Painter, photographer, and poet Susan Benay lived in La Quinta from 1988 to 1999. She owned and operated an art gallery in Palm Desert, served as arts commissioner for La Quinta and Indio, belonged to a Palm Springs Art Museum council, and produced a local TV show interviewing artists and arts advocates.
In 2000, Benay moved to Honolulu, where she owns and operates Colors of Hawaii Fine Arts. Her images appear in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and books, including Hawaiian Fine Art Photography; and her prints are widely exhibited and sold in galleries, resorts, and luxury retail establishments on all the Hawaiian Islands and in Japan and the continental United States.
When Barack Obama traveled to his home state of Hawaii, Benay had the opportunity to photograph the senator who became the 44th president. This month, Exposure Gallery in Palm Springs premieres the first exhibition of Benay’s photographs of Obama outside of Hawaii. Opening later this month, three concurrent exhibitions take place in Obama City, Japan.
“Some of my very favorite photographs … are close-ups of his hands. When he speaks, he uses them constantly,” Susan Benay says.
My curiosity about how the raw intensity of the Hawaiian sun plays out visually upon form and atmosphere and what that blazing light reveals drew me toward the seed concept of an art show. I was contemplating creative venues to explore this idea when presidential candidate Barack Obama arrived in Hawaii in August 2008 for a rally and a well-deserved vacation.
I had a longstanding enthusiastic interest in Obama, so I went to Keehi Lagoon on Oahu to hear him speak. I thought I would take photographs from which I could later create paintings. The summer day was ablaze with bright sunlight and blue sky. Thanks to the aloha spirit of friends, a front-row seat was saved for me. When Obama arrived, the crowd exploded with an electric snap of energy and wild cheers.
As he began to speak, I looked carefully at him and began taking photographs. As my lens zoomed in, I noticed in detail the powerful effect that the tropical sunlight had not only on the sculptural aesthetics of his physical presence, but also in defining a pure expression of his inner state of being. It struck me that the play of equatorial light and shadow illuminated him in a way that revealed an intimate glimpse of who he was. Every movement he made, every word he spoke was underscored, amplified, and clarified by the vivid sharpness of the hot light and cool shadow. The noonday brilliance made him seem to me at once young and idealistic, as well as ancient, wise, and mythological — a transcendent icon of humanity and a living work of art.
Many consider Obama exotic and mysterious, perhaps because of his Hawaiian origins. I think that the very Hawaiian sun under which this native son was raised highlighted a strikingly clearer picture of him. The way the sun washed over him created a beautiful dimension of form and chiseled definition of soul that revealed much of the nature, depth, character, and humanity of the man. The camera offered a perfect medium to capture an image that could reveal an underlying reality or “truth” that the eye might miss. Through the photographic image, one could continue unwrapping new layers of awareness that would expand and enrich their understanding of the subject.
In December, Obama — this time as president-elect — returned to Oahu to vacation for the holidays. This time, he came to the scenic beach town of Kailua where I live. He and his family stayed right across from me. It was fun and fascinating to see the goings on in our neighborhood with our famous guests. Due to my fortunate proximity to our new president, I was able to more deeply explore through image and observation some expanded scenarios of the artistry of his presence under the brilliant light of Hawaii.
I met Obama briefly. As he took my hand, he greeted me with the most warmhearted smile. We spoke for just a few moments, and my strongest impression was of how absolutely genuine he was and the greatness of his heart. I could feel he had a very real compassion for people and cared deeply.
The kindness of his touch drew my attention down to our hands. He shook my hand four times. I found myself looking closely at his hands, almost as an artist studies the shape, light, gesture, movement, uniqueness, and expression of the one they are painting. It struck me that the way he moved his hands was graceful, beautiful, and fluid, like an inspired dancer expressing the rich subtlety of the moment.
The photographs here and on exhibition at Exposure Gallery this month offer an intimate experience of Obama as defined and clarified by the pure splendor of the Hawaiian sun and by the parameters of my creative perception and artistic effort. They speak of a few cherished moments that are rare and historic in context of the man, the time, and the place.
THE OBAMA PHOTOGRAPHIC EXHIBITION RUNS JUNE 4-30 AT EXPOSURE GALLERY IN THE CORRIDOR, 515 N. PALM CANYON DR., PALM SPRINGS. (760) 861-3814. AN OPENING RECEPTION WILL BE HELD 6-8 P.M. JUNE 5.