Tuesday, October 21, 2014


Irving Penn's peephole, NYC 1990

I'VE TALKED ABOUT ONE MAJOR INFLUENCE I shared with my friend Chris Buck here before. We were lucky enough to meet Anton Corbijn and perhaps that helped us digest his inspiration on our work and move on. This post is a record of our closest brush with our other great shared influence, over twenty-five years ago, in the hallway of an office building in midtown Manhattan in the middle of a windy weekday.

Influences are a funny thing for a photographer. As a painter, you can talk about your influences all you want, but your hand will never let you create something that looks like a copy of your inspiration unless you're making a forgery. (Which requires a whole extra level of talent that is never really given its due, probably for good reasons.)

As a photographer, you can create a remarkable facsimile of another photographer's work with just a little technical know-how, a deft hand at Photoshop and some smart choices in equipment rental. You'll get a few golf claps for your display of skill, but no one will tell you that being a photographic impressionist is a great career move.

Style is acquired with bitter effort, and while a young photographer can be excused for aping their influences overtly early on, you have to press ahead with the business of digesting your inspirations or else become swamped by them. For Chris 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.

Irving Penn

I don't think I ever saw this photo while Irving Penn was alive. If I did, I think my admiration for him might have been even even greater. I mean - look at the man. Even now I'm staring at it and wondering where I could get a jacket like that, and if pleats will ever be back in style.

Before the internet, photographs of Penn were rare; you might find one or two in the introduction to one of his monographs, but he never did interviews. One day, many years ago, Chris sent me a clipping in the mail (the mail, children!) of Penn and his wife, Lisa Fonssagrives, arriving at some black tie event, a paparazzi shot cut from the gossip page of a magazine. Apart from work that continued to appear in Vogue every now and then, it was our only evidence that the master walks among us still!

Rainn Wilson, New York magazine cover by Chris Buck, 2007
Truman Capote by Irving Penn

A couple of weeks ago I asked Chris what he thought was his most obvious dip into the well of his Penn influence and he sent me the New York magazine cover shoot above, with Rainn Wilson hunched into a slightly scaled-down version of the corner Penn once made Truman Capote, among others, back themselves into in his studio. "I actually wrote a letter to his studio with an apology," Chris said in the e-mail.

I wouldn't call it a Penn rip-off as much as an homage, a Masonic handshake 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, and I'd recognize it as his work a mile away. Still, the anxiety of influence lingers, and in a later e-mail Chris wrote:
I've been thinking about the Penn influence on us a little since we've been emailing about it and I want to be careful how it's framed in terms of my work and work development. Clearly the Rainn Wilson shot (from 2007) shows he is still lodged in my brain somewhere but for the most part I moved on from his, and other early influences (like Avedon and Corbijn) after the mid-nineties. 
I went through a difficult time when I was turning 30 (in 1994), just coming to terms with whatever successes I'd had (or lack of success) and the Penn influence really shows most prominently, and to the best effect, during this period (Elvis Costello, Julia Child), but 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.

Seth, Chester Brown & Joe Matt, Toronto 1992
George Jean Nathan & H.L. Mencken by Irving Penn

I had a hard time choosing my own Penn rip-off for Chris - there were a few - and settled on a group portrait I did in 1992 of three comic book artists who were (and still are) identified with each other, back when they all lived in Toronto. At the time they were all friends of mine (Seth still is, today; I'd end up shooting his wedding) and I had given a lot of thought about the portrait I wanted to make with them even before I got this assignment. I had Penn's portrait of George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken in the front of my mind.

At the start of his career, Penn said that he'd realized he was never going to be a painter, so he scraped the paint off of his old canvases and used them as backdrops in his studio. I think the cloth draped over the small table in his portrait of Nathan and Mencken looks more like broadloom carpet flipped over, but I loved the dirty, well-used textures surrounding the two men.

Aping that would have been a step too far, so I simply tried to copy Penn's beautifully modeled lighting; the result looks more like his later work with strobe than his early, skylight portraiture. (For obvious reasons - I didn't have a magnificent north light skylight.) I covered the table with butcher paper and asked Seth, Chester and Joe to either draw on it (for their individual portraits) or sign their names (for the group shot.)

I placed the ashtray on the table for Seth (a chain smoker at the time) 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."

I did it all consciously; early in my career (and just before when Chris admits he began to grapple with moving past his influences) I was happy to wear my Penn on my sleeve, figuring that if I could evoke just a bit of the artfulness and authority of his photos, I'd be doing pretty well.

Outside Irving Penn's Fifth Avenue studio, 1990 by Chris Buck

Two years before I did this portrait, and just after Chris had left Toronto, we decided to make a pilgrimage to Temple Penn - the midtown studio that Conde Nast apparently rented for him on Fifth Avenue, which Chris had discovered after a tip-off from an industry acquaintance. I was regularly in town staying with my girlfriend in the Village and trying to scare up U.S. work, in the hopes of joining Chris soon.

(Note: Chris tells me that this stretch of Fifth Avenue, between 17th & 18th, is actually downtown, not midtown. I had always presumed that midtown started north of Union Square. There you go - typical fucking tourist. Additionally, Chris has re-blogged this post on his Tumblr.)

"I can tell you that it was Wednesday August 22nd, 1990, just over a month after I'd moved to New York," Chris recalled in an e-mail. We brought along our cameras and 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.

Chris pays homage, 1990

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 suppose we were also worried that the door would open, that some assistant or subject would emerge and find us on the floor.

I'm guessing that we were also both hoping that Penn himself would open the door and find us there. "What can I do for you, gentlemen?" he'd ask. We'd explain, he'd invite us in, dubiously but still perhaps a bit flattered. We'd get a glimpse of the studio - the seamless rolls, the lighting stands, the famous skylight, maybe. He'd answer a few questions, maybe even let us take a photo or two, then send us on our way.

Of course that never happened. The door never opened. We finished our rolls, then headed back outside to Fifth Avenue. I think we went for lunch.

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.


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