I first met Benita Raphan at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where we were both studying graphic design in the precomputer Stone Age. She was an iconoclast even back in the early 1980s—the first person I knew who had her nose pierced. And she had a cool name.
Raphan was operating on a different plane than the rest of us, and she was the only one to head off to grad school—in London, no less. She worked in Paris for several years after that, while the rest of us rode the subway and lived with our parents or shared small apartments in dangerous locations.
Raphan and I hooked up again when she returned from Paris, VHS tapes in hand, hoping to show the films she’d been working on while abroad. One was “The Immediate Subject ”(1986), a tribute to her mentor, the graphic designer Andrzej Klimowski. The other was “Without/Without” (1989), a documentary about a Parisian friend of hers who lived in his inherited childhood weekend home in Macon, Bourgoyne. Both films were kind of amazing.
“When I studied graphic design in college, many of my heroes were photographers, in addition to our teachers Carin Goldberg and Paula Scher,” Raphan says. “I was also able to meet Tony Schwartz, a peer of Marshall McLuhan, who really understood sound and how it would appeal to the masses at a time when no one was thinking in this way. He would take his Nagra out into the street and record sounds, such as children’s songs and kids playing. That really appealed to me early on. He was essentially making movies with sound, minus the visuals. Schwartz discovered that when you have the right emotional associations, you can make profound connections with audiences.
“When I was in graduate school at the Royal College of Art, I was introduced to an entire new world of people who made films with graphic statements, including Chris Marker and the Brothers Quay. This changed my view on everything.”
Raphan received an award from the British Arts Council for her thesis film and suddenly did not want to do only graphic design. “I wanted to tell entire stories with images,” she says. “I have been working in that way for the past 25 years. It is my dream. My films are all documentaries to me—just ways of re-visualizing the lives of others through oral history, from people who knew the various subjects.”
Raphan’s Emily Dickinson project is part of an ongoing series of films that attempt to reconnect the past with the present through the poetic exploration and treatment of an important cultural figure. It follows other award-winning films, including “Two Plus Two,” “Absence Stronger Than Presence,” and “The Critical Path.”
“Since 1986, I have directed and produced a body of short experimental films, using the form of a cinematic diary to examine eccentric and unusual inner lives,” Raphan says. “I have always believed that an idea from a singular inception, sometimes even on the most intimate level, can grow over time to touch the world. I am interested in revisiting a life or a career from the very start, from the beginning; the basic concept as initial thought, as an impulse, as an ineffable compulsion, an intuition; to reframe and reinvent an action as simple as one pair of hands touching pencil to paper.”
Raphan continues, “The subject of my upcoming 20-minute short film is the uniquely singular inner life of Emily Dickinson, the prolific oeuvre that she created in her lifetime, and the impact her work had after her death. Dickinson spent the greater part of her life as an invalid in near isolation, dressing only in white and seeing few people outside of her immediate family. She communicated almost entirely by correspondence, using her poems as a sole means of connecting with others. My inspiration for this film is the voice (and the power) that the words of her poems have had and continue to have, many years after her death.”
Raphan is also at work on “Pete the Dog,” a film about her own life. “It’s a true story about living in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world and going broke on a wonderful ASPCA dog that is afraid of people and sounds,” she says. “I thought that I was going to have a happy-go-lucky jogging partner. Little did I realize I was adopting the greatest companion an artist could have—except for the people-and sound-deal. I want to use the film to help raise awareness of canine behavioral issues, knowing that this is a growing problem worldwide.”
“The Wilde Ones,” Raphan’s 2009 tribute to Richard Wilde, one of her first mentors, on his 40th anniversary at the School of Visual Arts, was included in his exhibition, The Wilde Years: Four Decades of Shaping Visual Culture,” and appeared on he Sundance Channel. Raphan also created “From Dark to Light”—which documents the life of the American painter and artist Marshall Arisman in under two minutes—and a short documentary on the noted graphic designer Carin Goldberg.