The ways people seek to understand the natural world are as different as their fingerprints. Some people measure: they count and weigh, calculate and graph. Others prefer to observe, expressing their responses through writing and images. Then there are people like artist Jordan Benton. His work—much of it based at UC Natural Reserves— blurs the line between measurement and observation, as he interrogates the rich spaces between science and art.
Benton is a 2023 graduate of the Art Studio MFA program at UC Davis who works primarily in photography. To date, he’s exhibited two shows featuring NRS reserves and the accouterments of science.
“The NRS has been an incredible resource that is accessible to UC students, and from my experience encourages collaboration with the humanities,” Benton says.
One of his shows, Coast in Color: Imaging Northern California Coastal Dynamics, a collaboration with a hydrologist, features riffs on scientific images of coastal areas on and around Bodega Marine Reserve. His second exhibit, Who’s To Say, at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis, resulted in the museum acquiring one of his pieces for its permanent collection.
Benton’s interest in the natural world emerged while growing up in western Kentucky. He recalls scouting the hardwood forests between the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers with his father, a bow hunter. The trips gave Benton plenty of time to take in the landscape. “As a hunter, you’re still, you’re quiet. In my opinion, that’s the best part about going hunting,” he says.
After earning his undergraduate degree, Benton decided to experience the world beyond the South. He ended up visiting 30 countries. “I wanted to extract something and hold on to something from these places. You could do that with a camera.”
Photography became his passion. A fellow arts student at UC Davis introduced him to the NRS. He soon found himself at Bodega Marine Reserve. What struck him was the juxtaposition of sweeping natural landscape punctuated by the presence of enigmatic scientific devices.
“The technology that’s there, I encounter it, and I have no idea what it is. They’re massive and appear to be placed there by aliens,” Benton says. “What’s interesting to me is the possibilities of this thing. I know someone has installed it there. Somebody is on the other side recording the data, surely for some kind of scientific purpose. But ultimately that is still prescribed by a human being that is adapting and giving input about this natural place,” Benton says.
Over the course of his MFA, Benton would go on to photograph field research technologies in situ at five more NRS sites: Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center, Quail Ridge Reserve, Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, and Kenneth S. Norris Rancho Marino Reserve.
To Benton, these lonely devices are enigmatic and thought provoking in and of themselves, regardless of their scientific purpose. “These are not some ubiquitous things ordered from a mega tech company, that we stuck on the land and all of it looks the same. Scientists sculpted these; they put them together and built them by hand. They’re beautiful to me in that way, the form of them and their monumental structure.”
He installed large prints of the resulting images in a show called COLLECTORS for the Manetti Shrem Museum. The majority depict equipment Benton encountered at NRS reserves. Viewers, however, had to guess at both the locales and the purpose of the gear.
“My idea (for COLLECTORS) is to leave the technologies and places unidentified, in an attempt to speculate on their possibilities,” he says.
While working at Bodega, Benton learned about a fellowship encouraging doctoral students at the marine lab to work on interdisciplinary projects. With the help of Bodega Marine Reserve research coordinator Jacqueline Sones, Benton got connected with UC Davis hydrologic sciences PhD candidate William Speiser. To understand coastal processes such as sediment deposition, Speiser uses computer algorithms to interpolate new data from satellite images. The two grad students’ proposal landed them a Russell J. and Dorothy S. Bilinski Fellowship.
Their fellowship project was a synthesis of Benton’s work in photography and Speiser’s equally visual work on coastal dynamics. Benton points to their treatment of a photograph he took at the Russian River estuary as a prime example. “In the same way Will would take a satellite image and use color to determine geophysical elements, we thought, let’s try that with one of my photographs. The algorithms applied more of this color that was relaying certain geophysical parts of the image,” Benton says.
The collaborators mounted their Coast in Color exhibition this past summer in the south wing courtyard of Bodega Marine Lab. Their site-specific installation suspended seven large UV pigment prints on acrylic in the outdoor courtyard. In many cases, they paired one image altered by Spieser with a another image by Benton of a nearby place or posed an interesting contrast.
For his part, Benton came away with a new appreciation for working with researchers. “What I love about working with scientists is it’s not so mathematic as you might think. They’re creating their own ways of making research. This philosophy of creating or seeing nature as it is at the reserves is so similar to the way that I and other artists think,” he says.