GLOUCESTER — In 1978, National Geographic magazine sent Nathan Benn on assignment to the North Shore. He photographed Gloucester, Marblehead, Rockport, Essex, Beverly, Salem, Wenham, Newbury, Newburyport, Peabody, Rowley, Salisbury, Hamilton, Ipswich — and those are just the places seen in the 39 color images that make up “Kodachrome Memory: Nathan Benn’s North Shore, 1978.”
The show runs through Feb. 19 at the Cape Ann Museum.
Benn didn’t lollygag. Between June and October, he exposed 286 rolls of film. His approach was as varied formally and socially as geographically. The photographs include landscapes, portraits, aerial photography, interiors, seascapes. Subjects range from the Myopia Hunt Club to Gloucester’s Saint Peter’s Fiesta. Benn introduces us to a clammer, a book publisher (who turns up as a groom in another photo), sculptors, a painter, an equestrian, yachtsmen, fishermen, tanners, and a wheelmaker.
There’s a very pleasing sense of fullness here. National Geographic subscribers got their money’s worth with the April 1979 issue, when Benn’s photographs ran.
His job was to convey a sense of place. That he did. The passage of nearly four decades means Benn’s photographs can no less vividly convey a sense of time. Check out the boat-big powder-blue sedan in the Rockport Fourth of July parade. Or at the fiesta, a guy using gasoline to remove grease from his arm. If that were a year later, you can bet it would have been some other method, the second oil shock having intervened.
“Kodachrome Memory” has real personality. Benn’s skill accounts for most of that, though not all. It also owes something to the presence of several well-known North Shore personalities of the time. One of them remains a well-known North Shore personality: Salem witch Laurie Cabot. Others include the artists Emile Gruppé and Katherine Lane Weems; Lewis Kilborn, the so-called “Hermit of Grape Island”; and Simon Geller.
From 1964 to 1988, Geller operated a one-man radio station in Gloucester, WVCA-FM. The call letters stand for “voice of Cape Ann.” The station played classical music. Once heard, the cranky static of Geller’s voice was not soon forgotten. Benn manages to find a visual equivalent with his portrait of Geller in the studio. In another photograph, Captain Santo Militello, of the fishing dragger Maureen, offers a no-less formidable scowl.
It’s a mark of Benn’s versatility that he’s just as capable — maybe even better — when there’s no face to be seen. The handsomeness of the Pride’s Crossing commuter-rail depot is underscored by Benn’s presenting it just slightly off-center. “Marblehead Doorway” shows a Federalist or Greek Revival house; you can’t tell since Benn has so elegantly cropped the façade with his framing. The resulting image has a bravura simplicity, right down to a bouquet of pinkish-red flowers relieving the whiteness of wall, door, and shutters.
Marblehead would seem to have brought out the best in Benn. Certainly it inspires the show’s wittiest title. “Blueberry Pancakes, Marblehead” consists of a blue-stained knife resting on a plate empty but for a few crumbs. The absence looks delicious. Is it all right to order seconds?
KODACHROME MEMORY: Nathan Benn’s North Shore, 1978
At Cape Ann Museum, Pleasant St., Gloucester, through Feb. 19. 978-283-0455, www.capeannmuseum.orgMark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.