Don’t Miss the Neil Benson Photo Exhibit: Phila. Movers+ Shakers

Richard Nixon and the MOVE conflagration.  Miss America and Mick Jagger.  Pope John II and Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt.  Mayor Rizzo with Queen Elizabeth. (Huh?)

Before Philadelphia Dumpster Divers co-founder Neil Benson embarked on his full-time, found-object art career, he was a staff photographer for Philadelphia Magazine (1975-90), and his Philly-centric images appeared in Time, Life, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News.

15_08_03 1 Neil Agnew NixonEarly Benson:  Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon strike a pose at Independence Hall for the signing of the Manpower Revenue Sharing Act on October 20, 1972


When Neil left photojournalism, he donated 30 years of negatives, contact sheets, prints and tear sheets to the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, documenting those turbulent decades in local history.

15_08_03 2 Neil Osage Ave MOVENeil covered the 1985 MOVE bombing on Osage Avenue

And now the museum is staging Movers + Shakers in Philadelphia 1970-1985, an exhibit of Neil’s historic work that “demonstrates the power of photojournalism to record urban life and capture the life of the city during a time of sweeping change and tumult.”

The exhibit – which runs through the end of 2015 – opens with a reception on Thursday, Aug. 6 from 5:30-7:30 PM. (See details below.)

15_08_03 3 Neil Mick JaggerA Rolling Stones concert at the Spectrum in 1972:  Neil captures
Mick Jagger’s, uhm, finer assets for Life magazine


As told to blogger Alex Goldblum, Neil grew up in Philly’s Logan neighborhood on North Broad Street and originally enrolled at Temple University as a psychology major.  That’s when he “discovered, before school opened, that they had a newspaper and a darkroom, and I could walk into it with my camera, and I spent 80 hours a week in the Temple News darkroom, and another 10 hours a week in my 20 hours worth of classes.

“The Temple News was where I cut my teeth as a photographer.  Two years later, I’m published in Life magazine, I’m covering Richard Nixon.  It was all very whirlwindy.  [It] happened so fast that I really didn’t get a chance to choose what I was doing.  Life chose me to do it, and I just went along with the plan.”

15_08_03 4 Neil_Springsteen_1975And, no, that’s not a young Neil Benson:  Bruce Springsteen plays The Main Point in Bryn Mawr, right after relieving Neil of $10 in a basement poker game (1975)

The plan lasted for 30 years, until Neil hit a mid-life crisis that didn’t include the usual ‘Porsche and trophy wife’ fantasy.

As he told Goldblum, “And so my mid-life crisis was the core of what they all are, which is, ‘there has to be more to life than this.’  Now my ‘this’ was not unpleasant.  I was a news photographer, and it was almost as glamorous as people think it is.  But if you do anything for 30 years, you think, ‘there’s got to be more to life’,  and my ‘more to life’ was art.

“And one day I woke up realizing that more of my life was art than was photography, a different form of art” — and the rest (i.e. trash art, found object art, or “garbitrage” as Neil calls it) was dumpster-diving history.


“In both photography and art I never gave very serious consideration to the finances of it.  It’s not why I do things,” Neil told Goldblum.

“I still remain at heart a propagandist.  I want my view to be the view.  And I wake up in the morning to make sure that I can get my view across to other people through art.  I used to do it through photography.  Now I do it through constructing objects.”

15_08_03 5 Neil SuitcaseNeil with a found-object suitcase he made to show young artists
the fun – and value – of recycling in a too, too disposable world

The only question?  Will he show up on August 6 in a vintage Hawaiian shirt from his collection of hundreds?  Fellow Dumpster Divers are betting on it…..


Neil Benson’s Movers + Shakers in Philadelphia 1970-1985 will run through the end of 2015 at the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, 15 South 7th Street (between Market and Ranstead Streets).

An opening reception will be held Thursday, Aug. 6 from 5:30 to 7:30 PM, and Neil will speak at 6:30 PM.

Museum admission is $10 for non-member adults, $8 for seniors, and $6 for students and teens (13-18).  Children 12 and under are free.

Regular hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30 AM to 4:30 PM.

For more information, contact the museum at 215-685-4830 or visit

15_08_03 6 Neil ChildrenAll black & white photos are by Neil Benson; bad photo reproduction by Kate Mellina.
(Sorry, Neil!)  Please don’t use these images without Neil’s permission…

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