Bravo Bruno!

Dazed Digital discovers the archive of the late fashion photographer Bruno Benini on the eve of a major exhibition about him at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.

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Born in Italy but migrated to Australia with his parents in 1935, Benini is considered as one of the most iconic fashion photographers of the mid-20th century in the land down under. Young Benini actually decided to dedicate himself to photography after he visited Italy in the late 1940s and, upon his return to Australia, he joined Peter Fox studios, occasionally working as a model for Helmut Newton, Athol Shmith and Henry Talbot. While the style of his first images, featuring glamorous models wearing beautiful haute couture gowns, calls to mind early shots by Pasquale De Antonis, as the years passed and Benini travelled to New York, London and Italy, his style changed and he began chronicling the mod years, hippy trends and the disco scene. Together with his wife, fashion publicist Hazel, Benini put together an archive that became of vital importance since it follows the developments of the Australian fashion scene, but also indirectly touched upon historical events such as the role of Melbourne’s Jewish diaspora’s in the production, design, manufacture and retailing of post-WWII Australian fashion.

The archive was acquired by the Powerhouse Museum that is presenting a major survey of Benini’s works at the exhibition “Creating the Look: Benini and Fashion Photography”, opening during the Sydney Design Festival (www.sydneydesign.com.au/2010). The event features 400 images by Benini, including Jean-Francois Lanzarone’s digital gallery which projects images and details of the photographs into mirrors, and is accompanied by a carefully researched music and voice soundtrack that includes feedback by Bruno, Hazel and Benini’s models.

“Creating the Look”, curator Anne-Marie Van de Ven highlights, will allow visitors to discover Australian and New Zealand haute couture gowns, niche labels and ready-to-wear brands, from Norma Tullo and Hall Ludlow, to Theo Haskin, Prue Acton, Sharene Creations, Sportscraft and Sportsgirl, get to know top Australian fashion models such as Maggie Tabberer, Janice Wakely and Maggi Eckardt, and discover a new generation of Australian photographers and stylists inspired by Benini.

Dazed Digital: With an archive spanning over 50 years, did it take you a long time to select the images to be included in the exhibition?
Anne-Marie Van de Ven: We secured the archive and began the process of acquiring it into the collection about 2 years ago, though the relationship with the Beninis has been in train much longer, since 1996 in fact. We’ve had less than a year to conduct detailed research, begin documenting the collection, put together the exhibition proposal, and then develop and bring the exhibition to fruition. It’s been pretty intense and a very tight turnaround. I think there are many more amazing works still buried in the archive, so perhaps we will need a Benini part II!

DD: What do you like about Benini’s style?
Anne-Marie Van de Ven: There are three particular styles of Benini’s work that I most admire: first the moody, atmospheric works where the model and fashion merge into a low contrast natural setting in which the background plays a significant function. His treatment of the textures and tones of crumbling old or peeling painted walls, water and seas reflections, clouds in the sky and foliage is really beautiful and it’s in this work that I think we really begin to find the real man behind the lens. Then there are his intimate closely cropped works like the shoe photography he and Hazel created together from the late 1960s onwards, and finally, what I refer to as his ‘white’ works where Benini restricts his palette as far as possible to white, with linear detail – almost ‘Malevichian’ if I can coin that term for Benini’s white photographs – where he captures subtle variations of white, his usual slightly asymmetrical or triangular form, and a really beautiful sense of space.

DD: The exhibition also features interviews with Benini’s collaborators, including former models Jan Stewart and Janice Wakely: which are the most funny or intriguing anecdotes about Bruno or his photoshoots that they recounted?
Anne-Marie Van de Ven: Janice Wakely told us a funny story about being in London with Bruno in 1958. For love or money she couldn’t push him into the photographic circles she was moving and working in, such as Terence Donovan, Helmut Newton, Vogue’s and so on. He was simply too anxious to get back to Italy! Jan Stewart had two interesting stories: one about Benini always listening to the opera and poetry. Apparently, she never heard any modern music in the studio, just classical music and opera, everything Italian, also the food, that was always pasta or risotto. Stewart’s story about a 1966 crane shot for Sportsgirl is particularly entertaining. Bruno, Hazel and Jan set out walking down the streets of Melbourne until they found a building site. Suddenly he went “Haa”, that in typical Bruno style meant “This is it”. They spoke to the workmen and off they went into the mud of the building site. Bruno said to Jan “Put your foot on the crane, go up a little bit”. Jan followed his directions, and Bruno started taking the photos quite low, at 6-8 feet, but then he asked the crane operator to get higher, so Jan ended hanging high, with Bruno still going “Do this, do that, stick one leg out…” and Jan asking: “How do I balance Bruno? It’s terrifying! I’m going to lose the bag…what if I fall?” That’s how this photo shoot came about!

DD: According to you, which contemporary Australian photographers and artists are at present bringing fresh perspectives into fashion photography?  
Anne-Marie Van de Ven: There are quite a few and it was really hard to select just a few ones to feature in the exhibition. In the end we chose those ones whose work was exemplary or displayed some natural connections with the Beninis. Juli Balla for example trained as an artist, like Hazel, then took up photography and is inspired by film, like the Beninis. Kane Skennar’s work is really fresh, very Australian and quite playful; Fernando Frisoni has got an edge and he’s not frightened of being different. We also have an entirely new generation of short fashion film producers – two of them were selected for this exhibition – and I think it will be really important to watch how things develop in future in this field.

DD: Will the exhibition also offer the chance to follow lectures and talks about fashion and photography?
Anne-Marie Van de Ven: There will be quite a few events, from a surrealist Benini fashion photography mash-up for teenagers, to talks by myself, photographers such as David Mist and Juli Balla, designers, stylists and historians.

“Creating the Look: Benini and Fashion Photography” is at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia, from 31st July 2010 to February 2011.

Image credits:
Collection: Powerhouse Museum. © Estate of Bruno Benini. Benini archive acquired with funding assistance from the Commonwealth Government through the National Cultural Heritage Account in 2009.

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