13 September 2009


"Commis-Larue," Paris, 1950.
Photograph © Irving Penn.

There is a review in The Los Angeles Times of an exhibition showing this fall at the Getty Museum there. You can find a slide show here containing some of the images on display. The exhibition is of a series of portraits, taken by Irving Penn of working class men and women in Paris, London and New York during the 1950s.

The reviewer, Christopher Knight, concludes with an astute observation:
"But Penn's great skill is not in peeling away outer layers to show us the person hidden within. After all he's a fashion photographer par excellence. His workers model. Emphasizing aesthetics within ordinariness, their surfaces thrum with meaning."
I think, however, that this characteristic of Penn's photographs is not tied just to fashion photography but to the the limits and immense usefulness of the technology itself. What photography shows simply are surfaces. And that highlights a question that I think is important ~ whether there is any 'reality' to be discerned beyond the 'appearances.'



Blogger Stan B. said...

Yup, Penn does excel at surfaces- but I think photography (depending on the photographer) can sometimes penetrate beyond the surface- whether it reveals something of what's actually "underneath," or merely provides us with a mirror to more accurately reflect what we ourselves project.

13 September, 2009 11:39  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Maybe. Got an example?

Our projections are surface too. From us onto others (things or beings).

Hope all is well.


13 September, 2009 19:44  
Blogger Stan B. said...

Interesting assignment! No time now- but will get back to ya...

13 September, 2009 21:30  
Blogger Stan B. said...

Well, I really stepped in it this time. All I'm doing here is throwing out a couple of varying examples (as requested) as to levels of intent, reflection and interpretation on the part of: photographer, subject and viewer. I neither "disagree" with the original post, nor am I trying to "prove" anything- yes, I am simply stating the obvious ...

First off, the portraits taken in the Cambodian Killing Fields (some of the most powerful portraits ever made in any art form) taken by an anonymous "fellow prisoner" are testaments to how photography (however rarely) can, in fact, portray and convey something substantially crucial and/or accurate about a subject's immediate condition (which some critics, no names now, say is beyond photography's most basic reach). Do they reveal their subjects' inner most secrets, or even their basic personality? No. But the very real fear, helplessness, confusion and abject terror are genuine and palpable in those photos, to say the least.

Now take Jim Goldberg's essay Rich and Poor, photographs which are very much open to viewer interpretation and reflection. Get your first impressions without reading their accompanying autobiographical text, and then read, look and reflect anew... Talk about varying individual interpretations and presentations- on the part of subject, photographer and viewer alike!

And, of course, there's Avedon's iconic portrait of Marilyn- the lost, confused and frightened little girl/woman. At least that's how she appears. Did she really feel that when the shutter clicked- was it a case of agida pure and simple, or just ol' Dick at his most manipulative, conniving best that day?

For total photographic misinterpretation I'll throw in the photo of those young Lebanese adults who were cruising in a late model car through their neighborhood after the recent Israeli bombing and were accused of exploitation tourism by just about anyone and everyone (incl myself) who saw it- until the truth let out...

Finally, what of the "deadpan" portrait style of recent late. Who is being more manipulative, or reflective- the photographer who refuses to direct, the subject who refuses to project or is abandoned to find their own way. And what can the viewer reflect on here anyway?

Just a few (out of several billion possible photos out there available for discussion) off the top of my head.

14 September, 2009 23:28  

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