Everyday Things

Lesson Plan: Everyday Things

Nellie and Her Italian Soda, Boulder
Robert Benjamin, United States
1993, printed 2009

Overview

After becoming familiar with Robert Benjamin, his approach to photography, and his photograph Nellie and Her Italian Soda, Boulder, students will create two drawings, one of an everyday activity and one of an uncommon activity.

Age Group

Early childhood (ages 3-5)

Standards

21st Century Learning Skills Addressed:

  • Critical Thinking and Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Self-Direction
  • Collaboration

2009 Colorado Academic Standards Primary Subject Addressed:
Visual Arts

  • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
  • Invent and Discover to Create
  • Relate and Connect to Transfer

Additional 2009 Colorado Academic Standards Addressed:
Language Arts

  • Oral Expression and Listening
  • Reading for All Purposes

Length of Lesson

One 35-minute lesson

Rationale

Children develop an understanding of perspective by comparing their observations of common and uncommon activities.

Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • think of a common activity at school and create an illustration of it;
  • draw a picture of an uncommon activity;
  • use language to discuss concepts and ideas about observations they make; and
  • make connections between their thoughts and how to develop them into a drawing.

Materials

  • Whiteboard or other projection tool on which to write
  • Optional: Images of everyday and uncommon activities
  • Paper and colored pencils, markers, or crayons
  • About the Art sheet on Nellie and Her Italian Soda, Boulder (found at the end of the lesson plan)
  • One color copy of Nellie and Her Italian Soda, Boulder for every three students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen

Lesson

  1. Begin with a visual observation exercise. Ask students a series of questions about the photograph. Examples: Is this a photo or a painting? How do you know? What do you see in the photo (encourage them to be specific)?  Where do you think the photo was taken? Why do you think the photographer took the photograph?
  2. After three to four minutes of observation and discussion, ask if students think this is a picture of an everyday activity or an uncommon activity. Then share information about Robert Benjamin’s practice of photographing his family in common, everyday situations. Refer to the "What Inspired It?" section of the About the Art sheet for more details.
  3. Spend time talking about how you can tell the photograph is of an everyday activity verses an uncommon activity. Give examples of things you would do every day and something you would do only occasionally. If some students think this looks like an uncommon or special activity, that’s okay, too—talk about what they see that makes them think that.
  4. Have students generate ideas of other everyday activities as well as activities that are more uncommon. Optional: Show images of other common and uncommon activities.
  5. Ask students to think of everyday activities happening at school today. Explain that they are going to take a tour of the cafeteria or another area of the school where children are participating in everyday school activities.
  6. If possible, provide students with a place to sit on the floor in one of these locations and ask them to draw an everyday activity they see. Then ask them to draw an uncommon activity. (Or they can draw an imaginary set of activities.) Provide them with drawing supplies. If it is not possible for them to sit somewhere outside of their classroom, return to the classroom to draw.
  7. After they have completed their drawings, have students share about the everyday activity and why they think it is a common activity. Then have them share about the uncommon activity. Encourage them to talk about the differences and similarities between the two.

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About the Art

Nellie and Her Italian Soda, Boulder by Robert Benjamin, United States, 1993, printed 2009

Who Made It?

Born in Chicago in 1947, Robert Benjamin lived in Paris for several years in his twenties before moving to New York City. There he was introduced to the work of photographers he admired, like Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand, and William Eggleston. He bought his first camera and started to make photographs of the subject he found most interesting and accessible—his own life. He has since lived and worked in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Sarasota, Florida; Seattle, Washington; and the Colorado Front Range. He currently lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.

With no formal training, and no academic or commercial agenda, Benjamin cherishes the freedom to function independently. “I’m just a dad with a camera,” says Benjamin. “I started photography for the same reason any artist does, but I didn’t have the same influences, I didn’t have to please anyone but myself.” Since 1970, he has photographed or worked in a darkroom processing photos nearly every day, while earning his living outside the photography field (mostly in retail sales). He has never been represented by a gallery, and has refused to participate in museum or gallery exhibitions, but he sometimes trades his prints with America’s leading artists, who consider him a peer. After decades of saying no, his friend and DAM photography curator Eric Paddock convinced him to allow the Denver Art Museum to mount his first solo exhibition, Notes from a Quiet Life, in early 2011.

What Inspired It?

Of his photographs, Benjamin says, “I wasn’t trying to achieve anything other than satisfy my own sense of beauty. I made [my photos] to satisfy something I had never seen before in other photography; I knew of no other photographer that’s photographed his family from birth to death. I was tired of seeing contrived project pictures and angst and social comments about the world ending. That’s all easy to me. To accept love and to accept mystery is not as easy.” Benjamin describes his photos as being “about four different things: they’re about love, they’re about family, and they’re a combination of color and light.”

Benjamin’s kids grew up completely comfortable with the fact that Dad always had a camera in his hand. But while Benjamin’s subjects are often members of his family, his choice of subject and moment is more about what he sees formally. Referring to this photo of his daughter Nellie, he says, “For me it’s simply a good color photo… The fact that it’s my daughter is secondary.” He goes on to say, “To me, that’s an extraordinary picture…everything about it is beautiful. And that’s why I want people to look at it. Not just her, but every edge is beautiful. Every color is just glowing…”

Benjamin is very partial to both the process he used to print his photographs and the paper on which he printed them, because of the quality of color he is able to achieve. This paper was discontinued by the manufacturer in 2009, so it is unclear whether Benjamin will ever find a way to make more prints that meet his requirements, or if he will simply discontinue printing his work. “These are called C prints…they are prints off of negatives. If you took your film to a one hour lab in the old days, it’s the same process I’m using. They look a little different because I had bigger paper, and I could make it myself. That process is now a casualty of technology, it’s pretty much gone. And it was a unique process, very beautiful. It allowed me to make the colors I want appear on paper, which I could probably not do digitally, which I could not do with slides, so it was a very intimate and very personal process…Digital cannot hold these tones, there’s no question about that. So my sense of beauty was tied into the process.”

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Things to Look For

Nellie and Her Italian Soda, Boulder by Robert Benjamin, United States, 1993, printed 2009

edges

Subject Matter

Benjamin acknowledges that to him, the most beautiful moments in life are “kind of non-events.” He says, “These pictures, to me, are a little bit like poems. To me, a poet takes what’s familiar and gives it back to you in a way that’s taught you something about what’s familiar.” His photos encourage people to see the beauty in everyday life. “I think everyone sees beauty every day, they just don’t always stop and acknowledge it. I think you have to acknowledge it.”

color

Color

The photograph is dominated by two strong, complementary colors—the striking green soda and Nellie’s red jersey—with the brightest parts meeting each other near the center of the picture. Sunlight filters through the green liquid and grazes across the red shirt. Both areas of color are topped by a band of white—the white created by the highlights at the top of the glass and the white of Nellie’s collar.

Benjamin likes saturated color, and he points out that he doesn’t print his photos to reproduce color that is chromatically accurate, but rather emotionally accurate—that is, the quality of color that feels right to him.

Color Highlights

Notice the fragments of red light on Nellie’s fingertips to the left of the glass, and the greenish reflection on the bridge of her nose. Each provides an echo of the larger red and green areas, but they don’t match; they introduce new shades of green and red into the palette.

natural light

Natural Light

Benjamin likes shooting with natural light; he doesn’t use a flash. In this picture, the backlighting from the window permeates the two clear drinking glasses and throws Nellie mostly into shadow. It also creates a halo-like effect where Nellie’s hair frames her face on the left and floats away from the back of her head like rays.

focus

Focus

Benjamin shoots most of his pictures from a distance of about 3–10 feet, and with a narrow depth of field, meaning that when he puts one part of the scene in sharp focus (in this case, Nellie’s face), almost everything closer or farther away will be blurry. Notice that the straw in Nellie’s mouth is in clear focus, but as you follow it down into the glass, it takes on the soft focus of the glass itself, which is a bit closer to the camera than Nellie’s face is.

By leaving the soda out of focus, Benjamin emphasized the color of the liquid and the soft-edged shapes of the different shades of green, rather than describing the contents of the glass

Empty Glass

Don’t miss the extreme blurring of the empty glass (probably Benjamin’s own) along the left edge, which gives the picture its foreground and creates a sense of depth.

edges

Edges

When he shoots a photo, Benjamin is very conscious of his distance from the subject and how he’s filling the frame of the photo. A picture that gets it right, for him, usually has “good edges” in terms of light and color. Speaking about this picture, he says, “I like the color that’s in the edges, besides her beautiful green soda.”


Nellie and Her Italian Soda, Boulder
Robert Benjamin, United States
1993, printed 2009

Purchased with Photography Department Funds from Cathey and Richard Finlon, 2009.776
Photograph © Robert Benjamin 1993. All Rights Reserved.

This image is intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum.
This piece may not currently be on display at the museum.