All images used in this post are copyrighted to the individual photographer stated and are only being used for educational purposes.
1. Irving Penn
In the Introduction to Still Life, John Szarkowski linked Penn and Weston as two photographers successful with both still life and portraiture. Although this may be unusual having the skills to be successful in two well-known genres of photography, he hints that in order to be good at one genre, rest is occasionally needed through change to perfect another genre and so forth.
He goes on to say that in portraiture the photographer has to work with “raw material”. The photographer’s control over the composition and end result is compromised by the willingness of the live sitter to pose and be captured in a significant or amusing way that is different from other potential sitters.
The vitality of the models in Penn’s portraits are not in their facial gestures but in the lines of the image. Simple lighting hinting that it was no more than north facing skylight make the silhouettes appear active and alive. The use of simplistic backgrounds also make the images appear clear and straightforward as opposed to those that are more flowery in style. An example of his lighting is seen below in the image of the corset. The light is very subtle but good enough to capture the tiniest details – goose bumps on the flesh and the stitching and texture of the material.
The Small Waist, editorial photograph for Vogue, New York, June 13, 2000. Copyright Irving Penn
With still life it is very different. It is a genre where the photographer has the highest degree of control over a subject. A lemon, for example can be positioned in however or whatever submissive way the photographer wishes.
The message being shouted from the simplistic style of Penn’s fashion pictures is one of confidence and importance. The dresses are way too brilliant to be likened to a “fairy-tale narrative” and the subjects are far too interesting to be photographed with a castle in the background. This is mirrored in his still life work where lipstick on a cigarette butt or an ant on ripe cheese provide enough interest for the viewer to imagine their own narrative.
Ripe Cheese. Editorial Photograph for Vogue. New York, March 26, 1992. Copyright Irving Penn
Penn’s still life images were primarily for Vogue magazine, featuring good things to eat and drink and elements of the good life. In the early 70’s Penn devoted more time to his private work – a complete opposite to all things good, with images of trash including street findings of cigarette butts, packets and other detritus of life on the street. His pictures of cigarettes – again beautifully photographed, with no hard-edged shadows are simple, straight forward and honest. He has managed to make them look like objects of physical beauty and it is this aspect which suggests that these images along with the other miscellaneous gutter trash pictures of bones, skulls and metal blocks are linked to his Vogue images of all things good. Penn has deep regard and respect for all his subjects for whilst photographing the good things in life, he has also acknowledged the bad, for example the worm in the apple (see Wormy Apples below) or the beautiful woman in Summer Sleep (below) behind the mosquito net, but not without the mosquitos. Whilst he has photographed the bad things in life for example the cigarettes – the lipstick stained fag ends hint at the good things in life – contrasting physical beauty to be merely objects.
Summer Sleep, Editorial photograph for Vogue, New York, March 18, 1949. Copyright Irving Penn
Street Findings, New York, 1999. Copyright Irving Penn
2. Paul Kooiker
Although digressing from Irving Penn and Edward Weston, it is an appropriate point to mention an article in the British Journal of Photography, May 2015 edition. The article called Dissecting Nudes by Taco Hidde Baker, p.40 – 49, talks about the latest photobook by photographer Paul Kooiker – Nude, Animal, Cigar.
Kooiker is not interested in a “single” photograph so all his projects are conceived as a series. Nude, Animal, Cigar is just that . It is a gathering of 63 photographs of each subject showing 63 sets of nudes, animals and cigars in a repetitive order. The images are on the right pages with the annotations of N01, A01, C01 and so on, on the left pages.
The only significant link between the 3 subjects is the sepia toning done in post production which gives an aesthetic and nostalgic effect and the fact that all the images have been taken in the last 5 years.
The nudes are plus-size models positioned by Kooiker to avoid showing their heads and in some shots they are wearing high heels to avoid the impression of a clinical post-mortem. All of the animals are captive and shot at numerous European Zoos visited by Kooiker and his daughter. In contrast to the nude images, the faces of the animals are included in the composition, so you feel they are looking at you. Finally, the cigars are composed in such a way that for me they resemble the roundness and curves of the nudes. I’m not sure whether this was intentional or incidental at the time of shooting or whether they were just cleverly selected at the time of putting the book together.
I did find it interesting that like Penn’s cigarettes, Kooikers cigars have been composed to make them look like objects of beauty as well as interesting to look at, along with the undertones of good and bad or bad and good. The article stated;
“Photography and voyeurism are inextricably linked, and the camera is a guilty look through the keyhole”.
Perhaps the link between the three subjects is about control and beauty? The nude photos are controlled and voyeuristic but contain the elements of beauty and form. The zoo animals are captive and controlled for visitors to admire their beauty and splendour. Cigars are associated with gentlemen, power and wealth. They insinuate masculine control in smoke-filled clubs with voyeuristic tendencies over objects of desire and beauty? Who knows? I would certainly like to view the book – I imagine the content to be compulsive.
3. Edward Weston
There is a very interesting essay about the life and work of Edward Weston by Terence Pitts at the beginning of “A Photographic Study” (Weston, E. 1999. Edward Weston (Photographic Study). London. Taschen) During his early career, Weston made a living by taking portraits and was fascinated by the way photography had an ability to capture a specific moment in time. Weston realised the power of natural light, where a play of sunlight across a figure could result in a perfect composition.
Sunny Corner in an Attic. 1920. Copyright Edward Weston
Weston aspired to making photography become a process of seeing the real world rather than creating an imaginative one. His portraits using light, shadows and texture achieve honest and direct expressions He practiced this “real world” whilst waiting for clients to arrive at his studio by shooting still life objects, continuously arranging and re-arranging the composition until he was satisfied they could be photographed in the most simplistic way.
Whilst making a living with portrait commissions, Weston’s personal work included Nudes and forms of nature, the results which celebrated form, light, life and simplicity. Whilst Weston photographed his Nudes dancing rather than posing, his still life work was done under tight control in the studio by arranging, re-arranging and isolating the surroundings of the object by filling the frame and making it appear larger. In particular he used light and shadow to outline form in the nudes and express significant patterns in objects such as vegetables and shells.
Pepper No. 35. 1930. Copyright Edward Weston Shell. 1927. Copyright Edward Weston
In later years Weston became interested in landscapes and close-ups of nature particularly of coastal variety such as rocks, tree roots and sand dunes. In one of his journals he was quoted as saying:
“I get greater joy from finding things in nature, already composed, than I do from my finest personal arrangements”.
Maybe he wouldn’t have realised this had he not spent so long perfecting the composition of his still life objects, where his images represent the objects in their true and natural form. I think there is a lesson to be learnt here – like Penn he has demonstrated pure and deep respect for all subjects by shooting them in a straightforward and honest way.
Although Weston did not experience the digital age where, post production can significantly alter the quality of the final image, I totally get where he was coming from in another quote from his journals and it is something that I will always strive to achieve when shooting my images.
“I want the stark beauty that a lens can so exactly render, presented without interference of ‘artistic’ effect”.
Penn, I. 2001. Still Life. London. Thames & Hudson
Weston, E. 1999. Edward Weston (Photographic Study). London. Taschen
Kooiker, P. Dissecting Nudes. P.40 – 49, British Journal of Photography, May 2015, by Taco Hidde Bakker