Tag Archives: Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre

Irving Penn – Still Life

Fig. 01 Router Plane,  from a series My Dad's Stuff - 1/160 at f/16, less 1/3 stop, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Router Plane, from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/160 at f/16, less 1/3 stop, ISO 100

On the recommendation of my tutor I acquired a copy of Irving Penn’s book Still Life *(1). Penn supervised the collation of this book and, as such, it is a revealing representation of his work. Penn is not the easiest photographer to pin down to a specific category because so much of his work was commercial and most notably for Vogue magazine from 1943 until his last contribution in 2007.

In his introduction to Sill Life John Szarkowski points out that, as a genre, still life offers the artist the greatest level of control. It is one of the few subjects where the artist controls the subject as well as the lighting, exposure, framing and final presentation. Szarkowski *(1) suggests that still life is unique in that its history is only a history of art, any other set of Iriving Penn photographs could be partly seen as a history of fashion, or of the changing landscape, or of the people who feature in his most famous work. When we look at still lifes and Irving Penn’s still lifes in particular we are reminded of the early photographers such as Fox-talbot and Daguerre and of the vast number of painters who preceded them. Like many of these artists Penn take humble subjects, pays them great attention through his approach and creates artistic representations that might alter the viewers preconceptions of that object or might just make us feel better by seeing something simple presented as beauty.

My research suggests that Penn was not a man who talked much about his work so it is not clear whether his commercial career was being parodied by his personal work or whether he saw them as quite separate streams or whether one just bled into the other. He is described as a prolific and incredibly hard working photographer who would often spend his days photographing for Vogue or Harpers Bazaar and his nights working on his own projects. Often his day job was to make the mundane beautiful or to empathise and express the obvious beauty in his subject yet in his private work he time and time again selects ordinary everyday items and creates beautiful pictures by exploring the colours, textures, shapes and forms in his elegant, minimalist still lifes.  In many ways his two worlds seem closely entwined. Fashion might appear to be an obvious channel for still life photography as stylish photographs of cosmetics, shoes and fashion accessories are now common place but Szarkowski *(1) tells us that before Penn’s first Vogue cover in 1943 he can find no copies of the magazine that feature still life in any meaningful way so, it might be said, that Penn created the first bridge between artistic still life seeped with the heritage of painting and commercial still life.

Penn is one of a significant group of photographers who are recognised as artists as well as reaching the pinnacle  of commercial photography, David Bailey would be another, and there is a common ground between them, perhaps in part because Penn was an established senior photographer at Vogue when Bailey was first making his name at the same magazine.

In their fashion and portrait photography, both Penn and Bailey had an economic style that concentrates attention on the subject and expresses their empathy with the models. When working in the world of high fashion they presented their models as women not mannequins, interestingly they both married their favourite  model, and their fashion photographs have outlasted the product they promoted leaving images of the people inside the clothes. Bailey describes his portrait style as not having one, that he was seeking “very sophisticated passport pictures” but neither his nor Penn’s style are easy to copy because their ability to see and capture the essence of the person is a highly tuned skill.

Penn said “Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world. Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject dares to believe.” *(2) This could also be said of his still lifes where many of the subjects are “more wonderful” that we dare to believe.

Whether Penn felt constrained by his highly successful commercial career is a matter of conjecture but it is easy to interpret his private projects as counterpoints to the fashion industry’s obsession with youth and packaged beauty. Another easy answer to many of the photographs in Still Life or his Cranium Architecture *(3) series is that Penn was communicating by using the traditional motifs of vanitas and momento mori. Whatever his motivation might have been we are offered a remarkable collection of images in Still Life that lead us to much larger series along a variety of themes.

My perspective on the photographs in this book has changed over the last two weeks as I have been working on test shoots of assignment 4. It is only by trying to create a compelling still life that one realises that this is a highly challenging art form. As Szarkowski *(1) says, this is probably the only form of photography where the photographer has complete control over the choice and presentation of subject, the lighting, the technical aspects of the picture taking and the post production whilst this excites the artist and draws many to the form, equally it leaves the photographer nowhere to hide. This is photography with no excuses other than a shortfall of skill in one or more areas.

Penn’s range of subjects and approaches was very wide. Stationary, found objects, “classic” food ingredients including raw, frozen and cooked, vanitas motifs including musical instruments, skulls and dice, constructed sets which are best described as sculptures and many subjects linked to the fashion industry of which he was a part. There are common stylistic themes such as a simplicity of lighting and an elegance of set design combined with a formal complexity in his composition but over the many years represented by this book he switched back and forth between black and white and colour, between an emphasis on texture, a focus on shape and form and exercises in colour.

He asks us questions to which we may never know the answers. Does his extensive series of, what we would call dog-ends, represent a cycle of life from neat unused items in a pack to used and discarded rubbish in the gutter to being re-organised and painstakingly lit and photographed? Are his flowers symbolic of the fragility of nature and life or did he just see the opportunity to undertake intense studies of form and colour ? He said of the seven studies of a single type of flower each year that his lack of horticultural knowledge gave him the freedom to concentrate on colour and form and this might be the key to his work.

I sense that his still lifes were a form of release where not only did he gain the complete control of the image that would have, to some degree, been lacking in his professional career he also was able to photograph subjects, to use Eggleston’s idea, to simply see what they looked like photographed. His education and knowledge of the history of photography and art meant that vanitas motifs were naturally introduced into his sets but there may not have been a strong moralistic message.

The nearest I came to gaining an insight to his ideas was this quote: “A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”

In the context of preparing for assignment 4 it was helpful to look at his work and try to understand how he used lighting to emphasise one or more element of each subject.

In Lavender Glory, Poppy, Vogue, 1968, *(4) , he lights a soft object with hard light against a white background to emphasise texture with deep shadows in the petal creases. It is interesting that he accepts a quite de-saturated finish with this photograph but approaches Rose, Color Wonder, Vogue, 1970, *(5), quite differently with strong colours and plenty of depth to the partially opened rose so obviously lit for colour and form.

Ripe Cheese, Vogue, 1992, *(6) is lit from above and in front for colour.

The key point is that Penn saw properties in his subjects that defined the subject so he arranged his lighting and exposure to concentrate on that property. As I have worked through test shoots for assignment 4 I have been frustrated by the idea that we should use a single subject and light it to bring out different properties. Whilst I would in no other way compare myself to Irving Penn I suspect he might have shared this frustration. In Lavender Glory he sees wonderful texture and invests himself in bringing out that feature, the apple and the cheese offer him a captivating colour contrast in Ripe Cheese so that is what he concentrates on. I do not believe that he would have then considered lighting the cheese and apple as a silhouette because that would have been pointless.

Sources

Books

(1) Penn, Irving. (2001) Sill Life. Boston: Bullfinch Press

Internet

Vogue Archives. Irving Penn: Uncommon Elegance – http://www.vogue.com/culture/article/irving-penn-uncommon-elegance/#1

Masters of Photography – Irving Penn – http://www.masters-of-photography.com/P/penn/penn_articles2.html

(3) Hamilton’s Gallery – Irving Penn – http://www.hamiltonsgallery.com/artists/27-Irving-Penn/series/cranium-architecture/

New York Times – Photographer Who Broke Molds – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/25/arts/25iht-photog25.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

(2) Hodgson, Francis. (2013) The Quizzical Chamois: Irving Penn’s Cranium Architecture – http://francishodgson.com/tag/irving-penn/?blogsub=confirmed#blog_subscription-2

(4) Pace Macgill Gallery – Irving Penn http://www.pacemacgill.com/selected_works/detailspage.php?artist=Irving%20Penn&img_num=123

(5) Christies – Irving Penn – http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/photographs/irving-penn-rose-colour-wonder-london-1970-5494381-details.aspx

(6) We Are Selectors – Irving Penn – http://weareselecters.com/2013/10/Irving-Penn-On-Assignment/

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Still Life, Symbolism and Vanitas

Fig. 01 Watch from the series My Dad's Stuff - 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Fob Watch from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100

Assignment 4 “Applying Lighting Techniques” initially appeared to offer a wide choice of subject and approach and I was considering the merits of building a series of photographs in the landscape, this led me to Edward Weston. However, my tutor had also suggested that II looked at Iriving Penn and this began to pull me further from Weston’s nudes in the landscape and towards Weston and Penn’s still lifes.

The more I looked at the photographs in Penn’s book Still Life *(11) the more I became interested in still life as a genre and, given Penn’s background in the fashion industry and his still life style, there is a natural progression from assignment 3 to 4 and this in itself is appealing.

Still life, as a photographic genre, makes its entrance nearly simultaneously with the “invention” of the medium. Liz Wells tells us, in Photography A Critical Introduction *(1), that Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre both announced the process for making and fixing a photographic image in 1839 and it is notable that many of those earliest photographs are forms of still life. In 1839 Daguerre photographed Shells and Fossils *(2) and Fox Talbot sent a “Table Set for Tea” to his friend, the Italian naturalist, Antonio Bertoloni *(3).

There are no doubt many reasons for the genre’s early entry onto the stage, not least of which was the restrictions of the new technology calling for long exposures and still subjects, but it is also relevant that Henry Fox Talbot was a frustrated artist who referred to his invention as the “art of photogenic drawing” and who named the first photographically illustrated book “The Pencil of Nature”. According to Graham Clarke *(4) The Pencil of Nature “both predicted and set the terms of reference for the way photography was to viewed for much of the nineteenth century”. Fox Talbot saw photography in the context of painting, describing his techniques using the language of the existing visual arts and thought as a painter. From the outset Fox Talbot was in no doubt that photography was an art and that he was drawing “without any aid whatsoever from the artist’s pencil”.

So, from the outset, the new artists were thinking in the language of painters and as well as assuming the most obvious techniques such as compositional rules and lighting they started to use the same types of subjects and, perhaps most importantly, the same symbolism. In “The Open Door” 1844 Fox Talbot carefully constructs a scene containing positioned objects, even the “set” is manipulated to provide the effect he was seeking, the half open door, the backlit window, the twigs symmetrically crossed in the bottom corner. The photograph is as constructed as a painting, it is far from casual, far from capturing a chance moment.

Many of the early photographers were painters and many had enjoyed a formal education that would have included gaining an understanding of the great painters so it is not surprising that when they took up photography they came to the medium heavily laden with the baggage of fine art. Roger Fenton, who had studied painting before qualifying as a lawyer, made his name photographing great places and great people before turning to still life in the late 1850s. Still Life with Ivory Tankard and Fruit (1860) *(5) is one of his most famous works and as well as displaying his mastery of both technique and composition it reveals his roots as a fine artist by borrowing symbolism from the much earlier work of the Dutch artists. He includes the religious symbols of a chalice and bread, but the chalice is on its side suggesting consumption, there are grapes in the background suggesting Bacchanalian pleasures, over-ripe fruits suggesting that life is fleeting and the two ripe peaches have been associated with buttocks and the pleasures of the flesh.

This type of symbolism could be traced directly to the Dutch painters of the 17th century *(9) who used still life to communicate a religious, moral message in a style of painting known as “vanitas” from the quotation in the book of Ecclesiastes “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. The message of these paintings is not complex; live a better life, spurn the pleasures of the flesh in this life and focus your attention on the next. Their audience was offered repetitive symbols in paintings that, on face value, celebrated the wealth of a trading nation that was punching well above its weight in the 17th century with compositions built around an abundance of fruit, flowers, wine, imported goods and the fruits of the sea but often included snuffed candles, timepieces, books, musical instruments and human skulls.

The symbolism would have been understood by the wealthy residents of Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the the 1600s. Over-ripe fruit spoke of the brevity of life and if mixed with citrus suggested the sweet and sour nature of existence. Flowers symbolised the fragility of life, everything beautiful is short lived, beauty is transient, it decays. Skulls, more obviously, signified impending death whilst clocks and snuffed candles said “time flies”. Oysters, thought to be an aphrodisiac, represented sexual pleasures, an idea that could be underlined by the careful positioning of a knife. Books and musical instruments, expensive luxuries at the time, symbolised worldly pursuits. (A more comprehensive list of symbols can be found here)

The overall message was saying we are living in a rich and successful country with the fruits of the earth coming to our door but don’t get carried away as life is short, all these earthly pleasures are short-lived, focus your attention on the hereafter. The Gospel of Matthew 6:18-21 was at the heart of their thinking: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The obvious irony being that only the very rich could afford to commission such works of art.

The work of the vanitas painters, their predecessors and those that were influenced by them, can be viewed at another level all together *(10). In their day these were highly sought after pieces of art attracting the wealthiest patrons and some of the most accomplished artists of the time worked extensively in this field. The still lifes that have been preserved represent the work of highly skilled master technicians who were creating objects of great beauty. The Dutch prized flowers and wanted accurate and skilful renditions to brighten up dark winter evenings, the aristocrats wanted paintings that expressed the wealth of their country estates, the merchants wanted to show off their ability to import the rarest plants, fruits and objects from across the world. Many still lifes have no hidden message other than the artists’ delight in form, colour and texture and, more prosaically, market forces.

Photographers not only adopted the genre they often adopted the symbolism and we can see the same symbols repeated by Roger Fenton in the 1860s, Edward Weston in the 1920s and 30s, Irving Penn in the 50s and 60s right up to Ori Gersht in recent years. This lineage is intriguing and we can see a clear connection between Caravaggio’s “A Basket of Fruit” *(6) painted around 1599 and Ori Gersht’s Pomegranate *(7) in 2006, despite there being over 400 years between the two.

This connection is exciting and continues to be exploited by contemporary photographers but we are not restricted to the symbolism of the 16th and 17th centuries or the interpretations of the 19th century. Mat Collinshaw, a British photographer born in Nottingham in 1966, whose work spans many genres published a small set of still life images in 1994 entitled “Natura Morte” *(8) which are feasts of American junk food and speak simultaneously of wealth and waste, gluttony and over-abundance. Collinshaw communicates a strong message using the broad style of the Dutch Vanitas painters but using his own set of symbols. We readily understand his message because we recognise the Macdonald’s fries and the chicken nuggets and this in itself makes it easier to understand how effectively the 17th and 18th century artists communicated their message using symbols that were as quickly recognised and read by their audience.

Sources

Books

(1) Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge.

(4) Clarke, Graham. (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(5) McCabe, Eamonn. (2008) The Making of Great Photographs: Approaches and Techniques of the Masters. Cincinnati: David and Charles.

(11) Penn, Irving. (2001) Still Life. Boston: Bulfinch Press.

Internet

(2) The Metropolitan Museum of Art – A Table Set for Tea –  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/36.37.36

(3) The Metropolitan Museum of Art – William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) and the Invention of Photography – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm

(6) The Bridgeman Art Library – Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio “A Basket of Fruit” – http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-GB/asset/737485/caravaggio-michelangelo-merisi-da-1571-1610/basket-of-fruit-by-michelangelo-merisi-da-caravaggio-oil-on-canvas-1594-1598?context=%25searchContext%25

(7) Museum of Fine Arts Boston – Ori Gersht Exhibition – http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/ori-gersht

(8) Collinshaw Mat (1994) Natura Morte – http://www.matcollishaw.com/art/archive/natura-morte/

(9) Metropolitan Museum – Still Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600 – 1800 – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nstl/hd_nstl.htm

(10) The National gallery of Art – Still Life Painting – https://www.nga.gov/kids/DTP6stillife.pdf

Rodriguez, Levin. The Berkemeyer Project – http://levinrodriguez.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/symbolic-meaning-of-objects-used-in.html

Phelps, D G. the Art of D.G.Phelps – http://www.easy-oil-painting-techniques.org/still-life-symbolism.html