Like A Toothbrush, It Does the Job – Don McCullin

homeless irishman near spitalfields 1969

Sir Don McCullin – Homeless Irishman Near Spitalfields, 1969

Sir Don McCullin was the marquee name at the 2016 edition of PhotoLondon. (He wasn’t  knighted, as a matter of fact until the New Year Honours list of that same year, a few months later.)  I was asked to write various texts in that connection, including the words to go on wall panels for a very fine one-man exhibition that Hamilton’s – his gallery for many years –  put on in his honour.  I wrote two more general pieces at that time, which I reproduce here in advance of his retrospective show opening at Tate Britain in 2019, which will once again put his name in the headlines. That will run 5 February – 6 May 2019.

The first of them is a curiosity – the formal address I was asked to make to mark McCullin’s being appointed the PhotoLondon Master of Photography for that year.  He was embarrassed to hear it, and I was more than embarrassed to give it.  I was a sweating, stuttering wreck, to be honest.  Who could possibly enjoy giving such a speech in front of the man it described?

The second was a catalogue piece to accompany the Hamilton’s exhibition, a more usual format for me, which was published (a slight variant) in the PhotoLondon guide for visitors.  Neither is easily accessible for most people. Together they both make the point which I still think worth underlining, that McCullin was never only a photographer.  He was always a tremendous journalist – who happened to use a camera as most traditionally used a typewriter and some sometimes a tape-recorder.  There is a kind of snobbery in isolating McCullin by the tool of his trade which limits our appreciation of his high talent.

These pieces overlap as I repeat myself across the pair of them.  I hope that doesn’t matter too much as they add up to a whole.

early morning, west hartlepool, 1963

Sir Don McCullin – Early Morning West Hartlepool, 1963

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is customary on these occasions to make an introduction.  But I can hardly introduce you to someone you all know.  Don McCullin is with good reason the best known name in British photography, and if some of you don’t know the person before you here today, you all know the work almost intimately well .

I hardly need to bring to your mind that there is no end of places in the world where cruelty is allowed to flourish for advantage; and that there is still a very large number of photographers who make some part of their living by showing us the manifold horrors to be found in those places.  For most, I’m afraid, it is simply a question of getting to the site of whatever famine or war or other crisis, making pictures without seeing too much and getting away.  Increasing evidence suggests that those pictures have little or no effect upon viewers.  Call it ‘compassion fatigue’ as some do, or call it mediocre photography, as I do; either way you have a vast pool of pictures from the bad places in the world, spread before us to consume as part of our varied media diet, but which do nothing to persuade us of injustice or cruelty.

Don McCullin set himself apart from that way of working many years ago.  He has said many times that his emotional commitment to what he photographed was always the thing that mattered.  He has been open in discussing his motives, his frame of mind.  But in the end he remains impatient with the hairsplitting.  He acknowledges that he made for many years his living and his reputation out of the suffering of others. No, he doesn’t ” hide behind the camera”.  Yes, he knows the truth when he sees it. Yes, he knows that great pain and fear and damage and squalor slide onto light-sensitive paper just as easily as grace and joy.  He knows, in other words, that photography changed for ever our notions of truth and beauty.   He was one of the people who did that, and that, difficult as it is to accept, is why we honour him today.

Don McCullin was born shortly before the Second War and raised in modest circumstances in Finsbury Park in North London, the son of a father who was too ill to work much, and who diminished and died in front of McCullin’s young eyes.  He had as a youngster a tough evacuation during the War, which involved among other things being separated from his sister.  His mother had a great love of music, and even had a few 78s ; she owned the Ink Spots, of course, but her real love, although nobody knew where she had found it, was opera.  McCullin told Roy Plomley on Desert Island discs in 1984 that she had saved money to take him just the once to Sadler’s Wells, where he felt out of place.  He heard La Bohème.  McCullin won a Trade Art scholarship to study art at the Hammersmith School of Arts & Crafts at Lime Grove, but had to pass it up to earn his living after his father died when he was 14.  He got a job:  working on the dining cars on the railway – sleeping, he recalled, in incredibly crisp sheets at the staff hostels where some kind of imperial splendour of service still somehow prevailed.  Perhaps some of his dandyism comes from those starched sheets, or perhaps from his next job, as a messenger and colour-mixer for Larkins – film animators in Mayfair.  He has described his education in ‘the beautiful’ coming from the windows he passed on Mayfair streets, notably Moyses Stevens’ flower shop in Berkeley Square (the window display was described in the 1920s as “a veritable Chelsea Flower show every day of the year”).

He did his military service, becoming what he called a “broom-wallah” in the RAF, and being sent in the end to Kenya, where he bulk-processed film of the jungle before it was bombed.  On leaving the RAF he pawned a camera bought on his RAF money, having no great mind then to make it the tool of his trade. He wanted a 500cc Norton Dominator rather more.  Indeed, he famously said later that he used a camera as he used a toothbrush; it did the job.   Yet he was beginning to see all the same that he had a gift for pictures and that they gave him a certain power denied to others.

An early successful sale to The Observer – of a gang in his home district he had posed in a bombed-out building some time before one of their number was charged with killing a policeman outside Gray’s Dancing Academy in the Seven Sisters’ Road – netted him more money than he had ever earned before.  That was encouraging.  He took a risk. When he heard that the Berlin Wall was going up he spent all the money he had, everything, on a throw of the dice.  He paid for his own trip in 1961, with no commission, while more established journalists waited to see what would develop;  he made brilliant pictures;  and his career was on.

The Observer sent him to Cyprus, and he found he could manage in war zones.  From then on for many years, there was hardly a hot spot in the world to which he was not sent.  Mark Haworth-Booth, the distinguished curator of photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum called the pictures that have resulted ” part of the furniture of all our minds.”

He moved from The Observer to The Sunday Times.  He worked there first in 1966, and had a contract from 1969-1984.  The peculiar blend of the British Sunday supplements owes a lot to many people:  to Michael Rand, the picture editor of the magazine, to Harold Evans, the editor, as well as to many precursors such as Stefan Lorant who had edited both Lilliput and Picture Post a generation before.  But it was Don McCullin who nailed the business, week after week, of putting the unspeakable in front of the public in images of such exquisite beauty that there was no hiding from them.  I should underline, too, that he was by no means a specialist in the far-flung places.  His reports from the deprived corners of a Britain exhausted in the war years, and losing one by one all the industries upon which its nineteenth-century fortunes had been made, are every bit as burningly urgent as the better-known work from elsewhere.

So he became – with neither hyperbole nor any chance of being contradicted – one of the greatest war photographers there has been.  It is an odd footnote that the three greatest photographers working in Vietnam, one of the periods when McCullin was at the height of his powers — who did so much between them to change public attitudes to violent colonial adventures overseas — were all British (the others were Larry Burrows and Philip Jones Griffiths).   It is another odd footnote — and one rich in ironies —  that it was McCullin who made the photographs for Michelangelo Antonioni’s famous Blow-Up – in spite of the hero being a fashion photographer.  The originals, and the eponymous enlargements were made by McCullin, probably introduced – we can ask him – to Antonioni by Francis Wyndham, his colleague on The Sunday Times.

Don McCullin’s motives were complex.  David Cornwell, who proved in his great series of novels under the name of John Le Carré what an acute judge of character he was, felt that ” McCullin was peace-weary before he ever went to war.  He arrived at the battlefield with open wounds and he has bitterly refused ever since to let them heal.”  There’s probably something in that: but it was written in 1980, and McCullin has made huge efforts to look for healing since then.  By developing his career in landscape photography, in particular, he has made himself a great master in an area which uses wholly different skills to the ones we know he excelled at way back when.

McCullin was a very angry photographer. He has said so many times. His background in poverty made him angry, and so did his work.  When you read his description of coming to a hospital in Biafra in which 800 had died, children and women among them, you can see why.

Were Don McCullin passing through the education system today, he would most likely be diagnosed dyslexic.  He certainly had a quite exceptionally retentive mind yet found great trouble absorbing information from books. He was also, curiously, colour-blind to some degree, a condition which affects more men than women.  As an adult, he has understandably and openly admitted suffering badly from what we can only call post traumatic stress.

Yet you can’t be fuelled by rage as a landscape photographer.  You can’t even necessarily hope to tell the truth.  All you can do is try to say who you are.   McCullin still itches to go to war; I suspect that he has a visa for Syria in his pocket right now.  But his friends will try to stop him.  He’s slowed down, and he’s let some of that anger go. He shouldn’t go back. He’s told us what he has to say about war.  He has a magnificent new career, making long careful sequences of pictures, first about the landscape where he has found some solace, on the low hills of Somerset, and later a major work around the margins of the former Roman Empire.

If ever a man was self-made it has been Don McCullin.  The career, the reputation: both are stellar.  It goes without saying that he forged those alone and against long odds.  He also no longer speaks or dresses like that boy from Finsbury Park.

I opened by saying that it was absurd to introduce a man of this calibre to you; you know him already for his great skill as photographer and printer of photographs; for his refusal to drop below high standards of honour; for his insistence on speaking the truth to large corporations or governments; and above all for the great dignity he has always given to those suffering in the most violent or catastrophic moments of man’s inhumanity to man.  But I want to make a slight introduction all the same.  We know Don McCullin as a photographer.  That’s what we call him: the great war photographer.  He was that, of course, but I think the title does him a disservice.  He was more.  In honouring Don McCullin today, I don’t think we are honouring only a user of cameras and lenses.  Don McCullin was one of the great journalists of his generation, a great reporter, a communicator of genius.

Don, I speak formally on behalf of PhotoLondon, but also informally on behalf of many, many others, when I say thank you for all that you have done.

east wall 8

Sir Don McCullin – Vietnam View, n.d.

unemployed men gathering coal, sunderland, early 1970s

Sir Don McCullin – Unemployed Men Gathering Coal, Sunderland, early 1970s

Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin 1961 by Don McCullin born 1935

Sir Don McCullin – Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin 1961

Gangs of Boys Escaping C.S. Gas Fired by British Soldiers, Londonderry, Northern Ireland  1971, printed 2013 by Don McCullin born 1935

Sir Don McCullin – Gangs of Boys Escaping C.S. Gas Fired by British Soldiers, Londonderry, 1971

A Young Lebanese Christian Woman Throwing a Hand Grenade from the Holiday Inn Hotel 1976, printed 2013 by Don McCullin born 1935

Sir Don McCullin – A Young Lebanese Christian Woman Throwing a Hand Grenade from the Holiday Inn Hotel, Beirut 1976,

 

If — and you should —  you listen to Richard Dimbleby’s icy broadcast of 19th April 1945 on the BBC from the newly liberated Belsen concentration camp,  you will hear him say quite calmly “I passed through the barrier and found myself in the world of nightmare.”  He then goes on to describe appalling suffering, in which death is vilely cheap and even cannibalism necessary to survive.  Don McCullin has passed that barrier many times.  Like Dimbleby, but not necessarily like other war reporters, McCullin seemed also to remain calm in the very face of man’s worst inhumanity to man.  Wounded, flung on a truck in Cambodia among the dead and dying, he took his mind off the pain and the fear of what might happen next by struggling in the fading light to get his exposures right.  Another harrowing set of pictures was the result.

Everybody thinks they know Don McCullin.  His face is known, his name almost a shorthand for that place where photography meets conscience.

Part of the reason for that has been his subject matter.  He volunteers to see such cruelty, such pity and shame, that where we see those things it’s not hard to associate him them.  But that’s only part of the reason.  For while McCullin been able to survive (and with his eyes wide open) in places most of us would flee, he has also done a great deal more. We tend to forget it because we think that a reporter like him can only tell the unvarnished truth.  We have to hope that what he shows is never a trick of photography.  It isn’t a trick.  But that doesn’t mean it’s naïve or neutral.  Don McCullin has in fact been a great stylist.

He is a wonderful printer, a great one.  Today, he spends a lot of time in his darkroom, getting his prints miraculously right.  That wasn’t always so; inevitably he sent many rolls of film back from the field to be printed by someone else.  But he was always a great technician, of the cameras and the film, even when the final print was by necessity made elsewhere.  I remember him telling me once, years ago, that he used to carry a length of lavatory-chain as part of his kit.  I wondered why, as he expected me to.  Some kind of arcane tool of self-defence? In fact, he used to screw it into the tripod socket under his cameras, and then brace his elbows tight into his ribs while jamming the lower end of the chain under his foot.  That extra tautness gave his camera a little more stability; and that in turn gave him a stop, perhaps two, of exposure.

Those sunken pools of black and glistening greys of McCullin’s are not accidental, in other words.  There is a gulf between making pictures and taking them. McCullin’s great images are made and worked at even though we see in them circumstances so fast — and often so appalling — that simply to have pressed the button at all would have been enough for most. Under the most appalling stresses, McCullin remained a virtuoso.  His compositions bear careful examination; the tones of his prints are exquisite.  For balance and harmony he equals Ansel Adams.  Only to see that, you need sometimes to abstract the photograph from what it shows.  For his photographs — it’s a word which is troubling in his contexts, and one with which McCullin has quite naturally wrestled for years — are beautiful.  Part of his greatness lies there, that in spite of everything, the language that he chose to address us in was the language of art.

There are a number of public visions of Don McCullin which are only partly true at best.  First is the myth of Don the straightforward antique hero in a safari jacket.  McCullin has been brave as a lion.  He has gone where angels fear to tread. In a long career witnessing horror on our behalf, he has more than earned a number of clichés of that sort. It is perfectly true that McCullin rushed to the car in which Nick Tomalin died in the Golan Heights in the vain hope of saving his colleague and friend.  He knew full well as he did it that he would be in clear gunshot and did it anyway.

Clearly, there is in Don McCullin something of the hero.  But he is far too intelligent to be a classic hero.  He has never been blithe, or insouciant, or nonchalant.  In the face of the terrifying, he has often admitted to being terrified.  The classic hero does his duty, patriotic or romantic. Although he may have an Achilles heel, he does not engage in moral ambiguity. Don McCullin has never disengaged from that.  He has been an actively moral person, with all the complexities that implies.

This shades into a related myth: Saint Don.  This was most clearly seen in a retrospective show put on by the British IWM, the former Imperial War Museum, under the title Shaped by War.  In this extraordinary tribute, McCullin’s work – his pictures, whether seen as individual images, or gathered together on the pages of the magazines as thev were first seen – was not enough.  That show surrounded the work with relics, actual relics, whose clear function was to add a kind of moral aura to the man behind the pictures.  There were passes and letters allowing him to various hell-holes.  There was his military issue bayonet, a weapon of war used presumably only to open tins of food.  There was above all the camera damaged by a bullet which would otherwise have damaged the photographer.

There exists an extraordinary picture of Don McCullin in 1964 (it was made by John Bulmer, then working for The Sunday Times while McCullin was still working for The Observer) carrying an old lady in his arms to safety.  That was useful to the museum’s view of the reporter-saint.  So was the fact that our own Ministry of Defence refused him permission to go to the Falkland Islands embedded with the taskforce:  it’s traditional for saints to have their truths denied by authority.

Don McCullin has indeed carried many wounded. He has shared privation and desperate danger with hundreds of victims of war or civil war.  He has suffered dreadfully, not just in terms of wounds to his body, but in terms of what we would now call the Post Traumatic Stress which he has described searingly in himself.  His relations with people, his family foremost among them, have suffered as a result. But he isn’t a saint.  His motives have been professional or personal like all of ours, his actions sometimes frankly wrong.  He is a person.  A person of exceptional gifts, certainly. But it is wrong to caricature him even in a complimentary way.  Hero, saint; these are nice labels, but they are also ways of avoiding understanding.

Don McCullin wrote that he was a “product of Hitler. I was born in the 1930s  and bombed in the 1940s. Then the Hollywood people moved in and started showing me films about violence. ”   As a young man, he was poor, and he was dyslexic, and his father died when he was fifteen.   He had to give up then a scholarship he’d won, to Hammersmith School of Arts and Crafts.  No need to be a subtle psychologist to see already that there were causes of great anger there.   His brother made a thirty-year career in the French Foreign Legion, and McCullin might easily have done the same.  He did do military service, in the RAF, and won a campaign medal for service against the Mau-Mau in Kenya.  But he realised early that the military life was not for him.  We are immeasurably the richer by that.

There is no need to caricature Don McCullin.  He remains – perhaps oddly for such a great traveller – a devotedly English Englishman.  He loves India, and many other places, too.  But he has no wish to pretend to be other than as he is, still less to abandon himself and remake himself differently.  He had not much to start, but he made himself a really great journalist.  That requires no caricature.  He believes in finding out the truth, in part by deep and serious reflection, and then telling it with energy, clarity, and beauty.  When his employers changed, and wouldn’t afford him doing that any more, he left them and found another way to carry on doing the same.  He has made pictures just as telling in Bradford as in Biafra:  he is not only a foreign correspondent, a war reporter, or even perhaps a photographer.  He is a powerfully gifted communicator with important things to tell us. ” I only use a camera like I use a toothbrush”, as he put it once.  “It does the job.”

It isn’t extraordinary that a man who found it difficult to read should have found such sophisticated virtuosity in communication. It should not still have to be said, but the message has still not sunk in: A photographer of the calibre of Don McCullin is a great communicator, fully the equivalent of a great songwriter or film director or novelist.  He does not merely illustrate the words his pictures are often published alongside; he does not ‘merely‘ do anything.  He expresses in his pictures his arguments, beliefs, prejudices, judgments as well as the bloody facts of each case.  You can no more misunderstand McCullin on war than you can misunderstand Primo Levi or Wilfred Owen.

Don McCullin has spent his life in showing us that wars are not accidents; the suffering he has seen has not been a by-product.  Policy; doctrine; profit; even economy or system….these words sound so abstract, so remote. The child’s ditty is simply wrong.  Sticks and stones, they do break bones.  But those words end up hurting, too.

 

 

The Quizzical Chamois – Irving Penn’s Cranium Architecture

Chamois, Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Chamois, Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

A number of weeks ago I was asked by Hamiltons Gallery in London to write a catalogue text on a group of pictures by Irving Penn which are less known than many, but seemed to have interesting characteristics of their own.  I was glad to write it, as I find that the scholarship of Penn seems a little unchanging.  I hoped that by treating these pictures exactly as though they were made today, and reacting to them as if they were a recent offering by an artist at his peak, I might bring a little freshness as well as appreciation. The catalogue is beautifully produced and is now out as the show has opened.  It runs at Hamiltons throughout the summer, until 13 September 2013. This means that a large number of visitors to London have the opportunity to visit these less known but high-quality pictures, and to purchase them as may be. The catalogue is a very limited edition, and – as bloggers do – I wanted to reach as large a number of people as possible, so I have asked for permission for the catalogue text to be reprinted here.  I do not often reprint texts published elsewhere: I’ve enjoyed writing it: that’s why it reappears here. The text is as published (without the notes).  The illustrations are fewer by far.

I owe thanks to a number of people: to Tim Jefferies and David Peckman of Hamilton’s Gallery, to Vasilios Zatse and Matthew Krejcarek and their colleagues at the Irving Penn Foundation, and to Sandra Klimt, who produced the book. All of these people made it possible to work at breakneck speed and yet to high standards.  My thanks to each one.

––

Critics and historians of the work of Irving Penn often note that he was attracted to the memento mori genre, otherwise known as vanitas. A number of the conventional markers are there: broken jugs or the frequent appearance of all-too-human bits of debris in otherwise idealized still life pictures and portraits. There is even an elegant intimation of mortality in the subtle way that the frozen block of beans in Frozen Foods with String Beans (1977) is just beginning to thaw.

This connection to vanitas can be seen in examples of Penn’s work over a period of many years. Colin Westerbeck noted that Penn’s groups of non-commercial still lifes are all intimately connected to the theme of vanitas: the Cigarettes, the Street Material, and specifically the series of memento mori studies that was published as Irving Penn: Archaeology. A 1941 image, Funeral Home, published in Passage: A Work Record, Penn’s major retrospective book, depicts the shop front of W. S. Watkins & Son, Embalmer. Even in Venice in 1945, the young Penn was making studies of the scummy surface of the canal in deliberate opposition to the Ruskinian glories just above. Those images of foul water describe grassy stalks directly reminiscent of some of the Street Material from thirty years later, and of the fibrous shards that poke out of the Cigarettes.

For an artist with such an enduring interest to go on to make this astounding series of studies of the skulls of animals, Cranium Architecture, might seem quite natural. Penn was interested in death, goes the argument, perhaps as a counterpoint to his professional career working (both at Vogue and for his commercial clients) with people obsessed with youth.

Mouth (for L’Oréal), New York, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Mouth (for L’Oréal), New York, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

In Passage, a book made very much under Penn’s detailed control, the first of the cranial studies, Black Rhino (1986), is presented on a spread opposite Mouth (for L’Oréal) (1986). This is not a coincidence. Mouth (for L’Oréal) is a powerful picture, not least because it is one of the most violent in the whole of Penn’s canon. The lipstick in eight clashing colours is smeared in purposeful affront to the anatomy of the mouth. It has a thick, lardy impasto a million miles from the smooth refinement that Penn knew (better than anybody) that lipstick was “supposed” to convey. Several of the colours have metallic flecks in them, and if that reminds you even for an instant of car paint, you are suddenly in a world close to the horrors of J. G. Ballard’s 1973 novel, Crash. Penn was the master of a beautifully understated sexuality, in which respect and admiration fully control desire and, by controlling it, flavour it. But by 1986, at least some of the vanity of the commercial beauty business had turned very sour for Irving Penn. Mouth (for L’Oréal) is harrowing.

The rhinoceros skull image on that spread is in striking contrast, a calm tribute to the serene way that evolution proceeds about its business, contrasted to the futile panic against ageing, against rejection, of our daily hunt for esteem. The surfaces of the girl are, for once, far from lovely. The patinated bone of the animal, very old, but tenderly preserved, not only shows its own elegance but proves by its very existence the love that curators have spent upon it. Being stripped of flesh, it comes close to revealing its own essence.

Photography has a long (and now mainly forgotten) relation with phrenology and physiognomy, those pre-Victorian branches of science which promised to identify specific characteristics in a patient or subject from the detailed shape of the head. Physiognomy is discredited as having uncomfortable connections with eugenics, but in its day it was considered a science and not a parlour game. Its high point came precisely in the decades preceding the boom in photography.

I argue that physiognomy survived “underground” within photography. We still “read” character from photographic portraits in a way that has no relation to logic at all: her eyes are “too close” together, so we don’t entirely trust her; his “fleshy lips” make him look a libertine; her square jaw tells us she’s determined and reliable. We still expect, in other words, the surface to reveal quite impossible information about the interior. We do so a little in real life, but almost constantly in photographs.

Irving Penn knew about this. He is quoted as having said: “Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world. Very often what lies behind the façade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows and dares to believe.”This is a rich thought to underpin his various photographs of skulls. For if the skull is simply a head stripped of its façade, then to photograph it is less to enquire into aspects of death than to look at the fundamentals of expression and character. To photograph a skull might then be to get to the bare bones—quite literally—of character.

Penn photographed a number of skulls before the concentrated energy of the Cranium Architecture series, and it is far from clear that their primary reference in his mind was to death. Two of them are of particular interest.

The Poor Lovers, New York, 1979 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

The Poor Lovers, New York, 1979
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

The Poor Lovers (1979) is a peculiar picture of two skulls, one balanced on top of the other. One is twisted mildly to the right, the other mildly to the left. The bone of the upper one has darkened appreciably more than that of the lower, leaving a sensation that the two skulls descend from different races. It bears a mild, almost dilute memory of Man Ray’s classic study Noire et Blanche (1926), in which both the mask and the living sitter are depicted with eyes closed. The Poor Lovers is not legible as a study of any aspect of death. There is Penn’s characteristic detritus on the surface below, and the skulls are noticeably battered, but they are not in any real sense a study of decay or of mortality.

A few pages on in Irving Penn: Archaeology, we find A Cry (1980), a study this time of a single skull. Here Penn has deliberately imparted a twist to the expression by arranging the upper points of the lower jaw in asymmetry, the jaw “hinged” before the cheekbone on one side and behind on the other. So this is formally quite clear: here is a search for expression. That twist—impossible to miss—is viewed from directly in front. Reading the expression is more difficult, but we can see that whatever else it is, this is most certainly not a scientific picture. Neither is The Poor Lovers. Nor is either of them wholly or solely about death.

In reference to Rag Face (1975), part of Penn’s Street Material series, Colin Eisler writes: “The photographer’s progress on his pilgrimage of counter-vanity is made clearest in his least-known works . . . works conceived beyond purchase or fashion. . . . This new outlook, this liberation, allowed Penn to express his sense of fun as well as morality, his sense of adventure, of spontaneity. It even allowed Penn to get ugly.” Eisler had emphasized the connections to the vanitas traditions, making the point that grisaille, that nocturnal painting in black, white, and grey, frequently seen along with the vanitas in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, prefigures the tonalities of black and white.

But these studies are not only vanitas studies; they can be read just as sculpture. That may be what Eisler had in mind in talking about Penn’s sense of fun. Penn was a private man, not much given to the modern conception of “sharing” his inner thoughts about his work. His sense of fun—it has to be said—is pretty much unrecorded anywhere. Alexander Liberman once put it in the plainest English: “Penn is not easy to work with. . . . Penn seldom squanders his intensity.”

The timing is important. The 1970s had perhaps been a difficult period for Irving Penn. For the first time in a long career, he no longer had the studio supplied by Vogue and all the help that went with it—not merely in assistants and budgets, but in the roster of art directors and editors who had protected him from the coarser rigours of the magazine market and had encouraged him to try many of the ideas that became his most successful series. While Penn never fell out of favour, he certainly had a quieter commercial period in the 1970s. And that is what propelled him to his great affair with platinum printing, which ushered in exhibitions of his work at the Marlborough Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. In the 1970s, Penn had perhaps little choice but to put his artistic proclivities in the foreground.

Among those proclivities was sculpture. Penn had always been interested in the history of art; he drew, painted. But in the late 1970s he was experimenting in photography with shapes that were interesting in their own right and not merely as the most recent descendants of the venerable traditions of the vanitas. There is an immediate parallel with Alexander Liberman, Penn’s close associate and perhaps the only colleague approaching an artistic confidant.

By the late 1970s, Liberman had been a sculptor for a long time, and he was notably proud of his monumental constructions. A piece called There (1973), of enormous steel cylinders welded together, is a rendition of the fallen columns of a giant temple. It looks the blood brother of some of Penn’s photographs of piles of bones, or ingots, or machine parts. It is impossible not to believe that they evolved together, in constant conversations as well as in meetings with the artists all around. Vogue, as Liberman himself underlined, was a very serious art magazine in his time, even if he did once have to get Cecil Beaton to photograph fashion in front of a Jackson Pollock in order to get the painting included in the magazine.

So it begins to be possible to draw a picture of Penn, evolving his artistic practice in the late 1970s, turning his mind, in the wake of his great friend, to sculpture. Years before, in the introduction to Penn’s Moments Preserved, Liberman had written: “In a time when the unclear is too often used to cover up the absence of meaning, Penn’s steadfast adherence to definite statement has given his work a ‘visibility’ that few have been able to match.”

Other elements are discernible, too. As Irving Penn himself put it: “Sometime in 1964 I realized that I was victim of a printmaking obsession, a condition that persists today. . . . Over the years, I must have spent thousands of hours brushing on the liquid coatings, preparing each sheet of paper in anticipation of reaching the perfect print.” Penn was a supreme printmaker, and the print itself is an essential part of the astonishing tango between perception and representation that all the great Penn
images add up to.

Again in Penn’s own words, we are shown another element: “In 1979, I acquired an early twelve-by-twenty-inch banquet camera and had it altered. A five-foot track was made and a long bellows substituted for the original short one. I found a number of excellent long lenses. My intention was to make a platinum printing negative twelve-by-twenty inches right in the camera.”

Penn used the banquet camera for the Archaeology series and an 8 x 10 view camera for his Cranium Architecture. American art critic Rosalind Krauss noted that use of the banquet camera gave Penn the same format as the double-page commercial spreads of which he was a master. Krauss observed that “for the last several years [Penn] has produced a series of still lifes . . . that in format, disposition of objects, frontality of composition, and shallowness of space is identical to the memento mori images of his own aesthetically tagged platinum prints. The work Penn has done for Clinique cosmetics, . . . elegant, shallow, luminous still lifes of bottles and jars, . . . is the visual twin of its conceptual counterpart, the platinum work that speaks not of perpetual youth, but of death.”

It is important to note here that the Cranium Architecture prints are not made in platinum — that is to say, they are not in the medium at which Penn had made himself supreme, although it is possible he intended them to become so later. Instead, they are the most subtle, most sensitive, selenium toned silver prints that one could ever ask to see.

Westerbeck observed that Penn was more than a little taken aback at the reception his Street Material series received when the photographs were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in 1977. It seems that a number of critics were offended at the idea of expensive materials (platinum, essentially, palladium and a little iridium) being used in the depiction of squalid junk. Although those critics missed the point, that reception set Penn back a little. After that date, all the major shows until the first exhibition of the Cranium Architecture at the Pace/MacGill Gallery in 1989 were retrospectives, including one at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984. That cannot be a coincidence. He did publish the Flowers as a book in the period, but that, too, is a retrospective, the images dating for the most part from the late 1960s and early 1970s. It adds up to a caesura, a lessening of forward progress.

So now, perhaps, we have a number of elements in place to see the Cranium Architecture a little better.

Tapir, Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Tapir, Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Roe Deer, Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Roe Deer, Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

The negatives of these incredible pictures were made in a matter of a very few days, in the National Museum in Prague, between June 16 and 20, 1986. Photographs of the work in progress by Lennart Durehed, a former studio assistant who acted as Penn’s principal assistant in Prague, indicate that the conditions were very simple. The skulls were moved and handled by the photographic team, the support was an ordinary desk, the camera an 8 x 10 view camera. Twenty-one skull images, made in an exquisite matt-finish silver print, were chosen for the show at Pace/MacGill. Penn had hardly worked with silver printing since he first started experimenting seriously with platinum in 1964. Yet he came back to it as a virtuoso. He used all that he had learnt in platinum to make prints of a subtlety that rivals what he achieved in platinum itself. The majority of them are in the landscape format, not quite in the proportions of a double-page spread, but the orientation is significant for a photographer whose previous work had been mostly square or in the portrait orientation.

 Boar (Domestic), Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Boar (Domestic), Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Camel, Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Camel, Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

One part of me says that these skulls are pure modernist masterpieces, delayed only by Penn’s commercial career. When that paused, he made these studies with a clarity of vision and a directness of purpose that is the precise equivalent of that shown by Edward Weston making the Peppers or the Nautiluses.

I see, in addition, the contribution of the vanitas picture, and I do believe that there is an element of truth in the idea that Penn had found horror in the constant demands of the beauty industry that he had served so well and so long. But there are two further readings of these great pictures that are perhaps a more personal view.

I see the Cranium Architecture as a collection of super-portraits or para-portraits. They are the direct descendants of the physiognomic tradition, and the direct successors of Penn’s many years spent trying to make legible truths appear from the lineaments of a face. They seem to search for real truths of character in the act of peeling away the skin. By that I do not mean that Penn crudely expected to find a mandrill charming or a lion sardonic. And yet—when you look at the chamois, do you not see the same combination of quizzical embarrassment that I see? Does the tapir not say, “ Oh, well, what the heck,” to every viewer? These are caricatures of human expression, found in the skulls of dead animals, by an artist who had perhaps come steadily to disbelieve the confident legibility of his own great portraits.

He was making a gift to his viewers. There is none of Penn’s debris here, none of the stage-setting and scene-building that would help us come to any “right” reading of these expressions, and which he himself had developed as such a sophisticated technique. I see in these pictures an invitation for us to look with rigorous attention, to see how much of what we think about character is in fact gleaned from the false promises of phrenology and physiognomy, still buried deep in our photographic habits.

Then finally, I see them as sculptures. There is something so compelling and seductive about the cavities and declivities of the skulls, so brilliantly described. That comes not from photography’s habit of flattening the world but as a counter to it. The magisterial controlled gleam of the silver printing is as pleasing to the eye as bronze or wood have always been to touch.

They are great things, these skulls made in a few days in Prague. Like so much of Penn’s work, they encapsulate the thinking of years. They stand by the sheer perfection of their making: they are so carefully seen, printed with such virtuosity. They have none of the tense social meaning of the Street Material images that precede them, none of the commentary on consumer culture perhaps seen in the Cigarettes series. These Cranium Architecture pictures make no comment: they are as nearly universal as any photograph can be. Their genesis is intimately tied—as I have suggested here—to the artist’s development and his changing concerns. As two-dimensional sculptures, they are to be read almost as abstractions, for the pleasure of the surfaces so minutely detailed. I like to think that’s why Penn thought of them as “Architecture”: a reference to the kind of thinking he wished his viewers to pursue.

I keep being reminded of Penn’s great portrait of Miles Davis—The Hand of Miles Davis (1986). The skulls, exactly like that, invite reading far beyond what they themselves depict. They are perfectly solid things, known beasts preserved. But they are also the start of limitless chains of metaphor and allusion.