bones of a skeleton but you can soon see it's the liquid-like blur of someone in a striped shirt wearing a headdress, her back to the camera. Sperry tells me the story behind this one: When he and his wife Casey (a photographer with a fashion blog), lived in Oklahoma, they went to a fair and played one of the games where you snare a rubber duck from a tub of water and win a prize. They won the headdress, and Sperry shot a candid photo of Casey wearing it one evening in their house.

The antique glass screens (sometimes mylar) of Sperry's cameras create half-tone dot patterns. It's old newspaper technology, the kind where you can discern the dot patterns up close but, from far away, the optical illusion provides a fully formed photograph.

Once Sperry is ready to reproduce the image on canvas, he mixes his own ink—often blue or different shades that come close to black—and recreates the image through hand-built screens. Even if he didn't blur something in the original photo, here's another chance for him to manipulate the image: streaking the ink or blurring the formerly clear lines alter the picture even more. Sometimes he adds colored ink afterward, or draws into the image.

"Every step plays a roll in producing the final image," he says. "It's only ever my intention to use those choices to tell a better story."

Sperry, 25, studied at Harrisburg Community College in Pennsylvania. He's not against digital, he says, but he's happy he was at the program when he was. He was in one of the last classes where film was emphasized. Within three years of his graduation the whole industry changed, he says. "The ratio of tradition versus digital completely reversed."

Artists like old cameras because they add a layer of nostalgia and they aren't always consistent, which leads to some quirky outcomes. Sperry calls his cameras "substandard antique cameras." Most of them use film that's no longer available, so he modifies them to shoot 35 mm. It gives him a closer, hands-on relationship to the inner-workings of his camera—one that some photographers never learn.

"I have a lot of cameras that are literally broken," he says, "or they were already really cheap cameras of their day. People buy them now to put on shelves. I buy them to take pictures. They can be really frustrating but sometimes those ones are the most successful."

Still, Sperry says, he doesn't rely on the camera for the artistry. The camera itself doesn't take weird photographs; it's mostly that Sperry breaks the rules of camera manuals. Don't shoot into the light, manuals say. Sperry points his camera at a streetlight in the night and comes up with images he loves.

"As long as you can create a film plane and expose light to it, you can make an image," he says. "I guess it's somewhat of a romantic notion that making images in this way is more truthful or genuine.  The reality, though, is that I embrace the lies that a camera can tell at almost every step. Any manner of truth is already in the image when it's initially shot, it's only my individual slant that gets added throughout the process." 

I pass by opens at The Brink Gallery Friday, Feb. 3, with a reception from 5 to 8:30 PM. Free.

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