One of the pioneers of the digital revolution, Jeffery Becton is a visual artist who has lived and maintained a studio in Deer Isle Maine since 1977. He received formal training at the Yale School of Art earning an MFA in graphic design in 1976.
Although he received his degree almost a decade before the arrival of the first personal computers employing a graphic user interface, Becton had already had use of an early software application for formatting type digitally on the mainframe computer in Yale's computer science lab. It was an experience that primed him to welcome the new digital tools which became available in the mid 1980s.
As a full time resident of Maine, Becton is a member of a family with roots there since the 1700s. As an islander, Becton is especially drawn to the ocean, finding meaning and inspiration in its challenging and mercurial presence, the embodiment of the beauty and harshness of life and proximity of death. With material drawn from his natural surroundings, local homes, and personal imagery, Becton also draws from a vast collection of his ongoing photography to create his compositions. The resulting images exist as a medium somewhere between photography, collage, and painting that he refers to as digital montage. He prints all his work himself in his studio.
Since 1990 I have worked in the medium of digital montage — Combining primarily elements of photography as well as painting, drawing, and scanned materials, the techniques I use foster and give form to intriguing ambiguities, reexamining the boundaries of mixed media and creating altered realities that merge into images rich in symbolism both personal and archetypal. It is not my intention to school the viewer or place before them a fully resolved work that is clear in message, but rather to invite or draw them into an emotional connection, a recognition and unfolding of their own inner experience and understanding. Something akin to finding a unique feeling or emotion that is truly their own. That is the completion of the work.
Rooms at the Edge
A diffuse, bleaching light illuminates Jeffery Becton’s images of rooms. They are two-dimensional dioramas, perched on the edge somewhere between land and ocean. You can almost smell the salty wind through the open doors. These are dream interiors promising peace and refuge, places out of time.
But look again. The incoming tide floods the living room floor. Through the window—and, strangely, also through the house’s translucent walls—you can see what’s outside: the hazy horizon and the islands in the bay. Where there should be a porch, there’s ledge; the back door that lets in the breeze lets the surf roll in, too. Under a night table, a row of rocks is arranged like slippers. These images are serene and treacherous.
They are photographs, and they are not. Despite knowing better, we want to believe what we see in them. Becton’s seductive sense of control—he is, at heart, a formalist—encourages credulity, even though it is clear that what we are looking at is a photographic hallucination. Becton’s works are meditations on ambivalence: digital montages, beautiful and unsettling mashups, altered realities.
A surface of rational calm, like a still, perfect day before a storm, overlays the allure of imagination. It is not quite a surface, though. Walls, floors, and ceilings
open to the elements—and to the imagination. They provide a framework but no shelter; they are lit with the clarity of memory. What we see depends on what we bring to the act of seeing: what memories, what desires, what emotions. Becton is really exploring our own permeability. It becomes hard to distinguish between what is an actual photograph and what is manipulated. Sometimes the surf crashing at a doorstep is a photograph of a painting of the ocean (a sly way to ask questions of the nature of representation). The fantastic accretion of barnacles and rust and eroded paint on the red hull of a beached buoy tender seems invented. Its intricate pattern suggests Chinese silk, as if Becton has added his own embellishments to the surface, tempting us to make out a hidden landscape in the hide of the derelict boat. The curve of the stern makes the hull read as two-dimensional, an opulent curtain tied back with a rope of seaweed and mussels, revealing a view of the shoreline.
In his earlier work, a threshold could halt the incoming tide; now the water rises above the wainscoting, flooding the house. Paint peels, shelves have been emptied and rooms abandoned—or liberated from the constraints of the physical world. In another image, it looks as if Becton has carved a mouth into the arc of that buoy tender’s hull, turning it into a man-made monster devouring the peaceful painted coastline.
While he retains his framework, his rooms and mantels, they are growing less substantial, yielding weight and reality to invading waves and clouds. Human endeavor— the need to organize, to contain—is yielding to the possibilities of chaos.
Becton is showing us that order is fleeting. Boundaries erode. A dream house contains within its luminous walls the calm sky and lapping water—and the seductive potential for flooding, for disaster. Beauty and terror are of a piece, inseparable.
–– Deborah Weisgall
It isn’t what you do / It’s the way how you do it / It ain’t what you eat / It’s the way how you treat it. —“Little Richard” Penniman
Many more people than I have wondered whether photography hasn’t—in a phrase that seems appropriate in regard to an artist living and working in Maine—swum away from the dock. The medium used to offer a kind of guarantee that, no matter how much fiddling the artist did during the exposure, cropping, and printing, a core of physical and narrative truth always remained. That is, some configuration of the material world had once stood in front of the camera’s lens and caused light to fall upon the film in a certain way and acted, in the pioneer nineteenth-century photographer William Fox Talbot’s words, as “the pencil of nature.”
Digitalization changed all that. In photography, a digitalized image, which is recorded in a finite, albeit huge, number of pixels on an electronically sensitive grid, meant images could not only be endlessly manipulated, but recomposed—sautéed, stewed, stir-fried or blenderized—from pre-existing images stored in a computer. Photography could be, in other words, almost completely fiction.
The obvious and irresistible temptation for some photographers has been to dive right into the exoticism digital manipulation offers: science-fiction-like spectacle, exaggerated architectural and sociological ennui, and mysteriously melodramatic Hollywood-movie-like scenes. Subtle sensitivity and a sense of natural grace have been in short supply. Not so, however, in the photographic works of Jeffery Becton.
Becton, a cautiously articulate man whose undergraduate degree was in history, is severely self-critical in pictorial matters. He has a master of fine arts degree from Yale’s rather unforgiving graphic design program, where he was taught by the likes of Alvin Eisenman and Paul Rand. “It was very difficult,” Becton says, “because the only thing that came naturally to me was photography. . . . My thesis was a boxed set of portrait photographs. I probably got away with something.” But Becton’s broadly civilizing background in history, his boot-camp experience in graphic design, and his affinity for photography as a medium enable him to combine in his art a traditional adroitness in handling a camera (he takes his own source photographs), a skeptical respect for the power of the computer, and a deeply lived appreciation of the Maine landscape, both natural and man-made.
In 1976, Becton bought a very scenic property on French Camp Road on Deer Isle, and moved in two years later. At the time, he was shooting with both black-and-white and color film—doing a lot of portraits, and getting what audience and critical response he could by entering local and regional competitions. When the first commercial versions of the digital-photography program Photoshop became available around 1990, Becton began using them. He thereupon embarked on a twenty-five-year-project that he matter-of-factly calls “digital montage.”
In his studio, where the tools are clean but the space cluttered, Becton proceeds in much the way he always has. “It takes almost nothing to interrupt your productivity,” he says, “and I’m at a point where I am loath to change anything technical unless I’m convinced it will increase my creativity.” Becton uses a large, flat-screen monitor to “feel” his way into a picture. He has no preconceived idea of where he’s going, no formalist philosophy of composing and editing, and no conscious iconographic code.
On that last point hangs, perhaps, the lyrical solidity of Becton’s work. He’s of his time and place—his pictures exude “Maine” as much as any Marsden Hartley painting of Mount Katahdin—but is not bound by them.
Home and Away (2014) is a good example. It’s one of Becton’s most stunning and complex characteristically horizontal images, comprising a flopped iteration of another Becton photograph, Icebreaker (2014), in an antique gold frame on a weathered wall. Below, on a shelf, sits a cropped silver teapot and maybe sixty percent of an octagonal Wedgwood plate with Chinese imagery. The composition—the jutting picture frame, the insurgent teapot, the escaping plate—is rigorous to the point of severity. But the blunt architecture of the arrangement is mitigated both by the visual cohesion of the weathered wall as background, and the interplay of strangely contrasting content.
The wall is actually the surface of a rusting ship’s hull, which alludes to the distressed craft in the framed photograph-within-the-photograph, and, like the tea-service items and plate, carries an aura of the past. In Becton’s work, however, this quality isn’t simple nostalgia—there’s no sepia longing for The Way Things Were—but rather a poetic affirmation of the photograph as memory: Once the shutter is snapped, once the images are digitally melded, altered and adjusted, once the work of art is electronically finished and the print is printed, their causes fade into the past.
Except that in Becton’s work, they don’t, entirely. Geoff Dyer, in his insightful 2005 book on photography, The Ongoing Moment, says that there is “a strange rule in photography, namely that we never see the last of anyone or anything.” With traditional single,unaltered images, the truth of that rule lies in the fact that the depicted people, landscapes, and artifacts stick around at least a little longer after the camera’s shutter has clicked. In Becton’s photographs, they return as dreams—somewhat gauzy, often (but not always) lighter-toned, but (and this is the supreme virtue of Becton’s art) a psychologically much more resonant recombinant reality.
Some might say “surreality,” as in Salvador Dalí’s famous description of his pictures as “hand painted dream photographs.” Becton flips this, by making what could be called “hand photographed dream paintings.” This distances his work from the lower levels of Surrealism that depend on weirdness, and elevates it to a level of pictorial beauty that’s both locally grounded (there’s nowhere else Becton’s source material could have come from than the Maine he loves) and near-universally appreciable.
Finally, for the output of an artist who’s quietly but intensely most at home in Maine and on Deer Isle, and who dislikes travel and major metropolitan art centers, Becton’s photography is remarkably visually conversant with the work of other artists, particularly well-known photographers also working in large-format, digitally altered images. More to the point, he is also artistically at home on Deer Isle, paying almost sole attention to making his own pictorial ideas and aesthetic sensibilities find eloquent expression.
That the larger art world is late in paying close attention to Becton’s work is at least in part due to the fact that Becton has none of the bombast and sensationalism that is practically de rigueur for our artistic era. Yet Jeffery Becton is a major artist. Relying on a traditional and exquisite sense of craft in the relatively untraditional medium of digital photography, his vision subtly opens us up to a new and different experience—one where the real and the beautifully imagined merge into one.
–– Peter Plagens