Viewing a Master Photographer

By Roger (16 November 2015)

We've talked many times about viewing and studying the work of other photographers, especially the “great” ones. There is much to learn, and it's important to learn from the best. Whenever possible, you should see the photographer's work, in person. There is a big difference in viewing the photos, in the real world, versus viewing them online. The difference can be shocking at times.

On Sunday, I had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian's American Art Museum for an Irving Penn exhibit (link). I joined a meetup with about 25 members of the On Taking Pictures podcast (link) and Google+ group. The hosts of the podcast, Jeffrey Saddoris and Bill Wadman, were there. We spent about 90 minutes, viewing the photos; split up and made some photos of our own; and had a beer and barbecue together. It was a pretty good way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

So, what did I see at the exhibit?

Penn (1917-2009) was a real working photographer and is considered one of the foremost photographers of the 20th century. He is best known for his fashion photography, but he shot celebrity portraits, street scenes, still lifes, studio, and even advertising. The museum had 146 representative photographs from all aspects of Penn's career, both monochrome and color. He is also known for using simple backgrounds and corners for his photos.

Some of the photographs were stunning, especially when you realize they were printed decades ago. I've gotten so comfortable with today's print quality, I had forgotten how good the quality actually could be with film and platinum printing. It wasn't better than today's prints, but there was a different look to the prints. Some of the color prints from his advertising days were still eye-popping.

When you go to an exhibit like this, you'll also find photos you don't think are worthy of being in such an exhibit. Art, with a capital A, can be a funny thing sometimes. The arbiters of Art will see things a “normal” viewer doesn't. There were a couple photos I didn't appreciate as much as the others. However, you would probably see several that I really liked and have a differing opinion. I'm certainly a fan of Penn's work, especially the portraits.

During the short photowalk, I was looking for some kind of abstract, with lines and curves, like I had seen in the exhibit. Penn's work was done in camera, so I didn't want want to create any kind of Photoshop composite. I saw this window display of strange teapots, with the reflection of a crosswalk in the glass. I'm not sure about the display stand's support cutting through the right teapots, but I didn't want to crop in so far that I lost the curve, and I wanted it straight from the camera.

My Penn-inspired teapots

The museum visit and OTP meetup was a great success. The Penn exhibit runs through 20 March, if you get a chance to visit the museum. You can do a Google Image search to see some of Penn's work. And listen to the podcast, next week (they're released on Tuesdays), and hear the discussion. I'm sure Jeffrey and Bill will talk about the meetup and exhibit.