Project 2 The Aware (iv)
The type of photography practiced by Penn in his series ‘Small Trades’ (Heckert, 2009) is often termed ‘ethnographic photographic’ (Garner, 2015). Garner takes five examples to illustrate his concept:
What links the portraits in this article? The figures here are very different: a young Burmese girl elaborately encased in metal-hoop adornments [see fig. 1.], from a century before Paco Rabanne launched his radical metal couture; a Wigan mining girl of the 1860s with the paraphernalia of her trade [see fig.2.], a prototype of Irving Penn’s Small Trades series; Oscar Wilde in the precious costume affected by aesthetes of the fin de siècle [see fig. 3.] ; a trio of young Germans photographed by August Sander for his 1929 anthology Antlitz der Zeit [see fig. 4.] ; and chic Vogue editor-in-chief Emmanuelle Alt, photographed on the street in Paris in 2007 by The Sartorialist [see fig.5.] (Garner, 2015).
Penn’s work collected in his book ‘Worlds in a Small Room’ (Penn, 1974) closely complies with the above definition. Penn managed his ethnographic work alongside his fashion work. For example while on a fashion assignment in Lima, Peru he rented a photographic studio where he:
photographed rural Peruvians passing through the city over the Christmas holiday, pulling them in from the streets and paying them to sit for a portrait. Penn’s photographs show the subjects wearing their traditional clothing, and these, like his fashion photographs, reveal the texture and design of their garments.
More importantly, however, these photographs reveal familial and social relationships. Penn’s photograph ‘Cuzco Father and Son with Eggs’ (1948) [see fig. 6.] shows a boy dressed like a miniature version of his father and sitting at his feet. The five eggs arranged on the rug are the man’s goods to sell at the market that allow him to provide for his family. In the group portrait ‘Six Street Boys, Cuzco’ (1948), [see fig. 7.] Penn shows a group of adolescent boys inside the studio engaged in the same behaviours they would display outside in public. The boys are posed with their shoe shining equipment or newspapers to sell, and others simply stand casually in the background (Art Institute Chicago, s.d).
Penn wrote of this experience:
The studio became, for each of us, a sort of neutral area. It was not their home, as I had brought this alien enclosure into their lives; it was not my home, as I had obviously come from elsewhere, from far away. But in this limbo there was for us both the possibility of contact that was a revelation to me and often, I could tell, a moving experience for the subjects themselves, who without words—by only their stance and their concentration—were able to say much that spanned the gulf between our different worlds (Penn cited by McLaughlin, 2013).
Penn went on to repeat a similar process many times: The Converted Studio 1964–67: Crete, Extremadura, and San Francisco; The Portable Tent Studio 1967–71: Dahomey, Nepal, Cameroon, New Guinea, and Morocco (Art Institute Chicago, s.d).
However, some observers are sceptical of Penn’s understanding of the studio (including especially the portable studio) as a ‘neutral area’; in a discussion of the book ‘Worlds in a Small Room’ (Penn, 1974), one such says:
As popular ethnography the book is adequate. It is on a humanistic level that I find this book troublesome. Penn makes the assumption that the studio (…) was a sort of neutral area where both subject and photographer were away from the protection of their normal environments. Stripped of their defences these strangers would be free to communicate themselves “with dignity and a seriousness of concentration” (p. 9). There is a fundamental flaw in Penn’s logic. While he was out of his culture in the sense that he did travel to these various locations, he always rented or constructed a studio to work in. The studio environment is one where Penn is clearly at home and totally in control. As wielder of the technology, Penn was literally calling the shots.
In fact, because Penn lacked familiarity with the language and culture of the people that he photographed, he had to pose them by physically manipulating their bodies into place. “I posed the subjects by hand, moving and bending them. Their muscles were stiff and resistant and the effort it took on my part was considerable.” (p. 12). The results are hauntingly beautiful and frightening images of human statues: people totally at the mercy of a technology and anaesthetic which is not theirs and which makes them into beautiful objects for our contemplation (Ruby, 1977).
Similar concerns as these have been highlighted and discussed by Abigail Solomon-Godeau in relation to documentary photography in general (Solomon-Godeau, 1991: 169 -183).
Art Institute Chicago (s.d) Ethnographic Studies. At: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/IrvingPennArchives/ethnographic (Accessed on 22.07.17)
Garner, Philippe (2015) Collecting guide: Ethnographic portrait photography. At: http://www.christies.com/features/Garner_Costume-5606-1.aspx (Accessed on 22.07.17)
Heckert V. (2009) Irving Penn: Small Trades by Heckert. New York: Getty Publications
McLaughlin, Tim (2013) Classic – Worlds in a Small Room. At: https://imageonpaper.com/2013/07/21/review-worlds-in-a-small-room/comment-page-1/ (Accessed on 22.07.17)
Penn, Irving (1974) Worlds in a Small Room. New York: Grossman Publishers
Ruby, Jay (1977) ‘Worlds in a Small Room. Irving Penn. New York: Grossman, 1974’. In: Studies in Visual Communication 4 (1) pp. 62 – 63 [online] At: http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1048&context=svc (Accessed on 22.07.17)
Solomon-Godeau, Abigail (1991) ‘Who Is Speaking Thus? Some Questions about Documentary Photography’ In: Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press pp. 169 -183
Figure 1. Unknown photographer (1860s) Borneo girl [albumen print] At: http://www.christies.com/media-library/images/features/articles/2015/02/05/costume_drama/article_image_3_costume_drama.ashx?la=en (Accessed on 22.07.17)
Figure 2. Cooper, John (1860s) Wigan coal mining worker [albumen print carte de visite] At: http://www.christies.com/media-library/images/features/articles/2015/02/05/costume_drama/article_image_2_costume_drama.ashx?la=en (Accessed on 22.07.17)
Figure 3. Sarony, N (1860) Oscar Wilde [albumen print cabinet card] At: http://www.christies.com/media-library/images/features/articles/2015/02/05/costume_drama/article_image_1_costume_drama.ashx?la=en (Accessed on 22.07.17)
Figure 4. Sander, August (1929) Group of young men [book plate] At: http://www.christies.com/media-library/images/features/articles/2015/02/05/costume_drama/article_image_4_costume_drama.ashx?la=en (Accessed on 22.07.17)
Figure 5. The Sartorialist (2007) Emmanuelle Alt [archival pigment print] At: http://www.christies.com/media-library/images/features/articles/2015/02/05/costume_drama/article_image_5_costume_drama.ashx?la=en (Accessed on 22.07.17)
Figure 6. Penn, Irving (1948) Father and Son with Eggs, Cuzco. At: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/citi/images/standard/WebLarge/WebImg_000184/84062_2029573.jpg (Accessed on 22.07.17)
Figure 7. Penn, Irving (1948) Six Street Boys, Cuzco. At: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/citi/images/standard/WebLarge/WebImg_000184/84002_2028869.jpg (Accessed on 22.07.17)