Benjamin Hill, center, was an Atlanta-area dentist whose interest in photography led him into a friendship with famed photographer Walker Evans. Hill became a premier collector of Evans’ photographs. Will Hill are his son, Edward, and father.

Benjamin Hill, 78, from dentistry to influential art collector

Benjamin Hill’s keen eye became the trademark of his professional and personal life.

As a pioneer of prosthetic dentistry in Atlanta, he rebuilt smiles so well that a dental school and professional associations called on him to teach others. As a photographer, he became a serious student of using composition, light and shadow to create compelling pictures. And with his wife Marian, Hill became an influential collector of art photographs that have been borrowed and displayed in Atlanta’s High Museum and in others from New York to France.

Business partner Chuck Abney saw all of Hill’s aesthetic qualities come into play. Hill’s sense of what worked visually was unmatched, Abney said.

“He liked things that looked good and pleased him, whether it was flowers in his garden, or photographs he collected or restoring someone’s smile,” he said.

Dr. Benjamin Hill, 78, died May 16 after a period of declining physical and mental health. He’s survived by his wife, children Audrey and Edward Hill, brother John T. Hill, a niece and two grandchildren. A private funeral service was held May 21.

Marian Hill says her late husband’s interest in photographic arts blossomed after tagging along with his brother, who took art lessons at the institution that evolved into the High Museum of Art, and also from working with his dad using tools such as pinhole cameras and the then-standard photographic darkroom.

Hill’s brother later became an understudy at Yale University of photographer, photojournalist and writer Walker Evans, best known for his gritty photos depicting the Great Depression. John introduced Benjamin to Evans, and the two became close. Evans would visit and stay at Hill’s Atlanta home periodically, getting dental work and gifting them with his artwork.

“He fell in love with the specificness” and style of Evans’ work, Edward Hill said of his father. Benjamin Hill began amassing a collection of Evans’ intricately-detailed yet sparsely-styled photos. Edward Hill said his father also bought the works of more contemporary artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe to form a collection that blossomed into the thousands.

The way Hill pursued his passion influenced the Atlanta arts scene said Jane Jackson, the former owner of Jackson Fine Art. Her business was at one time the only Atlanta gallery specializing in 20th century and contemporary photography.

“It wasn’t just about buying a piece of art,” Jackson said. “He read and studied and would look to see what others might have available. He would always buy the best; he was not an impulsive collector.”

He care and knowledge helped inspire connoisseurship in art collecting in Atlanta. Hill mentored fledgling collectors and aspiring photography students and opened his home and trove to groups from around the world, Jackson said.

A groundbreaking moment came in 1998 when the Hills loaned part of their collection to the High Museum for an exhibition entitled “Walker Evans, Simple Secrets: Photographs from the Collection of Marian and Benjamin A. Hill.” It traveled to several U.S. cities, culminating its tour at a renowned arts center in France. A second selection made a similar U.S. and European tour.

“It showed that an Atlantan could build a serious art collection that would be shown around the world,” Jackson said. “’You didn’t have to be a millionaire in New York to make that happen.”

Abney added: “We were probably the only dental practice in the United States that had a dedicated phone line to the national auction houses.” He said his partner would step away from peering into a mouth and grab the phone to make a bid on auction day.

But he never lost sight of what was important to his patients. Marian Hill said her husband developed such close relationships with them that he thought nothing of heading to a home or care facility to provide dental work.

Audrey said her father not only influenced the Atlanta art scene, but imparted a lasting love of the visual to his children.

Whether it was a family weekend expedition capturing slices of people’s lives in Midtown or framing a shot of a rusted-out bus on a country farmstead, he really enjoyed finding the hidden secrets in images, she said.

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