Where have the Penns, Avedons, Sterns, Halsmans, & Newtons Gone?
This may promise to be a rambling type of blog. I want to write about photographic style and how it seems to have disappeared (to my eye) in this 21st century. I wonder who replaced the Irving Penns, the Richard Avedons, the Bert Sterns, the George Hurrells and one of my favourites Philippe Halsman. And in particular I will write about another idol of mine, Helmut Newton. His style is long gone.
Around 1984 I was working for Vancouver Magazine, a biggish city magazine in a small pond. The art directors, I dealt with, first Rick Staehling and then Chris Dahl looked at a lot of American and European magazines for inspiration. More often than not their inspiration had to be toned down for conservative Vancouver palates.
By February 1982 when Chris Dahl was in charge of design (he had come from the expertise gained in working as a designer for the weekly MacLean’s) he had the idea of having two different covers in one month. The magazine would be distributed with the alternate covers in contrasting areas of the city. One cover was to be a portrait of my cat yawning and the other of a Vancouver stripper. Writer Les Wiseman and I had hoodwinked the editor, Mac Parry into running a story about strippers based on the money the industry earned. In the end that second cover did not run as it was rejected by the publisher.
But in these heady times of making the magazine resemble the leading American magazines with Esquire type two page spread profiles everything was game. Dahl came to me and said, “Alex I want you to do an Irving Penn type cover like the ones he shoots for Vanity Fair.” I did and he was shocked at my imitation and told me, “This looks too much like Irving Penn. Can you tone it down?”
By October 1991 I had ripped of Penn’s style to my satisfaction and made it my own and because of the general ignorance of many people in our small pond nobody noticed any resemblance to any American photographer. And by then Penn was gone from Vanity Fair.
When Annie Leibovitz faced my camera in October 1991 I was on assignment for the Georgia Straight, a Vancouver arts weekly that had yet to make the transition to colour or to use it on their covers. I could shoot my b+w photographs with glee.
Leibovitz faced a Mamiya RB-67 Pro-S, a very sharp 140mm macro lens and Kodak Plus-X Panchromatic b+w film. I used a soft box and a hair light. The flash system was a Dynalite and my tripod a Manfrotto. I am pointing out the equipment because Leibovitz told me, “This is most strange. I have that same equipment and it almost seems like I am taking my own portrait.”
The portrait was inspired by Penn and by Chris Dahl’s insistence that I imitate the master. But I was comfortable thinking that I had a adapted the style and made it my own.
Part of my own style has been to never work with an assistant so that I can be one on one with my subject. I may take only a few pictures of my subject but what is important is to connect verbally first. That’s my style no matter what kind of camera or kind of lights I might use. Be it a film camera or a digital camera.
I will stop this blog right here and will continue on the subject of Helmut Newton on another.
Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.