Go see the Irving Penn Centennial if you can!
I recently had a chance to see the Irving Penn Centennial show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The show closes on July 30 and I highly recommend that you take a trip to NY to see it if you can. Mr. Penn was one of the most influential fashion photographers, working for Vogue magazine for 60 years. My trip was further enhanced by having Henry Leutwyler along, plus a number of photographers who were in Henry's class at the Palm Springs Photo Festival (PSPF) a couple of months ago. But it gets even better. Henry surprised us by inviting Billy Jim, who was Mr. Penn's assistant for the last years of Penn's career (1988 - 2001) to join us. We had our own personal docent tour with someone who knew Penn well and was able to discuss the ways Mr. Penn photographed and printed.
An eye-opening thing for me was to see some of the images as they originally appeared IN COLOR in Vogue magazine. I had only seen the black & white prints and reproductions and never knew that many of his iconic images were originally made in color (see the images at the bottom of this post). A highlight for me was one of Mr. Penn's painted canvas backdrops hanging in the gallery. I had an enjoyable experience sitting near the backdrop photographing patrons doing selfies or having their friends photograph each other.
As you enter the exhibit at the Met the first thing you are presented is one of Mr. Penn's Rolleiflex cameras in a display case. It is mounted on a Tilt-All tripod head with one of the control arms pointing forward (most people set up their Tilt-all with the arm pointing back at them). The camera has a custom-built quick release plate so that assistants could quickly change cameras between rolls of film. The Rollieflex used 120 size film that only has 12 square exposures per roll, so they had a number of cameras ready to go with film and a 75mm lens. 75mm is just short of "normal" on the Rollieflex. This allowed Penn to move in just a little bit closer to his subjects causing just a little bit of perspective distortion in the frame filling portraits. The cameras were also fitted with a Hasselblad "chimney" view finder so the camera could be used at a lower than usual height and Mr. Penn could look down into the viewfinder for composition.
Which brings us to the point of this post. Getting the camera lower to the ground. Mr. Penn's camera in the exhibit is mounted to a round metal plate with three machine screws in it that can sit on the floor, using the screws to adjust the level of the camera.
When I first met Henry Leutwyler a few months ago at the PSPF he brought along a large heavy home-made metal plate for getting his Hasselblad camera low to the ground. This reminded me of a product I had seen on Kickstarter called the Platypod (this is an affiliate link, I will be compensated if you purchase this item via this link). This led me to purchase the new Platypod Ultra for use with my mirrorless cameras. They also have a Platypod Max for use with larger/heavier cameras.
Another alternative is using a bean bag to hold your camera, but it isn't quite as adjustable and doesn't offer a way to mount a tripod head for more control. With either of these devices it helps to have a camera with an articulated viewing screen. Or you can get an Angle Finder for your particular camera. The angle finder lets you look down into the viewfinder, similar to what the chimney finder does on Penn's camera.
Some tripods allow you to get close to the ground, too. Some have legs that spread wide with no center column. Others let you mount the center column upside down so the camera hangs low between the tripod legs. Where there is a will there is a way.
Enough about getting low. If you cannot make it to NYC to see the show, Amazon has the Irving Penn Retrospective book on sale.
After the Met, Henry took us to the Strand book store. That was overwhelming. I have an extensive library of photography related books (at least 400 books), but that pales in comparison to the photography section at the Strand. Somehow int he midst of all those books I took a minute just before we left to flip through a table of small paperback books and found the Irving Penn memorial book prepared after his death, 32 pages of photos of Mr. Penn working. This seems to be rather rare, and I have not been able to find out much information about it online. If you happen to know anything about this book I'd love to hear from you.
In addition to the Penn show, I also got to see the Georgia O'Keefe show at the Brooklyn Museum (this show also closes this month). Quite a whirlwind trip and experience.
At the bottom of this post are some photos I made at the Centennial exhibit.
Who are some of the photographers who have influenced you or have been a great inspiration?