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A Caravan of Images—Karen Bentham’s Jazz Moves Her Photography

Sometime in the mid 1920s, nobody knows exactly when—and even then nobody cared—five flapper-girl dancers who could often be seen in The Cotton Club were stationed precisely to the side of a well-set central trumpeter, his finger movements restricted to pressing three piston valves. The majority of the audience were transfixed by the outcome of those finger movements pressing rapidly, yet with such care it was almost a tentative test of those valves, as if for someone exploring them for the first time. Nobody paid too much attention to the rest of him, especially not his lingering shadows cast behind the stage; for the girls however, they moved so fast it captivated the visual with their mesmerizing shapes—one dancer, Felicity, was so known for her dancing, her shadows always thrown this way or that like an ill-advised boat, she became known as the Flickering Flame.

Black and White Figure by Karen Bentham Photography
Pin-hole techniques captures the low-frequency components in the image, ignoring much body detail, forcing us to focus on form.

Woodwind and brass players cannot help but be caught by the power of their instrument’s notes, so carefully constructed, yet often stridently powerful.

A dichotomy.

Sweet enough to lure in new listeners, yet wanting enough to beg others to hear, Karen Bentham, a photographer, leverages her musical ability as a tenor saxophonist to enjoin audiences to revel in form; obscured faces complement blurred outlines, and for good reason. Like those Cotton Club dancers casting exotic shadows, twisting as if in a stop-motion animation, or of a tableau of market-sellers finding their careful feet in a desert caravan—these photos are inspired of jazz.

And so Karen Bentham goes by not her real name, but Caran Caravan.

Caran Caravan Photograph of a Stage Performer
Strange poses in Bentham’s work are akin to earlier surrealist photography, and include elements of the photography of Claude Cahun.

Caran Caravan started formal artistic life as Karen Bentham, born in Derby in 1959. She currently lives in Lytham St Annes, England on the Fylde Coast close to where she studied fine art: the famous sea-side town of Blackpool, which helped set moving her career as an independent video producer before landing employment with stock photography agency Getty Images.

Bentham won a 1998 Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society.

Putting together and editing videos for Indie music bands, it was during this time that Bentham found her unique style as an artist, playing with the effects of pinhole cameras; honing the uses of gels and various experimental dark-room techniques which import surrealist elements redolent of the work of the 1920s agender maverick Claude Cahun.

Karen Bentham Photography Robins on Finger
Surrealist elements inspired by the theatre enter Caran Caravan’s photography.

Rather than challenging contemporary mores—or born out of the Dada movement like Cahun’s—Karen Bentham’s style borrows from vintage theatre, including the traditional 35 mm format and black-and-white imagery, from which one could argue the surrealism derives.  This theatrical thematic captivates dream-like portraiture when Bentham does explore this personal avenue, producing the photo below akin to Harold Halma’s controversial 1947 photo of Truman Capote, however with the secret element of not knowing that one is being observed.

A Colour Portrait Photograph by Karen Bentham
A suggestive gaze is similar to that of Truman Capote in Harold Halma’s 1947 photo, although with an unknowing sense of the artist’s presence.

With her dark room situated within her home (a quirk of working for Getty Images), young adults feature heavily in Bentham’s collection, with children and friends included in her stock repertoire.

Her recent experiments attempt to combine deceptively simple portraits with a vintage cinematic appeal, sometimes by projecting ‘new images from negatives on the purposefully-left blank spaces on prints’; techniques which can be undertaken by digital means, although which Bentham rejects due to the clinical feel of the results.

Caran Caravan can be found on Instagram, under the handle @caran_caravan, whilst prints can be bought from Gala Fine Art, Bristol.

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