She had only minutes to get each shot.
The way Linda Benedict-Jones remembers it, she would set up her camera in whatever empty hallway or classroom she was able to find at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where she was taking portraits of high school students in 1981 for her graduate thesis project at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She prepared her large-format camera — the kind that would produce 4-by-5-inch negatives capturing every sweater pill and misplaced strand of hair — and she waited.
“And then the bell would ring,” said Benedict-Jones, now 73 and living in Pittsburgh. “Some were in a hurry, they were on their way. Others would look at me, and I’d say, ‘Could I take your photograph?’”
Now, eight of the resulting 36 portraits from her “CRLS” collection will be on display at Harvard Art Museums, which reopens Sept. 4. The collection was inspired by the work of August Sander, who photographed German civilians prior to World War II.
“I thought of Cambridge Rindge and Latin as a kind of microcosm of society,” Benedict-Jones said during a recent phone call. “I figured, there are probably kids in this school who are the sons and daughters of Harvard professors, and there are probably kids in this school who are recent immigrants.”
The range of students Benedict-Jones captured in her 20 or so visits to the school is striking. In one, two girls stand side by side in front of of a chalkboard covered in Portuguese writing. One of them sports an unzipped jacket and a sweater; the other, a three-piece suit and a coiffed bob. In another, a boy stands confidently, hands in pockets, half of his mouth curling upward in a grin. These students would now be in their 50s.
“There’s something about being in high school,” said Benedict-Jones. “There’s something classic about that time in our lives. We’re not yet adults, and we’re not children anymore. We’re in between. We’re on our way. We’re aiming for something. And I really believe that you see that in the expressions and in the postures.”
Benedict-Jones did not record the students’ names. Nor did she pose any subjects or ask them to smile.
“The only thing I asked them was to look into the lens of the camera,” she recalled. “When you look at them now, all of those people, they’re looking straight at you.”
The type of photography she did, with a view camera, was onerous and antiquated even then. “It was really slow photography,” Benedict-Jones said, but she didn’t want to lose a single detail.
“High school students pay a lot of attention to the way they look when they go to school,” Benedict-Jones said. “They might pay attention to wanting to look like they don’t pay attention, but they pay attention to that, too.”
After graduating from MIT with a master’s degree in visual studies in 1982, Benedict-Jones got a job at Polaroid and became a curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh before retiring in 2015. For nearly 40 years, the portraits she made sat in an archival storage box in her home office closet.
A few years ago, while going through some of her old work, “I said, ‘OK, now it’s time for me to go back to those boxes, open them up, and see what there is,’” she recalled.
Soon after, she reached out to Harvard Art Museums — just blocks away from Rindge and Latin — to inquire about the portraits being put on display.
“I was immediately interested because we don’t really have anything like that,” said Makeda Best, curator of photography at Harvard Art Museums, which acquired the full set of portraits in 2019. “We do a lot of partnerships with the school, so it seemed the perfect opportunity to actually have something that represented this school on our walls and in our collection.”
The photos, which depict a diverse group of students, were taken just years after the 1977 merge of the Rindge Technical School and the Cambridge Latin high school, coinciding with a “new moment in Cambridge,” Best said.
“I like for my work to be in dialogue with this community, as well as with the broader photography world,” said Best. “I want this community to see themselves on the wall of the Harvard Art Museums.”
On a micro level, Best said, she was compelled by the unvarnished intimacy of the photos.
“They depict young people coming into themselves and becoming people, and I thought, ‘Who doesn’t love that story?’” Best said. “She connected with them. It’s fascinating that she connected with them so quickly.”
And there is hope to connect with these students yet again. After talking with Best about the collection in mid-August, Archy LaSalle, who worked at Rindge and Latin from 1993 until last year as a photography teacher, is leading the charge to identify these students.
“It would be absolutely wonderful if we were able to get all the names of the kids,” said LaSalle, who founded Where Are All The Black People At, a project that works to improve representation of Black artists in permanent museum collections. “They captured that person at that point in time in their life, their pure energy, who they are.”
LaSalle said he has identified a number of students, one of whom, Maria DiClemente, is now the dean of students at Rindge and Latin. He pored over some of the school’s yearbooks from the ‘80s to no avail, instead depending on his memory of the students from basketball courts, theater productions, and the neighborhood to fill out other names. In some cases, he got an assist from his own children, now grown but who attended the school when they were younger, as well as other staff members at Rindge and Latin.
Benedict-Jones said she is thrilled with LaSalle’s sleuthing.
“I always wondered what happened to them,” she said of the students. “I hope they get a chance to see [the portraits]. I hope they find them. I hope they like them. I hope they’re not mad at me for not combing their hair differently.”
The current set of eight portraits will be on view until the spring of 2022, with plans to hang another eight after that. Benedict-Jones’s ultimate objective with the collection, however, has been fulfilled.
“My number one goal was to get these prints out of my house and into a permanent collection where they would be taken care of for posterity,” she said. “I think they’re beautiful, and I think they’re important — in a small way.”
Dana Gerber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org