The History Of Photography: Irving Penn

by William Lulow

I meet many photographers, or people interested in photography these days, who don’t even know who the great practitioners of the art were! Maybe they have heard of Ansel Adams or Avedon but they haven’t ever heard of Halsman, Friedlander, Weston or Evans! It’s amazing to me that people who pretend to “study” the art or business of photography would have never studied these people. And yet, this kind of ignorance is pervasive. When I was learning my craft, I also learned who its greatest practitioners were. I went to countless museums, galleries and shows. I bought and read quite a few books by the real pioneers in photography from Joseph Niepce to Bert Stern. I wanted to know as much as I could about the profession I had chosen. For me, it was something I loved, not just a means to make a living.

Anyway, I had a chance to revisit some truly great images the other day at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a retrospective of many famous images by Irving Penn! Penn was a true giant in our field.

This exhibit took up over seven rooms. The sheer quantity of Penn’s work could have easily filled more space. There were images here that even I hadn’t seen before (and I have several books that he made). Penn was a true master. He was interested in still life as well as portraits and fashion. I have said many times that a really good photographer could probably photograph anything well! And the reason for this is because he studied the craft and how to use it successfully. He understood light and the processing and printing of film as well. Penn actually had a portable studio built for him that he took around the world. It was like a translucent tent that could be oriented in such a way as to pick up beautiful, soft north light that artists crave!

In addition to his superb understanding of the technical aspects of photography, he also had a keen awareness of how people reacted to the process of having their portraits made. This included Morroccan Arabs as well as the Mud Men of New Guinea.

This is Penn’s Rolleiflex (a 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 twin-lens reflex, square-format camera). These cameras were designed to shoot 120 or 220 size film. The 220 type usually contained 24 exposures per roll.  It is mounted on a Tilt-All tripod head. Many photographers in the 1950s to the 1980s shot with large-format cameras like Deardorff 8x10s or 4x5s. But, the twin-lens variety was very popular because of its much lighter weight and the ability to shoot many frames quickly without having to reload. The larger format film made much sharper images than did its 35mm equivalent.

This was the background that Penn used for many of his images when he was traveling. It is a painted canvas that was rolled up when not in use and yielded a nice even tone background for many of his images.

One of the things I noticed right away about this exhibit was the number of people who came to the galleries on the same day I did. I was amazed at how crowded they were. But, Penn was no ordinary photographer. He was an innovator in the field testified to by the numbers of people in attendance.

Here was an image Penn put together by making four separate prints:

This was done by taping four pieces of photographic paper together and then projecting the negative on them at the same time. I remember doing this to get a 30 x 40″  image of the Statue of Liberty, which I had photographed for American Express. Many photographers (probably including Penn and definitely Ansel Adams) had horizontal enlargers which projected images on a wall-mounted easel. In my old darkroom, I had the room to turn my enlarger around and project the image on the floor.

The history of photography including its more influential practitioners,  is important to study, not only for inspiration but to gain a better understanding of what it was to be innovative in the past. It also gives one a better appreciation for the art form in general. This was truly a remarkable exhibition!