From the beginning of his commercial career, Irving Penn dreamed about photographing peoples on the fringes of modern society:
In my early years as a photographer, confined to an enclosed windowless area working in a New York office building, even here were electric light banks to simulate the light of the sky…. In this confinement I would often daydream of being mysteriously deposed in my ideal studio among the disappearing aborigines of course in remote parts of the earth. In my phantasies [sic] these remarkable strangers would come to me and place themselves in front of my camera and in the clear north sky light I would make records of their physical presence, pictures that would survive us both and at least to the extent something of their already disappearing cultures would be forever preserved.
I can say that even at that time pictures trying to show people in their "natural circumstances" were for me generally disappointing. Certainly I know that to accomplish such a result was beyond my strength and capabilities. I preferred in this fantasy of mine, the limited objective of dealing only with the person himself, in his own clothes and adornments away from the accidentals of his daily life. From him alone I would distill the image I wanted and the cold light of the day would put it into the film.1
While magazine work provided the initial impetus and means for travel to foreign locations, Penn's enthusiasm and his particular concept of ethnographic portraiture gave him great personal as well as professional satisfaction from the projects.
Penn used a variety of studio spaces to remove his subjects from their "natural circumstances." In his Cuzco photographs (1948) and the Small Trades series (1950–51), both projects done between assignments for Vogue, Penn rented studios where he took portraits of everyday people against an austere yet neutral background—a method he was already well-known for using in his fashion photographs and portraits. The Small Trades, which captured artisans and blue-collar workers in Paris, London, and New York, might not seem an ethnographic project, but in fact it shares all the fundamental features with Penn's later photographs of non-Western subjects, and as Penn recognized, his approach to tradespeople in Europe and the United States—an anonymous portraiture—had been fundamentally conditioned by his temporary occupation of a local Peruvian photographer's studio in Cuzco and the pictures he made there of Quechua Indians.
In 1964, Penn's magazine assignments shifted from the depiction of places and people to an exclusive preference for up-close studies of individuals within a given culture. Not all locations provided ideal studio spaces, so Penn rented storage buildings and barns and converted them into daylight studios. These spaces became a site of transformation where he could penetrate the psychology and lived experience of his subjects through the neutrality of the space. "As they crossed the threshold of the studio they left behind many of the manners of their community," Penn recalled in an undated notebook entry, and "they rose to the experience of being looked at by a stranger…with the dignity and seriousness of concentration that they never would have had ten or fifteen feet away, outside of the studio in their own surroundings."2
As a way to gain access in ever more remote locations assigned to him by the magazines, Penn and his assistants devised a portable tent studio that allowed him to travel with staff around the world. The small tent forced Penn nearer to his subjects even as he continued to pose them meticulously. Penn described the experience of working at close quarters:
The [portable tent] studio became for us both a sort of neutral area. It was not their home, since I had brought this alien enclosure into their lives. It was not my home since I had obviously come from elsewhere far away. But in this limbo was in us both the possibility of contact that was a revelation to me and often I could tell a moving experience for the subjects themselves.3
Regardless of whether the studio was rented from another photographer, adapted from an existing structure, or assembled on site by the crew, Penn's ethnographic photographs are the direct result of his decision to make of studio photography a portable and transformative theatrical space.
The Rented Photography Studio 1948–51: Cuzco and the Small Trades
After finishing a fashion assignment in Lima, Peru, for Vogue in December 1948, Irving Penn traveled independently to Cuzco, where he stayed for several days. He rented a studio from a highly regarded local photographer that featured natural light from north-facing windows and a simple painted curtain as its backdrop. Penn 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) 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), Penn shows a group of adolescent boys inside the studio engaged in the same behaviors 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.
Soon after the Cuzco series, Penn worked on a project in between fashion sessions while he was in Paris to document the release of the 1950 Paris Collections for Vogue. Penn later continued the series in London and New York City. The series, inspired in part by Vogue art director Alexander Liberman, draws on the history of early genre portraits of the "criers" of London and the "petits métiers" of Paris that were made from drawings or wood cuts and printed during the 16th through 18th centuries. These early prints informed the occupational portraits taken in the early 20th century by photographers such as Eugène Atget and August Sander that directly informed Penn's idea for the series.
Penn instructed his subjects to arrive in the studio dressed in their work clothes so that he could accurately capture the essence of their trade. For example, in Patissiers, Paris (1950), the two men are dressed in white uniforms, flour from the rolling pins visible on the studio floor. The platinum-palladium prints that Penn made of his photographs in the 1970s especially brought forth the details of these figures with crisp definition, from the wrinkles of their aprons to the veins of their forearms. In these details, Penn draws attention to the fact that much of their work is done by hand, still a physical process of taking raw ingredients and transforming them into a finished product.
Penn was acutely aware that postwar corporatism and the rise of chain stores would soon put many of these tradesmen out of business. Because he perceived this as a period of change, Penn took notes on the names of the trades and described their various responsibilities.4 His notes from the London sittings make clear that at least some individuals were aware of their precarious situation. A chimney sweep remarked during his sitting, "Vacuum flue cleaning is no good,"5 suggesting that technological advances do not necessarily improve the quality of service. Penn's portrait shows the man's broom fanned out against the neutral background, his face obscured in shadow as if covered in coal.
The Converted Studio 1964–67: Crete, Extremadura, and San Francisco
Penn recalls setting up a rented studio space on the island of Crete where he traveled on assignment for Vogue in 1964:
I was fortunate to be able to find two storage buildings open to the north, where, after some negations with local masons, the walls were worked and smoothed to a suitable background for the portraits I planned to make.6
The following year, Penn traveled again on assignment for Vogue to an area of western Spain known as Extremadura in order to photograph members of a gypsy community living there. Penn rented a barn and set up a studio inside, using the natural light filtering in from the door to his benefit. Initially, Penn had difficulty locating the nomadic people and making arrangements with them to sit for portraits. Penn attributed his ultimate success, despite these tensions, to the space itself. He described the situation as affecting him and his subjects equally:
Here was another example of the curious transformation that this intimate studio kind of working seemed to have brought about. In several hours in the barn-studio, where neither of us was entirely at home, I think we got to know each other for the first time.7
In 1967, Penn approached the editors of Look magazine with a proposal for a photo essay. Given their long professional relationship through his travel essays, the editors accepted his idea to photograph counterculture groups in San Francisco, including the Hell's Angels motorcycle club, hippie families, and two rising rock bands. Penn rented a barn and made the studio floor and background out of concrete, which served as a neutral space that could also support the weight of the motorcycles.
The Portable Tent Studio 1967–71: Dahomey, Nepal, Cameroon, New Guinea, and Morocco
Penn continued his annual trips for Vogue magazine on assignments that often required his crew to travel for a month or longer. The research and planning for these projects usually began more than a year in advance. Penn describes the portable studio tent that made such projects possible:
We found several aluminum modular systems of pipes and chose one that did the job for us. A tentmaker built the skin for our aluminum skeleton with a system of guy ropes for fixing it against the wind, and he made us a white plastic oversheet as a parasol. Two windows were installed opposite the open side to release any dangerous air pressure that might build up in a storm. The construction made, we set up the tent-studio inside our New York studio, recording each step in a series of photographs and putting the pictures in a notebook we would take with us. There were several dry runs to work out the bugs and to gain speed in handling. The whole construction was carefully planned to pack into several pieces that could be carried on top of a Jeep or small truck.8
The portable studio gave Penn and his crew access to the remote locations, but they had to adapt other aspects of their workflow to accommodate for the lack of modern conveniences. Penn recalled the crucial role played by his assistants:
Assistant program on a trip. Testing of film before beginning work (radioactivity?). Field laboratory for general checking. Detailed records of each roll for later development. Tending to avoid more delicate cameras, generally leaning to Rolleiflex. Generally about 50% breakdown during a hard trip.9
With his camera, Penn worked closely with his subjects inside the tent studio—he carefully posed and arranged each composition by hand and spoke in English to his subjects even though they did not understand him, recalling, "primitive subjects respond more to tone than to obscure words."10 The meticulously arranged photographs show an interest in ritual modification and adornment at a time when haute couture was on the decline and the rising interest in global culture influenced the ready-to-wear fashions that took its place. Three Dahomey Girls, One Reclining (1967) shows three young women adorned with white pigment around their necks and striation marks across their chests and torsos that take on a sculptural quality, similar to the clothing in Penn's Cuzco and fashion photographs.
In the effort to remove his subjects from the context of space and time, Penn's ethnographic work can court stereotypes. In Man in White, Woman in Black (1971), Penn shows a female figure cloaked entirely in black, dwarfed by a male figure next to her, who wears a dust-stained white robe. The viewer can only be sure that the figure in black is a woman because of Penn's title, as the only part of her body visible are the toes that peek out from beneath her robe.
Series VII: Ethnographic Studies in the Paper Archive consists of material related to the Small Trades series and trips taken for Vogue (features on the people of Cuzco, Peru, New Guinea, Dahomey [now the Republic of Benin], Cameroon, and Nepal). The files contain research material, release forms, notes and sketches, and itineraries.
Series VI: Ethnographic Photography in the Photographic Archive consists of color transparencies and black-and-white test negatives with the bulk of material pertaining to Penn's 1948 trip to Cuzco, Peru. Also includes images from Penn's trips to Extremadura (in western Spain), New Guinea, Morocco, Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin), Cameroon, and San Francisco, as well as the Small Trades photographs from Paris, London, and New York.
1 "Cold North Light" essay on ethnographic photography, n.d. in notebook A13 untitled, n.d. (Box.FF 185.109).
4 "Notes on English Petits Metiers" descriptions of various occupations, n.d. (Box.FF 2.64.8A).
6 Irving Penn. Worlds in a Small Room. New York, NY: Grossman Publishers, 1974, p. 27.
7 Ibid, p. 32.
8 Irving Penn. Worlds in a Small Room. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1974.
9 FPS Magazine Tent Article" notes on the portable studio and details of travel for ethnographic projects, n.d. in notebook A12, untitlted, n.d. (Box.FF 185.8).
Per Boije. Tent in Nepal (A), 1967. Gift of Irving Penn, 1996.274.
Irving Penn. Patissiers, Paris, 1950. Restricted gift of Mrs. Leigh B. Block, 1977.906.
Irving Penn. Three Cretan Women, Crete, 1964. Gift of Irving Penn, 1996.273.
Irving Penn. Three Dahomey Girls, One Reclining, 1967. Gift of Irving Penn, 1996.275.