Irving Penn Homage
My guest blogger today is my long-time friend and photographer colleague Rick McGinnis:
A “Style” in photography is acquired with bitter effort, and while a young photographer can be excused for aping their influences overtly early on, one must digest their inspirations or else become swamped by them. For Chris Buck and I, Irving Penn was the one photographer whose influence was hardest to digest - mostly because it was so monolithic, and the photographer himself such a paragon.
I asked Chris which of his photographs was most obviously influenced by Penn, and he sent me a New York magazine cover shoot: Rainn Wilson hunched into a slightly scaled-down version of the corner that Penn once made Truman Capote and others back themselves into in his studio. I wouldn’t call it a Penn rip-off, but rather an homage that probably only other photographers, photo editors, and art directors would get. The set-up is Penn, but the lighting and subject’s expression are clearly Chris. Still, the anxiety of influence lingers, and in a later e-mail Chris wrote:
"I actually wrote a letter to his studio with an apology," Chris said. “I’ve been thinking about the Penn influence on us, I want to be careful of how it’s framed in terms of my work and work development. When I turned 30, I had a difficult time coming to terms with whatever successes I’d had (or lack of). The Penn influence really shows most prominently, and to the best effect, during this period. However, I think that it allowed me to truly digest it and move past it to define my own style, which really came together in those years. Clearly the Rainn Wilson shot (2007) shows he is still lodged in my brain somewhere, but for the most part I moved on from his and other early influences after the mid-nineties.”
For my own Penn rip-off, I settled on a group portrait I did in 1992 of three comic book artists who were (and still are) identified with each other. Even before I got this assignment, I had Penn’s portrait of George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken on my mind. Aping that would have been a step too far, so I simply tried to copy Penn’s beautifully modeled lighting. I also placed the ashtray on the table for Seth and, as a final Penn touch, reached in and tipped some of the contents out onto the table. It was final clue for anyone wondering “is he doing a Penn?” - a nod to Penn’s incredible still-lifes of street trash and his "After Dinner Games."
In the nineties, Chris and I made a pilgrimage to Temple Penn - the studio that Conde Nast apparently rented for him on Fifth Avenue (in what used to be known as “The Photo District”). “I can tell you that it was Wednesday August 22nd, 1990, just over a month after I’d moved to New York,” Chris recalled. We took photos of the door outside, of us standing in the door outside, of Penn’s name on the lobby directory, of us looking at Penn’s name on the lobby directory, etc., etc. It was all very thrilling.
We took the elevator up to find tarpaulins on the floor where workmen were plastering and painting the hallway outside Penn’s studio. The door bore the legend “Conde Nast Corporation” while Penn’s name was printed discreetly on a card mounted under the peephole. Worried that the workmen might come back from lunch we got shooting, taking pictures of the door, of ourselves in front of the door, and finally of each other prostrating ourselves in the direction of Penn.
I was inspired to revisit this day when Chris forwarded me an e-mail he’d received; Penn’s old studio has been renovated and is available to rent for shoots. “WE ARE WELL AWARE OF HOW SPECIAL THIS PLACE IS,” the current owners say on their webpage, “AND HOW FORTUNATE WE ARE TO HAVE IT IN OUR POSSESSION.”
I bet you are. I hope Chris rents some time there. He’d better take lots of photos.
Irving Penn died in 2009.
Top Image: Irving Penn’s Peephole, 1990
Second Image: Rainn Wilson for New York Magazine, 2007
Third Image: Seth, Chester Brown & Joe Matt, Toronto by Rick McGinnis, 1992
Fourth Image: Rick McGinnis, in front of Penn’s studio’s building, 1990
Bottom Image: Chris Buck, showing respect at Penn’s doorway, 1990