Aryana Noroozi |

Photographer Benoit Malphettes places audience engagement front and center at his most recent exhibition, “Open to Interpretation.” In his exhibition, currently mounted at the San Bernardino County Museum, Malphettes invites viewers to turn inwards and call on their own experiences and imaginings to form their individual interpretation of his art, some of which is dedicated to victims of the opioid epidemic, child abuse, and human trafficking. Malphettes not only fosters the space for the individual viewer’s perception to be considered but also for it to be shared via the interactive exhibition experience. 

Malphettes is a contributor to Black Voice News as well as an avid supporter of our work. Black Voice News was able to spend time with him at the exhibition and in his home studio to learn more about the process of creating the images for “Open To Your Interpretation.”

After retiring and moving to the Inland Empire over a decade ago, Malphettes designed a photography studio in his Riverside home. For the former fashion photographer, retirement marked the beginning of a transformative period of unrestrained and conceptual creativity, including the fulfillment of his “childhood dream of taking pictures without restraint.” This eventually led Malphettes to create the photographs featured in “Open To Interpretation.” The exhibition premiered at the San Bernardino County Museum on August 25 and will remain on display until January 8, 2023.

Originally from France, Malphettes spent most of his career making images for fashion and editorial projects. Today, Malphettes’ work  does not face those constraints. During the pandemic, the photographer came into complete creative liberty as he began generating the images for “Open to Your Interpretation.”

“I sit in front of an empty backdrop and let my mind go without my guidance, giving it as much space as it wants. Then I compose and photograph as a spectator of my unconscious, fully aware of keeping at bay the vigilance of reason, at least at this stage,” reads Malphettes’ artist statement, referring to his process of creating the images.

A figure sits in Malphettes’ home photography studio on November 9, 2022, where he used still life photography to create the images for “Open To Your Interpretation” by using odd objects he collected over time as subject matter posed to elicit the viewer’s interpretation. “I can best focus on artistically expressing feelings and emotions through still life photography,” Malphettes says. “It provides me a platform to explore the psychological entrapments and fear that accompany the experience of growth.” (Aryana Noroozi, Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local) Credit: Aryana Noroozi, Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local

In this series, Malphettes used still-life photography, a longstanding artistic genre and style of photography which encompasses any inanimate object– man made or natural– that does not move, to document artifacts he has collected over the years. “Odd objects, fragments, old documents, anything, until the moment I no longer look at them for what they are but, instead, I follow them within the world they invite me in,” he writes. 

Malphettes worked with his wife, Kathy Malphettes, an award winning creative director, recognized for her innovative creativity during the “golden age of fashion stores,” and his long-standing collaborator to procure and construct the objects that became the subjects of his photographs.  Many of these objects are on display at the exhibition.

(From left) Benoit and Kathy Malphettes pose for a portrait at Malphettes’ “Open to Interpretation” exhibition at the San Bernardino County Museum.  The couple met decades ago when Kathy, an artistic director, was Benoit’s client. They have worked as a creative team ever since.  (Aryana Noroozi, Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local).
A bouquet of roses Malphettes photographed to create “Heart Ache,” one of the images in “Open To Your Interpretation,” is displayed in a case at the exhibition while the resulting  photograph hangs directly behind the casing at the San Bernardino County Museum on November 9, 2022.  (Aryana Noroozi, Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local)
Left: One of the photographs featured in “Open to Your Interpretation,” called “Heart Ache” is framed in a Black frame that Malphettes and his wife Kathy selected specifically for the piece. (Credit: ©Benoit Malphettes); Right: The bouquet of roses Malphettes photographed to create “Heart Ache” is displayed at the exhibition on November 9, 2022,.  (Aryana Noroozi, Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local)
One of the photographs featured in “Open to Interpretation,” called “Dedicated to Human Trafficking” hangs in its unique frame. Upon framing the first image for the exhibit, Malphettes and his wife Kathy decided to find a unique frame for each image. (Credit: ©Benoit Malphettes)
The doll used in Malphette’s photograph, “Dedicated to Human Trafficking” and the teeth used in “Transactional Relationship” is displayed in casing at his exhibition “Open to Interpreation” at the San Bernardino County Museum on November 9, 2022.  (Aryana Noroozi, Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local).
Various objects used in Malphette’s photographs are displayed at his“Open to Interpretation” exhibition at the San Bernardino County Museum on November 9, 2022,. Malphettes says he would search for artifacts he collected over the years. “Odd objects, fragments, old documents, anything, until the moment I no longer look at them for what they are but, instead, I follow them within the world they invite me in.”  (Aryana Noroozi, Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local).
Left:  One of the photographs featured in “Open to Your Interpretation,” called “Cardboard Cremation  Coffin” is framed in its unique frame.   (Credit: ©Benoit Malphettes); Right: One of the photographs featured in “Open to Your Interpretation,” called “Transactional Relationship” is framed in a golden frame Malphettes and his wife Kathy selected specifically for the photography. (Credit: ©Benoit Malphettes).

Malphettes says many of the photographs are autobiographical, reflecting his Jesuit education and familiarity with French Art. He says that he often tries to make sense of “strange and disparate concoctions” but is left with more questions than answers.

Visitors view Malphettes’ photography at “Open To Your Interpretation,” his current exhibition at the San Bernardino County Museum on November 9, 2022,. The exhibition, which encourages audience interpretation of Malphettes’ images, opened at The San Bernardino County Museum on August 25 and will remain on display until January 8, 2023.  (Aryana Noroozi, Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local).

The entirety of the exhibition is focused on audience engagement and of course interpretation. Each piece has an accompanying QR code beside it to allow audiences to use their phones to give feedback on how the piece resonates with them.

In the center of the exhibit there is a screen displaying a word bank of viewer feedback of what the exhibit meant to them in approximately one to three words. The feedback ranged from relatable to morbid.

Beside the digital word bank are three different paper prompts where visitors can write and draw their responses and also put them on display. 

A digital wordbank of the viewers’ reaction to Malphettes’ exhibit hangs in the center of the exhibition on November 9, 2022. Malphettes invites viewers to use their phones to upload words and descriptions of how they interpreted the exhibition. Malphettes exhibition is centered around audience interpretation and offers a QR code next to each piece for the viewer to use to offer their interpretation.  (Aryana Noroozi, Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local).

“As you connect to Benoit’s work you will also realize the psychological truth that, from the cradle to the grave, relationships are at the core of the human experience,” said Dr. Freier Randall, a neurodevelopmental psychologist in a speech presented at the premiere of the exhibition. 

“Emotions can be raw, but they are also universal, and they are what connect us,” said Dr. Randall.  “I hope that by engaging in the ‘depth’ of this exhibit it will promote a sense of unity in the human experience and perhaps even encourage you to reach out to attain or provide support.”

Malphettes’ “Open to Interpretation” is on display at the San Bernardino County Museum until January 8, 2023. Find out more here at the San Bernardino County Museum: http://www.sbcounty.gov/museum/

View the framed images here on Malphettes’ site: https://benoitmalphettes.com/PROJECTS/Open-to-Interpretation/9/caption 

Aryana Noroozi

Black Voice News photojournalist Aryana Noroozi was born in San Diego, California and graduated with a master’s degree from The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her love for visual storytelling led her to document immigrant and deportee communities and those struggling with addiction. She was a 2020 Pulitzer Center Crisis Reporting Fellow and a GroundTruth Project Migration Fellow. She is currently a CatchLight/Report for America corps member employed by Black Voice News. You can learn more about her at aryananoroozi.com. You can email her at aryana@blackvoicenews.com.