Suzanne Tswei

Local Color
Sunday, February 17, 2002


Al Benedict, left, celebrated the opening of his photography exhibit with friends Bernice Regunberg, center, and Iris Wiley.

Photographs give meaning
to objects cast aside

The best artists are opportunists. Their eyes and ears always are open to new adventures. When they see something of interest, they grab it and make something out of it.

So it is that Al Benedict almost never leaves his house without a camera. And even when he's going about his mundane daily routines, he pokes around dark corners and hidden paths for new images.

"Head Stone"

His curiosity led to many finds that culminate in his current exhibition of black-and-white photographs, "Shadows Move Among Them," on view at Gallery on the Pali through March 1.

Seeing the exhibition will take a little doing, but it will be worth the effort.

If you are familiar with Benedict's book, "Ka Iwi: Survival of a Coast," you know what the retired immunologist is capable of doing with Hawaii's landscapes. He doesn't disappoint with this show as he focuses on abandoned objects in forgotten landscapes and structures.

"Vacant Plantation House with Christmas Lights"

There are no set hours for the gallery, and it is best to call about an hour before you go. The gallery is in The First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, which is undergoing renovation. The church is open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays, and the public is welcome as long as the gallery isn't closed for renovations or private parties. The public also may visit on weekend afternoons.

The title of the exhibition came from a book that Benedict read in the early 1950s. The satirical novel has little to do with the content of Benedict's photographs, but he liked the title as a description for the abandoned objects.

'Shadows Move Among Them'

Black-and-white photographs by Al Benedict
Place: Gallery on the Pali at the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, 2500 Pali Hwy.
Time: No set hours. Call ahead to make sure the gallery is open, 595-4047.
Cost: Free

"I saw shadows in these things that people had discarded, neglected, or abandoned. They are not gone completely just yet; their shadows still lingered, waiting to disappear by natural means until they are all gone," he said.

The shadows could be of life as well as death, allowing the viewer to conjure up images of joy, sadness, love and other personal meanings, he said. The carcass of an old Honda contains the shadow of death, but the sprouting mangroves shooting through the cracks represent the shadow of life.

Whether it is an abandoned building at the former Job Corps of Hawaii at the foot of Koko Crater, or the remnants of Oahu Railway and Land Co. in Ewa, Benedict's chiaroscuro portraits of objects that humans no longer find useful give them new dignity and beauty.

"I guess I have an eye for these sort of things," Benedict said, about discovering photography after his retirement from the University of Hawaii in the mid 1990s. "I never thought I'd become a photographer, and I certainly never thought I'd have art shows."

"Passenger Coach of Oahu Railway and Land Co."

He had taken some pictures of ball games as a teenager, but those required no artistry --"just aim and shoot," he said. After he retired from the university's microbiology department, he began hiking and volunteering at the Lyon Arboretum, a university research facility. He became interested in native Hawaiian plants and took up photography to take pictures of the plants.

His new interest led him in 1998 to photograph the Ka Iwi coast, a controversial site as supporters opposed plans for residential and resort development. His photographs were exhibited and turned into a book.

But before his work on Ka Iwi, Benedict's life was taking an artistic turn thanks to a chance encounter with a kind stranger. The stranger, also a photographer, became an admirer of Benedict's work.

The stranger recommended Benedict for an exhibit at Canon Photo Gallery, and within a year of taking up photography, he had his first one-person exhibition at the gallery. Since then he has been in several exhibits, including one-person and juried shows.

"I wish I started this level of photography 30 years ago," Benedict said, adding that taking pictures has brought him joy and satisfaction. "I wasn't really looking for something to do. It just happened, and I became more involved in it."

"Abandoned Job Corps"

Benedict doesn't always work with a theme in mind. He scavenges throughout Oahu and investigates whatever comes across his path. He's hoping to mount another exhibition of pictures of people's hands reaching for food and other things in Chinatown.

"I keep saying I am an amateur, and I am not trying to be modest. All I do is shoot whatever catches my eye."

Tickets for Thursday's banquet at Kapiolani Community College honoring artists Ken Bushnell and Helen Gilbert are sold out. The two former University of Hawaii art professors are recipients of the 2002 KOA award in recognition of their lifelong pursuit of excellence and achievement in art. An exhibit featuring their artwork is on view in the college's KOA gallery. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free. Call 734-9375.

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Suzanne Tswei's art column runs Sundays in Today.
You can write her at the Star-Bulletin,
500 Ala Moana, Suite 7-210, Honolulu, HI, 96813
or email

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