View Full Version : Irving Penn at the Smithsonian

Mark Sampson
15-Jan-2016, 10:20
This retrospective is up through March at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Penn was a master and a perfectionist, and this show does his work justice. A lot of his work was done with a Rollei, I'm sure that the still-life was done in 8x10. Silver prints, platinums, dye-transfers, C-prints, Cibas... he mastered all the media as well. A must-see for any LFPF member within reach.

Thom Bennett
6-Jul-2016, 12:08
This exhibit is now at the Dallas Museum of Art. I went to see it over the weekend especially to see the Pt/Pd prints. They were exquisite. Most are from enlarged negs but a few were 8x10 and 12x20 contacts.

Drew Wiley
6-Jul-2016, 12:48
I doubt he printed his own work, esp in such a wide range of media. There were specialty shops around for that kind of thing.

Thom Bennett
6-Jul-2016, 13:50
I think he (and probably an assistant or two) worked on the Pt/Pd prints. There was a copy of a page out a notebook that had his notes on testing emulsions and paper for a particular print. Not sure about the vintage silver gelatin prints but they were beautiful as well. Even if he didn't print his own work he certainly oversaw the production and, from all indications, he was quite meticulous in everything he did.

bob carnie
6-Jul-2016, 14:29
He did extensive printing and testing, he is one of my Hero's.

Drew Wiley
6-Jul-2016, 15:38
Dye transfers? - when there were labs in town specializing in it on an assembly line basis? Cibas? - weren't those after his own era anyway? Pt/Pd I can understand. A lot of his subject matter was high key b&w.

Drew Wiley
7-Jul-2016, 15:40
Lest I get my foot in my mouth I've been trying to see if Penn personally printed any of his color work. I still would surmise he did not. The examples looks too professionally done for a schedule of a noted photographer who was already in high demand for his camera skills. I regret having poked my nose into this. It kinda tanks my opinion of him. Way too "gotcha" for my taste. But if that is what paid the bills in the newer era of predominately color magazine covers and advertisements, understandable. Next time I'll close my eyes to all that and try just to remember his more nuanced poetic side in black and white.

7-Jul-2016, 16:43
If he signed it, he printed it.

Drew Wiley
8-Jul-2016, 08:24
What on earth makes you think that? Like I already suggested, did he personally have the kind of facilities necessary for his own color work, or even the time to
do complex comps. Then there appear to be some anachronisms. He did live to 92; and it is probable he supervised assistants for certain technical aspects, and in that sense indirectly printed his own work, much as Hurrell and many other production studios have, who have also signed these kinds of things. I really don't know. I don't follow advertising photography much, because it doesn't appeal to me.

8-Jul-2016, 09:01
The final process of rolling Dye Transfers is carried out in daylight and actually quite simple. Making the seps and the correction negs, and the final matts is where the work is time-consuming, and can be done by assistants. Once the first one is perfect, the rest are routinely mass produced by the artist.

Drew Wiley
8-Jul-2016, 09:23
Have you actually done this style of dye transfer printing, Bill? I'm asking all this simply because I've never heard Penn's name come up in the context of dye transfer printing per se. Lots of people had DT prints made, because that was Photoshop prior to Photoshop. And these obviously had to be high-quality prints suitable for glossy publications. Not simple. There were huge labs in NYC set up to do this kind of thing. I hesitate to contact the one guy alive who might know the specific answer because he's gotten distinctly cantankerous, maybe doty. But printing dyes in any real personal sense means controlling everything from Point A to Z. The labs did it with different individuals assigned to very specific tasks in the workflow; but someone had to choreograph it all. Doing it one-man-band-style is a different story, and do I ever sense that - I've had to develop all my own separation and masking protocols with newer materials, scrounge dyes here and there, secure the matrice film, make my own matched punches and carrier, but am having a hard time with the most important commodity of all - sheer time. Maybe Penn did this kind of thing and we West Coast types just never paid attention; but why, when there were plenty of hired guns around who
already specialized in it?

Mark Sampson
8-Jul-2016, 10:31
It's not likely that Penn personally made every print that he ever signed. Certainly he had staff and trained assistants. Even if his DT (or other) prints were made by outside labs, you can be sure that he was involved in the process, and approved the finals. Certainly he made his platinum prints in-house, again with assistance;and is rightly considered a master of that craft. Having worked as a custom printer, for both commercial and fine-art photographers, I see nothing wrong with that approach. It's quite possible to know a great deal about a photographic craft, have intensely personal standards and requirements, the means to get it done, and lack the time to do it all oneself. 'twas ever thus, and it should not reflect badly on Penn as an artist or photographer. One may not care for his subject matter or style, but one must respect his accomplishment.

Drew Wiley
8-Jul-2016, 10:44
I'm not implying there is anything wrong about it. There were some well known portrait studios that did exceptionally high-quality DT printing in-house, that seem to be otherwise unknown to the "art" printing genre. My brother used to rave about the life-sized DT portraits made by a fellow named Gittings in Texas, nobody either on the art side of the West Coast or the substantial Hollywood DT industry of its own ever seems to have known about. A different niche. Advertising, however, was basically tedious comp work, with people like Bob Pace being well known for doing and teaching many technical aspects of that. It just doesn't make sense that a successful ad photographer like Penn would get entangled in all the time of infrastructure of doing this, assistants of not; but it would befun to know, one way or the other. His personal commitment really seems to be on the softer side, as in his platinums.

bob carnie
8-Jul-2016, 10:58
David Chow sadly passed away last year, was really informed in every aspect of Irving Penn's work , he would have the definitive answer, but talking with David I saw he was really impressed with Irving Penn's grasp of printing.

Most of the best photographers I know have a deep interest and actually all have taken a session or two in the darkroom, its not hard to understand the concepts. In most case they will pass off the actual printing to people like me as we do it everyday and the re learning curve is not required.

Drew Wiley
8-Jul-2016, 11:06
No big deal. Just curious. With four major industry players during the heyday or DT (Eastman Kodak, Color Corp of America, Technicolor, and the US Army - yeah,
they had their own setup), a lot of labs and individual printers were involved. A lot of this was for one-time advertising or other pre-press usage and not related to multiples or necessarily permanence. But as a hired gun yourself, Bob, you understand that it takes a lot of choreography to get an ideal match of communication
between an artist and the printmaker. Not every commercial lab can provide that kind of aesthetic ESP.

bob carnie
8-Jul-2016, 11:37
Most major East Coast photographers during that period would have their own personal printer on hire (salaried) to do the bulk of their work, in some cases two or three with different specialties. Specifically in New York.

Drew Wiley
8-Jul-2016, 12:06
We had quite a few individual dye printers around here, some rather expert and some really not. There was one full-time dye lab, long retired though the owner
is still doing his own thing. And one well-known hired gun printer. Nothing equivalent to the NYC options, though similar operations and even bigger were
associated with the film industry in LA. The big Bay Area commercial labs did get deeply into Ciba color printing, and obviously stayed in Type C options as well,
but never dabbled in DT. There are only a handful of hired guns left in the world who still do it for clients. I have enough supplies for maybe five years of fooling
around - which should be just enough time to prove I am a fool!

8-Jul-2016, 14:05
Drew, I made my own dyes while in High School and College, (a total pain to do because I couldn't afford a densitometer), but outsourced them commercially to New York as soon as I could afford it.
Frankly, I think that better results are now obtainable with inkjets -- I believe that Ctein shares this opinion, and has completely switched.

Drew Wiley
8-Jul-2016, 15:38
Every time I hear this argument it seems to be more about convenience. I'd certainly agree that relatively few people were able to make really good dye prints, while inkjet is an incredibly democratic medium, but when they were good at it ... For example, I've seen in person a number of side-by-side prints which Ctein
did both DT by contract and inkjet as backups. 60% of the time they were about equal. But it's the other 40% where the luminosity of the dyes really stood out,
with its more accurate gamut, rather than inks. DT tends to favor shadow repro, but inkjet the highlights. His medium was Pan Matrix film anyway, and not regular separation neg work from chromes. I can name several other well known names in the game who now rave about inkjet and also had a DT background, but really did by far their own best work in Ciba. I'm late to the game because I mastered Ciba first, then went into B&W, then into RA4, and have finally become senile enough to imagine that I might have enough time on the clock for the challenge of DT. Well, I have figured out how to make extremely high quality masks and separation using current films; but I have a lot of background in masking. We also had a number of seriously good color carbon and carbro printers in this
area, though none of them did it commercially. Anyway, what Ctein told me is that he was just tired of doing dyes for all these years and needed to switch, since
it was inevitable with his stockpile of pan matrix film running low. Regular blue-sensitive matrix film has been re-run under contract several times in Europe,
though the quality has varied and the latest batch is exclusive to a single lab, not available for public sale.