I'm going to send you off to look at two different portfolios, one of which I think works and one which I think doesn't. Then, I'll discuss!
The first is here. Jeffrey is a fellow I kind of "know", we've exchanged a lot of email, collaborated on one or two little projects. I admire his work greatly, and I like him personally. In addition, he's said things to me about this work. All of this is going to color and shape my commentary to a degree. There's no helping that.
Please concentrate on the black&white suburban nighttime photographs, as these are the ones I am talking about. Jeffrey honored me once in the past by sending me a selected set of these specific photographs, and so to me that is his "important work" although of course it's just the material I saw first.
The second portfolio is over here. Irritatingly, I don't seem to be able to link directly to the portfolio, so find the two pictures with the white square in the middle, and the identifying text "Alternatives Landscapes" and "Alternatives Landscapes II" because, again, this is the work I am interested in comparing to Jeffrey's. I don't know Benoit from Adam, and have not exchanged a word with him, ever.
I like to compare things like this. The one that "works" shows me why the other one doesn't, and vice versa.
First, similarities. Each is a set of basically dark pictures with a prominent strong light, a man-made light, which casts shadows, illuminates, and generates a strongly visual element. Superficially, they look quite similar, in fact. Neither body of work seems to present a strong position. We're not seeing starving orphans here, or open-pit mines, or a purely sublime view of a mountain. The subjects cluster in the general area of banal, in fact. Some very much banal, others of mild interest, but nothing leaps out and grabs us by the throat. That, by itself, is in no way a negative as far as I am concerned.
Looking closer, we see that Jeffrey is showing us similar subjects over and over. The light sources move around and change character (sometimes it's a lit doorway, sometimes an exterior light, and so on). The actual houses change, but the general type does not. It's not quite a typology in the strictest sense, it's a little too variable and Jeffrey favors a more dynamic angle of view than a straight-on foursquare presentation. But, elements of typology are present. It seems to me that Jeffrey's pictures definitely take no particular position, there is no obvious statement of politics, ecology, sociology, or anything of that sort here. The only overt, deliberate, statement of which I am sure is that the photographer thought there was something interesting here.
Looking at just one of these pictures, by itself, I suspect you'd be left cold and simply wander off. They're not traditionally "pretty", although they are graphically appealing. Being presented with a bunch of them, we're asked, implicitly, to reconsider, to try to grasp what the photographer saw here. Clearly this is no accidental snap, this guy's been putting in some serious work here, what the heck does he see?
We can compare and contrast the pictures. What's the same, what's different. What are all these houses, anyways?
In short, there are typology-like aspects here, and quite strong ones. We're invited, whether the artist likes it or not, to draw our own conclusions. There's plenty of grist for the mill here. The general region in which the photos were taken is clear, and that opens a great basket of political and ecological concerns. While the photographer may offer no personal opinion on, let us (for example) say the ecological impact of modern cities in the desert, these pictures certainly open the door to us, the viewer, to consider these things.
There is in these pictures adequate variety to give us a broader scene onto which we can project our own ideas. At the same time, there is enough commonality to firmly bind the pictures together into a coherent whole. We're forced, more or less, to consider them as a group, a collective, which we then ask "what are you trying to tell me?" And then, looking inside ourselves, perhaps we find some answers.
Onwards to Benoit's Landscapes.
Visually similar to Jeffrey's pictures, and sharing some of that ordinariness in the subject matter, but quite different.
On the one hand, the central glowing square strongly ties the pictures together. They are clearly a coherent set, a collective that belongs together, that, like Jeffrey's pictures, demands to be considered as a whole. There is less graphical appeal here, the pictures are bluntly foresquare, dead-on. This is made necessary by the light Benoit is placing centered in the frame, his key graphical element. He needs to be dead-on to the light, and the light illuminates the scene, and thus even the few pictures which strive to use a more dynamic angle of view do not really succeed. The light's position and illumination pattern dominate.
The scenes into which the square light is set are all over the place. Trees, hills, concrete buildings with artfully tumbled things on the lawn. A trio of nudes exposing their genitals to the light? There is nothing connecting these pictures together except the single graphical element.
Again, any single one of these pictures you'd likely dismiss. You might get a little jolt of "cool!" when you saw it, but that would be about it. The fact that this photographer has made a bunch of them, has invested a great deal of time and effort here, draws us in and asks us to reconsider, asks us to look more deeply and to think more deeply. It's nothing like a typology, though, because the only common theme is literally the same object, repeated. We're being asked, essentially, to examine wildly disparate scenes each containing the same object.
What are we to make of these? I see the square and visualize it as a portal (I have read a tremendous amount of Science Fiction in my life). Benoit imagines it as a man-made element that assists and reveals the natural. But then, why the photos with the man-made buildings, and indeed the human figures? Why does this square portal change size from one picture to another? In any interpretation, though, the glowing square is a mysterious and singular object, inexplicably hanging a few feet above the ground in this location, and in that location, and so on.
I see no coherence here at all, really. I see a singular object appearing more or less at random around the earth, for no particular rhyme or reason. If this is an essay on capricious fate, the rule of the random, then perhaps it begins to make sense, but it doesn't go far enough to make that point clear. And in that case, why so many similar pictures of the square in a bunch of trees? The mysterious glowing object invites question, but seems to leave no real room for answers. These pictures might as well be abstracts. If we want answers, if we want meaning, we are left to construct it entirely ourselves. There are referents in these pictures, but they provide no handles to grasp, no signposts to guide us.
Benoit's pictures are all, at least, shot at night. But is that merely to make his gimmick work, or is nighttime somehow important to the theme?
In terms of trame what I feel here isn't a portfolio that is necessarily closed into itself, but rather that has such diffuse and varied connections to an exterior as to lead nowhere in particular. While the pictures are evocative, what they evoke, their trame, is so vague and indistinct as to add up to nothing much.
In contrast, the referents in Jeffrey's pictures give us firm guidance on geographic location, as well as environment and socioeconomic status. If those are insufficient signposts to guide some thinking, some speculation, some story-making, I can't imagine what is. His choice of nighttime is clearly deliberate, rather than a necessity driven by a gimmick. It's another interesting case study of trame I think. While there are many different things that might be evoked here, each possible path seems to be intellectually fruitful, dense, and at least mildly interesting. While I might view his pictures as one thing, and you quite another, each of us could reasonably find some meat here, something to think about.
I suspect that both Jeffrey and Benoit took their pictures because they though the results would look good, or cool, or interesting. Jeffrey managed, perhaps by design, perhaps by instinct, to produce something in which I can find some depth. Benoit did not.