Tag Archives: Irving Penn

Research Point 1

We are asked to read Chapter 4 of The Photograph as Contemporary Art by Charlotte Cotton and comment on the following statements:

To what extent do you think the strategy of using objects or environments as metaphor is a useful tool in photography? When might it fall down?

Course Manual Identity and Place p. 99

First off, I have to admit that I did read this chapter by Charlotte Cotton again, having first read her book when I was doing The Art of Photography module. I still find her method of writing a little tangential. There is just too much thrown at the reader in the way of artists mentioned, (which is great to be introduced to all these photographers, make no mistake) but then she falls down on providing the meat to go with them. I find the critiques of the works rather fleeting and superficial. I would really prefer more depth than just scratching the surface.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “metaphor” as:

“A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable”, or A thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else”. We all use metaphors in our everyday speech without even thinking about it. Life is a comparison. We are forever comparing something to something else, especially when we are referencing intangible concepts. Metaphors subtly shape the way we view the world.

Obviously using objects or environments as a metaphor can be extremely useful. The photographer doesn’t have to rely on the availability of a model(s) and can either stage the still-life or visit the environment. However, it still remains up to the viewer to ascertain the significance and meaning of the the image.

An image’s evocative power can, like speech, be described as poetic. …Factual or poetic, whatever the ambience and mood recognized, it is not due to the object as such, but is rather the consequence of a formal arrangement.

Jürgen Müller

After-Dinner Games, New York, 1947 by Irving Penn

If one looks at still-lifes by Irving Penn for example, one can see how much thought has gone into the staging of the metaphors within his images. In the image above, we can see that all the elements are touching each other. The elements are very deliberately arranged: the number 64 die rests above a dice showing a 6 and a 4. Six and four add up to ten which is represented in the domino balanced on the sherry glass. Compositionally the photograph is arranged on a horizontal and vertical axis. The red liqueur in the glass correspond with the red game pieces and ace of hearts card while the black dots on the domino match the lettering on the number 64 as well as the dice and chess piece and black coffee. The two green playing cards provide a unifying vertical axis. The yellow chip is the only item that does not have a corresponding equivalent.

The detritus in the image (burnout match, stains and cigarette ash) is representative of life – the passage of time. These items add some texture to the scene of an otherwise glossy perfection.

However, uniting all the games is their expressing the duality of human life.

Jürgen Müller

The various games represented in the image reflect the various stages of mastering one’s life. Chess, the ultimate game of strategy is symbolic of intellectualism. The card and dice games reference risk and chance. The domino is symbolic of the eternal search to fit in, while the yellow chip could be seen to represent the investment that is risked in life. Common to all the games is the need to think, to be one step ahead.

The image subtly points towards the questions of life – those of the luck necessary to survive in life as in a game, and those of the risks one is willing to take.

Jürgen Müller

In light of this brief exploratory analysis of the image above, it is clear that to be a successful image, the still-life staging and arrangement needs to be very carefully planned and thought out. This is something that I will have to pay close attention to, because I really struggle with still-lifes.

Reference List

English Oxford Living Dictionaries (n.d.) Metaphor [online] Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/metaphor [Accessed 21 June 2017]

Müller, Jürgen (2001) Some Remarks on Irving Penn’s Still Lifes [online] Inside Photography.  Available at: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/artdok/1566/1/Mueller_Inside_photography_Some_remarks_on_Irving_Penns_still_lifes_2001.pdf [Accessed 21 June, 2017]

Persson, T and Rosenheim, J.L. (2017) Reflection on Irving Penn’s photographs: After-Dinner Games, New York, 1947 [online] L’Oeil de la Photographie. Available at:  http://www.loeildelaphotographie.com/en/2017/05/23/article/159952559/reflection-on-irving-penns-photographs-after-dinner-games-new-york-1947/ [Accessed 21 June, 2017]


Cotton, Charlotte (2009). The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd edition) London: Thames & Hudson

What’s in a Face? Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography

My tutor suggested in her tutor report for Assignment 1, that I take a look at a journal by Julian Stallabrass, namely What’s in a Face? Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography. After much sleuthing on the internet I was able to track down a copy of this journal. Unfortunately the university where I work does not have MIT Press Journals in its database stable. I really wish OCA could get us online library privileges. The journal leaves one with much to think about and I am just making brief notes on my reading and understanding of it here.

  • A distinct strand of portrait photography has emerged that can be likened to ethnographic photography. There doesn’t seem to be any clear-cut definition of ethnographic photography, so from my readings I understand it to be photography that serves a social purpose, is the study of cultures and is used to study customs, beliefs and daily life. According to Mary Warner Marien (2014: 35) “ethonographers concoted a standard, “styleless” style to connote truth.” A certain visual vocabulary is present: subjects posed either face-on or from the side; neutral expressions of the subjects and plain backgrounds. This type of photography was used widely by anthropologists and during European colonisation in third world countries.
  • Photographers who shoot in this particular mode are: Rineke Dijkstra, Jitka Hanzlova, Marie-Jo Lafontaine, Gillian Wearing, thomas Ruff, Celine van Balen. Included to some extent in this list are also Joel Sternfeld, Adam Broomberg, Tina Barney and Hellen van Meene.
  • Ethnographic photography has been heavily criticized for its power relations in regard to surveillance and racial classification.
  • This brings us to questions around the representation of difference and identity. Objective or subjective?
  • The success of the deadpan aesthetic is largely linked to the “political view of the subject under neoliberalism” (Stallabrass, 2007: 72).
  • Deadpan aesthetic: “a cool, detached and keenly sharp type of photography. …emotional detachment and command on the part of the photographers. The adoption of a deadpan aesthetic moves art photography outside the hyperbolic, sentimental and subjective” (Cotton, 2009 :81)
  • Neoliberalism: “Neoliberalism is a policy model of social studies and economics that transfers control of economic factors to the private sector from the public sector. … Neoliberalism has been used by various scholars, critics and analysts, mainly referring to an upspring of 19th century ideas connected to economic liberalism that began in the 1970s and 1980s. …This approach has most famously been connected to various economic policies introduced in the United Kingdom by Margaret Thatcher and in the United States by Ronald Reagan.” (Investopedia, online)
Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 23 1992 © Rineke Dijkstra Photograph, colour, Chromogenic print, on paper
Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 23 1992 © Rineke Dijkstra
Photograph, colour, Chromogenic print, on paper
  • These photographs are the direct opposite of the usual red-carpet photos seen in magazines. The subjects depict no style, no overly remarkable characteristics. They seem anonymous. The viewer does not participate with their gaze. They appear to look past (or through) us, aloof. The only participation that is allowed is that of “self-presentation before the camera” (Stallabrass, 2007:84).
  • Most successful of these ethnographic photographers is Rineke Dijkstra. Her photos are straightforward, with hardly any intervention or composition. Her best know series is that of youths on a beach in Poland (see image above). She places her camera at a standard distance from her subjects and positions her camera low at waist level so that the subject is looking down slightly and thus dropping the horizon line down. This gives her subjects appear taller or larger than they are actually. She makes use of fill-in flash to illuminate her subjects thereby giving greater separation from the background. Her goal is to “get at the essential, human aspect” of her subjects (Stallabrass, 2007: 86).
  • Dijkstra’s work was heavily influenced by August Sander, Bernd and Hilla Becher and Thomas Ruff.
  • Irving Penn took breaks from fashion photography at various stages in his career to photograph “with simple means and simple people” (Stallabrass, 2007: 76). He used a twin reflex camera, natural northern light and a plain backdrop against which to frame his subjects. According to Penn his subjects took on “a seriousness of self-presentation that would not have been expected of simple people” (Stallabrass, 2007: 76).
  • Penn actively arranged the position of his subjects, preferring front on poses, unlike Dijkstra. He also favoured placing his subjects in the centre of the frame.


Cuzco Children, 1948 by Irving Penn
Cuzco Children, 1948 by Irving Penn


  • Like Penn, Avedon also took breaks from his fashion photography and toured western America looking for “others”, the very opposite of what he photographed every day.
  • Avedon would put up a white paper background and shoot in diffused natural light, preferring flat light.
  • Not all of Avedeon’s subjects appear to be centrally positioned and this is because Avedon stood beside his view camera while causing his subjects to revert their gaze from the camera to him. The slight off centre positioning hinted at marginality, instability (both social and mental) and disaffection. He varied his distances from his subjects and also used reflectors to bounce light. Avedon also directed his subjects.
  • Avedon found his subjects at country fairs, gas stations. Kozloff states: “he wants to portray the whole American West as a blighted culture that spews out casualties by the bucket: misfits, drifters, degenerates, crackups, and prisoners-entrapped, either literally or by debasing work” (Kozloff: American Suburb X).
  • Both Avedon and Penn’s non-fashion work are the very antithesis of their fashion photography. As Kozloff points out in his article, fashion photography requires the viewer (and the photographer) to admire the beautiful model/clothes. There is an element of narcissism involved and probably a sense of adoration too. There is not of that involved in their “other” work. Here the facts are presented coldly, almost brutally with no artifice whatsoever. No adoration is involved. There is more a question of “them” and “us”.
  • It is clear that most ethographic photographs are printed very large at a high resolution and the details revealed in the portraits  help to compensate for the lack of expression and artistic freedom, relying on the immense data to overwhelm the viewer.
  • In these ethnographic photographs the viewer might see his/her own faults and flaws in our efforts to conform with society’s expectations. We just have to look at Hans Eijelboom’s work to see examples of this.
  • In the past ethnographic photography applied more to the “other” – those not like us, where people were photographed in order to show their ‘strangeness’ to the world. One thinks of Diane Arbus and her freaks, Edward Sheriff Curtis and his work on the Native Americans.
  • Now this deadpan aesthetic is used on subjects who are not “other”. In this globalized society that we live in today, who is the stranger among us, who is the odd one out. I have only to look at my own city to see how complex this issue of identity can be. Here we have so many nationalities represented, all of whom have become Canadian citizens. Past identities merge with new ones as a person grows from child to teenager to student to father to immigrant to citizen to grandfather … The permutations are quite endless. Identity is an unstable state.

Class is after all written deep in these apparently postclass images. They bear the mark of fundamental deficiencies in democracy, that permit the general population to be plausibly viewed through an ethnographic lens, and above all the disregard of democracy that lies at the heart of neoliberalism.

Stallabrass (2007: 90)

Reference List

Cotton, C. (2009). The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson

Kozloff, M. (2011) Richard Avedon’s ‘In the American West’ [online] American Suburb X. Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/01/richard-avedon-richard-avedons-in.html [Accessed 29 July, 2016]

Neoliberalism Definition [online]. Investopedia. Available at http://www.investopedia.com/terms/n/neoliberalism.asp#ixzz4FlxnxJMV
[Accessed 28 July, 2016]

Stallabrass, Julian (2007). What’s in a Face? Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography’. In: October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Fall 2007, No. 122, Pages 71-90. Available at: http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/octo.2007.122.1.71?journalCode=octo#.V5mhQDXvn-V [Accessed 27 July, 2016]

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th edition). London: Laurence King


Dijkstra, R (1992) Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 23 1992. Photograph, colour, Chromogenic print, on paper. Tate. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/dijkstra-kolobrzeg-poland-july-23-1992-p78329 [Accessed 27 July 2016]

Penn, I. (1948) Cuzco Children. Platinum/palladium print online. Available at: http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.125440.html#relatedpages [Accessed 28 July, 2016]