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.

Not Finding Wiltshire – David Bailey in Papua in 1974

Wigwoman of Wabag District, © David Bailey

A Lady Dressed To Kill, © David Bailey

Highland Boy, © David Bailey

Untitled, © David Bailey

Kukukuku Man with Bow,© David Bailey

Say what you like about David Bailey (and he attracts mixed opinions), he does get a very great deal of stuff done. He’s several times been quoted noting wryly how many more prizes he’s won as a commercials director than as a photographer. He’s a sculptor, too, and seems to have an ever-more-frequent publishing programme. He has often worked in collaborations, notably with Damien Hirst. I still regard it as very strange that he has had so few shows in public spaces — one big one at the Barbican, as I mentioned in a previous piece on this blog a while ago, and nothing else major. Isn’t that inadequate for a photographer of such enormous talent? A show is in the works for the National Portrait Gallery, but it’s still a meagre haul for such a publicly visible photographer, and one so widely admired. Coming after his eye-opening retrospective in the Docks recently, this present show adds another little facet to a reputation which most of us still quite lazily limit to a few good portraits in an Avedonic manner: dark suit, white shirt, black tie, plain cove background…

There was an element of disingenuousness in the announcement of the exhibition of a group of Polaroids by David Bailey from Papua New Guinea at the Daniel Blau Gallery in London. The press release calls them “hidden from view ever since” (they were made in 1974). The pictures weren’t hidden: they were published in a perfectly commercial book soon after (David Bailey. Another Image : Papua New Guinea. Matthews, Miller & Dunbar, London, 1975). The fact that the book wasn’t all that successful doesn’t make them hidden. As I write a dozen copies are available on Abebooks. The book is a pleasantly anecdotal — if relatively slight — presentation of what these pictures are. The prints (a very different thing, of course) have been boxed and now appear, nicely unfaded, on a gallery wall for the first time. David Bailey spoke about them at the gallery the other day, in conversation with Anthony Meyer.

Irving Penn. Three Asaro Mud Men, 1970. © The Estate of Irving Penn

To start with, what on Earth was Bailey doing taking anthropological portraits in the first place? I think the answer is not far to seek: Irving Penn. As senior photographer at Vogue America when Bailey was making his name (also at Vogue), Bailey had no choice but to follow Penn in detail. And he had been making famous ethnographic portraits. Penn’s Dahomey studies are dated 1967, his New Guinea studies (including a very famous photograph, Three Mud Men of Asaro) are dated 1970; his Moroccan portraits 1971. In the face of that, it is easy to see that Bailey had something to follow. Perhaps he regarded it as another way in which photography could open out, get him beyond the world of fashion which even then he found limited and limiting.

As he describes it, the trip itself was hard. He didn’t like the people that he had contact with in New Guinea, finding the men very aggressive and the women shy. He had little or no communication, apart from just about managing to convey the idea of the pose. He asked nobody to dress for the pictures, and the painted masks are the ones they were already wearing on the day. He downplays the idea that they were cannibals, saying that they played violent war games in which nobody was supposed really to get hurt, but that if one were accidentally killed there might be a certain sharing of body parts among the rest. Nevertheless, he slept with a Bowie knife when he had to accept hospitality in a longhouse among them. His most striking anthropological or ethnographic note is a memory that for some reason the women breast-fed their pigs. “I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 12,” he says drily, “so that didn’t bother me.”

Bailey describes the reaction of tribesmen to the pictures as disappointment: they treated them as broken mirrors, he says several times, turning the Polaroids here and there, puzzled as to how the picture stayed put and failed move as a mirror would. Polaroid SX-70 was very new at the time, and one can see that Bailey (who was always interested in the technology of photography and good at it) would have leapt at the chance to try out something light, fast, and one-off . Interestingly, he is scathing about those photographers who “chase the Polaroid”. He explains that he means those who use a Polaroid back before a shoot, and then spend the rest of the session trying to recreate the effect they obtained. He uses Polaroid backs himself, he says, but only at the end, to check that the cameras are working properly.

Polaroid did not pay for his Papua trip (he paid for that himself), but they equipped him generously with cameras and film. He took a blanket and a sheet to act as field backdrops (a trick he learnt from John French, whose own ex-army blanket was once lovingly restored by the V&A textiles department before appearing in a French retrospective exhibition). Another recurring backdrop is corrugated iron, which Bailey enthuses about. It’s one of the things he likes about Australia. I’ve never been to Australia, but Country Life once published a serious piece of research about the nineteenth century British firms which sent flat packed corrugated iron buildings, complete, for colonial use. You could buy a scout hut or a villa appropriate to a district officer or even a complete church. I imagine the Tin Tabernacle, just off the Kilburn High Road, in London, is one surviving example among many, although I don’t know which company made that particular one. Corrugated sheeting is an interesting choice for Bailey to have made as his background. It speaks (as do the occasional Christian crosses worn around Papuan necks) of a degree of Westernization, willing or forced, in stark contrast to the un-colonised appearance of the sitters themselves.

As a matter of fact, many of these Polaroids, perhaps the majority, are not terribly appealing pictures. They’re all very interesting, though. Choose the right one, and things start to leap out of these little frames with a startling energy. But many of them are flat, very dark, a little weary. He gets very close to the sitters, but can’t get them to break into an expression. They stare, dourly. They hardly move. The word I’d use is depressed. These are slightly depressed pictures. And that’s not a word I’ve seen associated with David Bailey before.

Penn’s ethnographic studies had turned the subjects into stylish clothes-wearers, (or stylish wearers of the absence of clothes) and they make me uncomfortable with a degree of condescension. I imagine Diana Vreeland, the purveyor of dismissive bons mots who is more responsible than anyone for the lasting association of Vogue with unthinking and mildly contemptuous snobbery, would have loved them. When Penn puts Truman Capote against a plain background, I understand that Capote was savvy enough to look after his own ‘image’, and the pictures are to some extent a collaboration. But when Penn made the Asaro mud men caper about like the chorus of some tribal Broadway musical, I’m less easy. Much earlier, in Cuzco, in Peru, Penn had made pictures of his hosts as he travelled which are not patronizing. But by the time he went to New Guinea, I’m not sure he knew how not to be. Bailey’s Papua pictures, small and intimate and relatively quick to make, are an obvious counter to that. I suspect, from looking at them, that he himself felt a certain discomfort at what Penn had made. I asked him, and he sort of huffed and said Penn wasn’t him and he wasn’t Penn and each to his own and so on. Take that for a mild ‘yes’.

So what is one to make of these small studies of Bailey’s? First and foremost, I think they are consciously not Penn. They are non-snobbish, non-colonial. Bailey produced a wonderful line in the gallery when he said “You know, once you’ve travelled a bit, everywhere looks like Wiltshire.” I translated that as meaning that Bailey had found nothing of the sublime in Papua, either of the people or of the landscape. Yet Bailey is a substantial collector of Oceanic and African art. “I like the crap as much as the good stuff. Anything that looks like Picasso, I suppose, “ he says with mock modesty. He even bought some pieces on the trip then. So it wasn’t that he was closed to Papua. But somehow, it didn’t really fire him up. No doubt, it was a hard trip. No doubt, too, he found that his egalitarian, hail-fellow-well-met 1960s attitudes met no answering spark. And perhaps there were personal and professional worries of which we know nothing which simply meant that he was off form at the time. It happens, why not?

I have another suspicion, which I cannot prove. I suspect that Bailey really didn’t get along with the Polaroid. At his recent show in Newham we were reminded just how brilliantly he could get the best out of any camera. If anyone could get magic out of the equipment, Bailey could. Large and medium format studio camera, 6×6 and 6×7, more recently lighter digital equipment, he’s tamed it all. He’s like a string player who could make decent music on a fiddle or a cello or even a viola if he had to. But in the Polaroid SX-70, Bailey seems to have found his ukulele. It just didn’t give him enough control, didn’t allow him enough options.

They’re not bad pictures, far from it. Any collector could easily choose a good one. It’s a very intriguing show, revealing as it does a new light on an artist we thought we knew. It’s odd, though. I can’t get away from the thought that it’s a brave show, too. It’s the first time I’ve seen a photographer come so very near to publicly acknowledging that maybe he picked the wrong tool for the job.

Ottolenghi’s Plenty, by Jonathan Lovekin

Nobody thinks of those profusely illustrated mid-lavish recipe books as photobooks.  Yet perhaps we should. They contain as many pictures reproduced just as prominently as many a photographer’s monograph. Here’s one: Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi. Published by Ebury Press in 2010 at £25.00.  Not only a hardback, but a hardback padded in squidgy white plastic, intended I think to be kitchen proof, and also to carry the overtones of a precious album. It makes me think rather the other way, I must say, of a catalogue of swatches of motorcar upholstery, perhaps, or a mid-market range of bathroom fittings: horribly tasteless pursuit of ‘good taste’.  But, hey, sales figures don’t lie in the modern publishing world, and this thing has sold gazillions.

Let’s see inside…  Not all but most spreads conform to the pattern: text on the left, full-size picture bled to edges of the paper on the right. Double-page pictures, bled to the edges all around, punctuate that rhythm.  Smaller pictures are occasionally used, one, two or three to a page.  Text is surrounded by acres of white space and is obviously tied to each picture.  If the pictures haven’t sold this thing on their own, they’ve certainly carried their share. This is self-evidently a book of photographs.  Yet we are somehow invited not to think so.  To call such a book a photobook is a sin against marketing. I don’t see why.

Let’s keep going. The pictures also conform to a series of types.  Most are direct plunging views straight down, either onto pans purportedly ready for serving, or onto plates of food purporting to be just served and ready to eat.  These are given a stylistic identity of a sort by a recurring trick that I might call acceptable grubbiness.  A number of them are photographed on a background representing a Country Kitchen Table (or is it an Inner Urban Regenerated Industrial District Kitchen Table?) which has spots of paint on it.

These spots are important.  They speak of energetic creativity, of people so concerned with the eternal verities of ingredients each more achingly authentic than the next that a little errant paint is neither here nor there. The vine leaf, herb and yogurt pie is shown on a lightly chipped plate itself on a surface of lightly chipped paint. There are carefully indicative minor spillages in many pictures (designed to convey the artistic and creative nature of a process not entirely controllable to the last degree). Utensils have a degree of visible wear. This is photography by allusion. Comfortable use is to be applauded; shining newness is just ever so slightly…nouveau.

Acceptable grubbiness is an art of innuendo and sometimes the photographer has overplayed his hand. (Acceptable grubbiness was perfected by Irving Penn, by the way, in the food pictures he made for Vogue, who deployed it with a touch which ran more to a few genteel crumbs and the occasional joke mouse: a far lighter sprinkling than this out-and-out mugging). Ottolenghi’s ‘smoky frittata’ is shown in a pan that has clearly been allowed to accumulate highly carcinogenic carbonized deposits for a number of years.  A dishcloth (with an oily stain) is artfully disposed to protect the imaginary hand of the imaginary cook from the imaginary heat of the pan which was no doubt stone cold by the time the picture came to be taken. And beyond all of that?  A surface, which might conceivably be Corian or some similar fancy worktop, but which I suspect of being a roll of wallpaper lining paper disposed for its neutral texture and colour, shows oily stains of its own.

The picture has been open at my elbow for the two or three minutes it has taken to write these words, and let me tell you, I would no more eat the depicted smoky frittata than I would lick the linoleum in my local A&E.  I have seen cleaner burger vans in lay-bys on the long slow drive down to Cornwall.  This is grubbiness pushed too far.  On the double spread pp.118-119 (in a section entitled without hint of either irony or wit The Mighty Aubergine) is a picture which looks at first sight, and at second, and at third, exactly like a horrified, peering, too-close-for-comfort view of road kill.  It is actually an aubergine.

And then there’s the oil.  My god !  The oil !  I am told that Plenty is quite a good cookbook.  But there is a chasm between cooking food and photographing it.  Pictures which glisten and gleam and shine are attractive in a porny way.  These certainly have the wet thing going on. I can’t believe that the food stylists and the photographer followed the recipes with due restraint when it came to the oil.  Or if they did, the food is simply inedible.

The pictures in this book are competent in a dreary sort of way.  The man who made them is a craftsman, of considerable standing in his speciality. They do a job.  But as illustrations of a light modern imaginative new style of multicultural cooking, they simply aren’t credible.  It’s as though the publishers failed to see that they were using Rubens to illustrate a Pilates manual.

Yet this is not a hopeless outfit well down the Isthmian League.  This sold as one of the great exemplars of words and pictures working together.  And nobody seems to have minded that the photography is of a standard only just above poor.  It’s an endless accumulation of coded ‘lifestyle’ hints masquerading as an attempt to communicate enthusiasm for the subject.  The pictures are full of dotty non-sequiturs, of which the acceptable grubbiness is only an example.  On page 45, a dish (of black pepper tofu) looks for all the world like a grisly something Susan Meiselas might have uncovered in Nicaragua.  It’s dished up on a table which has inscribed plainly upon it, and plainly left there for us to read, the single word ‘JURY’.  What on earth this means, I have no idea at all.  Was this revolting-looking dish served up in some contest, to be judged?  It cannot have been.  Was it adduced in evidence in a war crimes’ tribunal?  It looks like it ought to have been.  What kind of demented picture editor allows the single word JURY to make a mad mystery out of a perfectly simple picture, even of tofu?  What on earth possessed the photographer to allow such a thing to go forward?

This is one of the top-selling picture books of this year or last.  The photographs (all plunging and oily as they are) are an essential component of that success. It is a hugely successful photobook. It begs to be judged as a book of pictures. Yet nobody has applied even the slightest suggestion of informed thought to the pictures, either during the production process or since.  The chef-author is feted as a poet in tofu, but the photographer is just a good name in the trade.  I have not seen more than a word of serious criticism of these pictures since the book came out (and that word has, more often than not,  been ‘luscious’).  It seems the pictures are assumed to be OK because they couldn’t be expected to be better than OK. No wonder photography is still treated as marginal.

The photographer, in fact, is Jonathan Lovekin, who has been the photographic servant of a food writer, Nigel Slater, established longer than Yotam Ottolenghi. Slater particularly asked for Lovekin when Slater was working for Marie Claire, and Lovekin had some stuff published in Elle DecoObserver, Observer Food Monthly, Appetite, Real Food…Where Slater has gone, Lovekin has followed, can of oil always at the ready, like an Indian railway man or a San Fernando Valley deputy assistant director in the adult film business.  Success breeding success as it does, it must have been obvious that Lovekin was the right man for the Ottolenghi job.  The publisher probably didn’t even ask if the imagery was appropriate in feeling, or tone or skill.  Just get the guy to do the gig.  If it’s good enough for Slater….

Lovekin has on his website a showreel (he makes food films, too) which is beyond parody. Spermy liquids and metaphorically exhausted foodstuffs (such as figs), all soused in a soundtrack of Alison Goldfrapp shouting about sex in Ooh La La.  There are several separate credibility gaps here.  Jonathan Lovekin’s film clients include Bird’s Eye and Macdonald’s.  Blow the genteel multicultural sensibilities of the Tel Aviv beaches as lauded by Ottolenghi.  It’s just a job. It’s far from clear that even the photographer takes his pictures seriously.

The big appreciation of food has become a substitute for culture.  Who needs to read books or even newspapers about complicated places abroad when all you need to do is go shopping more sensitively than your neighbours?  Who needs to think through complex matrices of history and economy to understand elsewhere, at least as messy as home?  So much easier to enjoy the one-upmanship of food.  Bet you don’t know what Shakshuka is.  I do, now. Ottolenghi, Plenty, p. 87 (illustrated on a double page following).  It’s a North African dish with many variations, of course; I’m surprised you’d forgotten.  “In a tiny alley in old Jaffa there’s a little restaurant serving food to customers sitting outside at shared shabby tables….”  Abroad, safely wrapped up.  The pretension of culture with none of the work, the risks, or the long slow accumulation. That packaging of culture calls for a particular kind of photography, apparently.

Photography in some of its forms has a long tradition of showing things as they really are.  In other forms it has a long tradition of showing what somebody wants us to buy. Either way, it used to be the very minimum that the words and pictures worked harmoniously, pulling the reader in the same direction.  This food stuff seems to have been put together by people who don’t even consider that pictures carry complex meanings.  They can’t be bothered.  They use photography as the lowest kind of space filler, capable of bright colours and that awful gloopy sheen and nothing remotely more subtle than that. We need perhaps to sharpen our eyes as readers.  If the most successful food book of the moment can get away with pictures which are craftsmanlike but nothing more than that, it is because in that market we have come to accept that we need not really look at the pictures at all.  All that glistens isn’t gold.  It really isn’t. As viewers we are entitled to pictures which reward careful seeing, whatever the work they are doing.  We shouldn’t have to run to “photobooks” to see proper photography. We shouldn’t be fed on slop, even in a cookbook.

Sir Cecil Beaton – Earning a Royalty





The Victoria and Albert Museum has put on a show of Sir Cecil Beaton’s royal portraits as a contribution to the diamond jubilee celebration of HM the Queen, and it has been met with predictable enthusiasm.  Lots of crowns!  Lots of gowns!

It’s actually a disappointment. Although he was almost crippled by snobbery, Beaton was capable of technical skill and imagination.  He was a charming (if slight) draughtsman, a fine designer (notably of stage sets) and his writing is shrewd as well as waspish, and often gracefully put together, too. He was a sufficiently versatile photographer. Fashion, of course, he took to as the natural milieu of the visually oriented queen, but his best portraits of artists drip with a kind of jealous scrutiny and his war photographs were by no means negligible.  One can see how the jubilee demanded a certain kind of treatment, but this is a fawning exhibition which does no favours at all to a photographer who might be more interesting than the one-dimensional view of him presented here.

Beaton was born in 1904, in the same year as Bill Brandt, and it is not absurd to compare them. Peter Conrad did just that (The Observer, Sunday 25th January 2004) at the time of their mutual centenary, when two shows allowed him to think of them side by side.  Conrad picked up on Beaton’s ‘lofty responsibility’. His job, as he put it, was ‘to stage an apotheosis’. With its ‘silvery magic’, the camera bestowed ‘a glorious halo’ on the people it portrayed.  Never mind that some of that halo, when its address was Buckingham Palace, conveniently reflected on the photographer.  It is too easy to think of Brandt as a dark European intellectual to Beaton’s childish British vampery – too easy but not inaccurate.

Brandt was born to considerable privilege, secretive and shy, interested in the poor and the dispossessed (a socialist in his photographs, even if his politics in life were less plain than that), not much appreciated in his lifetime.  Beaton came from a modest background of which he was embarrassed, was a moth, attracted to Hollywood and country house parties and all that glistered – including, it goes without saying, the royal family.  He was certainly a Tory in his photographs although he, too, was more complicated than that. He was absolutely obsessed with being appreciated.  Beaton’s natural tone was absurd: think Kenneth Williams from the Carry On films.  In a little snippet of a documentary David Bailey made on him which is screened in the V&A show, he is asked what he says to people while photographing them: “I coo like a bloody dove,” he says, camp as a row of tents.

This exhibition is designed to make a serious point, that Beaton’s pictures were one element in the campaign to modernize and stabilize the monarchy in the Windsor mould: a family business, hard at work in the service of the nation, certainly not swanning around ankle-deep in privilege.  Fair enough.  The present Queen has overseen a steadying of the monarchy at a time when it is much easier to make a name twitchily demanding change of any kind than working for stability in the long term.  Part of that steadying was to supply a steady image. Beaton contributed to that, and was happy to do so.  “ Today”, he wrote in 1953, “ members of the Royal Family realise that, the demands from the public and the Press becoming ever more voracious, being photographed is one of the serious obligations to which they must submit at increasingly frequent intervals.” It is on record that Beaton was not pleased when Anthony Armstrong-Jones became what Beaton felt he had the right to be, the senior photographer-courtier, and was ennobled in the process.

Every regime puts out official pictures, and we in Britain are luckier than some in that we don’t feel obliged to have them over every official desk in the land. Pumping out a number of reassuring pictures of Windsors at work and if necessary at home has hardly been a shocking abuse of power, and we could easily have left it at that.  The show reveals a large number of prosperous people leaning on heavy furniture in interiors with very high ceilings.  It is feeble to try to illustrate a story of the monarchy being modernised with such very conventional photography.  But still… No surprise, no  great insight, no problem.

Too much is made of Beaton’s inventiveness.  He once put the Queen in an Admiral’s cloak, for statuesque simplicity. It looks rather coarsely borrowed from Rodin’s Balzac, as though he’d found it in a book the day before the shoot. He made some ‘contemporary’ and ‘relaxed’ portraits from time to time, notably of the royal children.  There are some small signs of a photographer tying to do his best, including a charming seized moment of Princess Anne walking on ermine during a pause in the Coronation sittings, and one or two attempts to strip out background.  But this is ‘contemporary’ in the same way that any routine wedding photography business can offer you Contemporary as opposed to Traditional, just another set of rules to apply for a predictable outcome.

Many of the best pictures are a small selection of portraits of Beaton by others – patently added to flesh out a show in sore need of a lift.  Curtis Moffat, Paul Tanqueray, Erich Salomon, Irving Penn and a hilariously stagey rendition by David Bailey: this is quite a nice show within a show.  There are also some interesting mounted series of pictures approved by the Palace.  It is thin gruel, though, for a major exhibition at the V&A, far too thin.  The V&A holds some 18,000 royal pictures by Beaton. There are about a hundred in the exhibition.  If these really are the strongest we could have seen, then the holdings are a disaster.

There floats in the background a question. Beaton’s archive is somewhat messy, and there is lack of clarity about who owns exactly what copyright. Beaton worked a great deal for Vogue, and many of his pictures have a Condé Nast copyright. Condé Nast pushes out a steady stream of books on Beaton to exploit that fact. Sotheby’s also commercializes a holding of Beaton material, not very effectively, sometimes in co-production with Condé Nast and sometimes independently.  But the royal archive was a specific gift to the V&A, and the V&A benefits materially from the reproduction of every royal Beaton, although not of Beaton’s images on other subjects. Is it possible that one of the motives for this really quite poor exhibition was simply that the increased circulation of royal Beaton imagery could make a windfall for a museum which (like every other) struggles to finance its operations?