Irving Penn

Irving Penn was an American photographer who first came to public notice following his work with Alexander Liberman, Art Director of Vogue magazine. Although many of the staff at the magazine didn’t rate Penn, Liberman supported him and he was encouraged to produce his first cover in 1943.

Penn’s first magazine cover for Vogue in 1943

Later, Penn founded his own studio and pursued a career in fashion, commercial and travel photography. He published several books and held several exhibitions but there are a few projects that I find particularly useful to my studies this year.

The Cranium Architecture project is a reminder of Vanitas. The hard studio lighting really highlights the shapes, cracks and pits in each skull and I think using the word architecture is clever as he is highlighting the construction of the skull very clearly. I can’t say that this is a subject matter that appeals to me but I can see that the images are masterfully created.

Cranium Architecture

Penn has also done a project called Small Trades where he produced full length images of people working in different trades, against a plain background. It is almost like a catalogue of different trades people of the era. As I look through, I am struck by how many of the trades are no longer around yet the people depicted are probably just one of several generations that have all been doing the same thing.

I found that looking at these pictures was quite useful in terms of finding the ‘truth‘ in a portrait. Although I don’t believe it is possible to capture the whole truth of a person in an image, these images certainly capture what the person does if not who they are.

Small Trades

Finally Penn’s Cigarette’s project is also notable. The cigarette butts are photographed simply and clearly and leave the viewer wondering what type of person would have smoked them.


This video gives a short overview of some of Irving Penn’s work.

Rembrandt Lighting Technique

This simple style of portrait lighting is identified by a triangle of light on one cheek. It was of course named after Rembrandt Harmenzoon van Rijn, the 17th Century painter, who used this style in many of his paintings.

A Bearded Man in a Cap National Portrait Gallery

In this style, the shadow caused by the nose touches the shadow caused by the cheek creating a small bright triangle that is about the same size as the subject’s eye and nose respectively.

When using this style of lighting it is important to create a catchlight in both eyes otherwise the eye on the shadow side will appear a little lifeless.

It is best to turn the model away from the light slightly and ensure that the light is higher than the model so that the shadow from the person’s nose drops towards the cheek.

The lighting diagram shows a set up for recreating the Rembrandt lighting technique but the window can be replaced by a studio light, and some people will use a reflector to add some highlight and texture to the shadow side of the face.

Rembrandt Lighting

This is my photograph of a classmate using the Rembrandt style of lighting. The triangle is extended a little longer than the nose, but all in all it isn’t a bad attempt.


In the two parts of this video, Rankin takes inspiration from Rembrandt and tries to recreate four of his paintings. He doesn’t refer to the detail of this style of lighting particularly but it is a very interesting video to watch.


I think it is telling that the first line of Rankin’s biography on his website states that he ‘unveils icons’. In his portraits he aims to reveal the character of a person, most notably through their eyes.

Bill Nighy

Rankin has photographed many famous people including royalty, film stars, musicians and athletes but his Rankin Live project, saw him photographing nearly 1500 members of the public too. He really does have a knack for getting to the heart of the person and drawing something out of them that perhaps even they didn’t know they had. Rankin calls it ‘Finding the essence of a person’.

It’s quite difficult to define Rankin’s style. He says that he doesn’t have a style and that he uses different lighting and techniques every time. It is the ‘honesty’ in the image that he looks for above any style.

Rankin says that talks continuously to the person he is photographing, looking for their reaction to what he is saying. He aims to build a rapport and make a connection with his sitter that he can share through the lens and if he can make someone feel good when they are having their photograph taken it will be easier to make them look good. They have to trust the person that is taking their photograph and trust that they won’t make them look ridiculous.

This video shows Rankin working with some teenagers, each one is to have their portrait taken as part of the project but some are a little nervous about it. he allows each to have their hair and make-up done before they get in front of the camera to make them feel beautiful. One girl that he is working with is clearly not relaxed enough so he switches their roles and has her take his photo. After a little while, when she is more comfortable, he switches the roles back and he gets the shot that he wants. With all of the young people he focuses on their eyes, asking them to smile with their eyes more or give a cheeky look with their eyes.


The Americans by Robert Frank

One of the things that I am really poor at is filtering down my photos. I end up with hundreds of photos, most of which, I am never going to use for anything. It was suggested that I look at an iconic book called The Americans by Robert Frank that is particularly noted for the way that it has been edited and presented. Of the 500 rolls of film that were used to shoot the photographs, only 83 images made it to the final book.

Rooming House – Bunker Hill, Los Angeles

The photos were taken on three road trips around America that Frank took in the 1950s with his two children and his wife at the time. Many of the photos include shots that are out of focus or had some blur in them which was a bit shocking at the time and upset many traditional photographers. The fact that he has crossed class and race boundaries to take these photos would have been appalling to many.

I also notice that several of the images have people in them but their faces are obscured, again that would have been a new concept at the time. I particularly like this example called Rooming House – Bunker Hill, Los Angeles.

Frank studied with Alexey Brodovitch, a Russian photographer that revolutionised the images used in Harpers Bazaar magazine. Perhaps it was this influence that encouraged Frank to be so experimental in his images.

Movie Premier – Hollywood

Frank used strong shapes and patterns in his images and there is lots of grain in them. It all helps to show the emotion in a scene rather than the facts of the scene. For example in the image called Movie Premier – Hollywood, instead of the star being in focus he has chosen to focus on the background. At first glance this looks like Frank has been a bit sloppy but actually it highlights what is going on with the onlookers and how they are feeling.

As I look through the book I see lots of photos that don’t tell a conventional story, yet somehow all of them work together to form a larger picture of what life was like across America in the mid fifties. Frank was born in Switzerland and perhaps it is because he was born outside of America, that these sights were new to him, and that he was able to capture the spirit of the age.

After the initial introduction, the photos are laid out with one photo on each right hand page. This enables you to focus on each photo and not be distracted by anything else.

The left hand pages are all blank except for a small page number and the captions for the photos are listed at the back of the book.

This video by the Smithsonian gives a good overview of the book and highlights some of the editing choices made by Frank.

I like the way the book has been put together and will try to do something similar for my documentary assignment.

The Decisive Moment

Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908 in France and died in 2004. He originally trained as an artist but soon picked up a camera and in 1931 began a career in photography. His photographs became some of the most memorable and lasting photos of the 20th century.

Often described as a photojournalist, Cartier-Bresson said that his training was in surrealism but that if he had said he was a surrealist he would never have received any work! Despite this, he still managed to photograph many of the key national and international events during his lifetime.

Cartier-Bresson developed the concept of ‘the decisive moment’. That moment in time where structure, architecture and people align perfectly through a camera lens and where just before is too early and just after is too late. His photos, taken on a 33mm camera are un-cropped and un-manipulated and are known for being precisely composed, with strong geometric shapes. Cartier-Bresson himself says, in the film below, “Life is once, forever.”

He also recommends that you don’t ‘overshoot’. Taking too many pictures could mean that you miss the decisive moment because it is in between the photos that you have taken. Catching that decisive moment takes time, patience and some anxiety. You also need to blend in. Cartier-Bresson was known to tape over the metal parts of his camera in order to prevent it reflecting or shining and drawing attention to himself.




Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky is a renowned Canadian fine art / documentary photographer whose work documents man’s devastating effect on our world. His very large photographs of sweeping landscapes are stunningly beautiful but also somewhat uncomfortable to look at.

In his photos I can see a clear influence from people like Ansel Adams whose landscapes, particularly of Yosemite National Park are breathtaking.

His latest work, simply entitled Water, launched in 2013 explores our relationship with water, our attempts to harness its power and the scale of our effect on the landscape. Most of Burtynsky’s photographs are taken from high vantage points, giving a ‘not usually seen view of the landscape.

I found several aspects particularly striking. This image of houses that have been built into a lake disturbs me somewhat. The sky reflecting in the water looks like oil and says something to me about the way humans are rapidly multiplying but water is a finite resource that we take for granted and don’t respect and pour so much of our waste into it.

There is a market for waterfront properties that we are exploiting in this building project. I don’t doubt that there is tremendous skill that goes into a building project like this but to what effect. Burtynsky could be criticised for being overly political with his photography or lecturing viewers about things they already know, after all who hasn’t heard of global warming? But I think it is the scale of damage that we fail to comprehend and that Burtynsky highlights so well in these images.

VeronaWalkNaples, Florida, USA, 2012

Other pictures in this series include photographs of the Gulf of Mexico taken while BP’s Deepwater Horizon well was pouring oil into the sea, the affects of drought on the landscape and how agriculture and water are so closely linked.

In Burtynsky’s Quarries collection, this image of a stone quarry in Rajasthan, India, not only highlights how we are changing our physical landscape but is more worrying when you find out the lack of safety precautions at the site and the number of people who die in places like this on a monthly basis.

Makrana Marble Quarries #13Rajasthan, India, 2000

Other projects look at the effect of our need for oil, mining, ship breaking and mass consumerism and manufacturing. More of his work can be seen at

I’m really interested to see how Burtynsky views his work and whether his images actually make a difference and change the way we use our environment. In these films Burtynsky talks about his work, his methods and his thoughts behind his projects.