The cosmos underfoot


Irving Penn, Underfoot series, 2000-2001

At the age of 84, photographer Irving Penn was working on a new project …

Walking the streets of Manhattan with a portable stool and a camera fitted with several extension tubes, Penn lowered his eye and his equipment nearly to the pavement. There he found a universe of abject form: pebbled concrete, discarded matches and cigarette butts, and above all a wealth of masticated gum.

Printed on expensive platinum paper, these soft grey images are a gallery of faces, grimacing, shrieking and chuckling. They are all made from tiny spots of trodden-on chewing gum. Curator James Wood, marvelled at how they showed “the cosmos underfoot.”

Irving Penn, like his contemporary Richard Avedon, was s a major figure in photography, a fashion photographer who practically defined mid-century chic, a portraitist of the most worthy celebrities and an innovative advertising photographer. He was great commercial success story for sixty years. but throughout this period he was also an artist pursuing his own projects. Underfoot is one such project and typical in that it embraces the lowest subject matter and raises it to a high status.

Penn used his 8×10 camera to transform detritus into monumental figures. The large gallery prints were made from the noble metal palladium, one of the most difficult and expensive print materials. Despite the ugliness of the subject matter, the prints are gorgeous examples of black & white craft. And you can imagine how a photographer who’s day job involved glamour and celebrity might, in his off-time, want to explore its opposite.

Although a New Yorker, Penn donated his entire archive to the Art Institute of Chicago. You can see the Underfoot project at their website here, and many other Penn projects here,






Inspiration – Sommer


Frederick Sommer, Medallion, 1948

The strange photographs of Frederick Sommer struck me like a bell when I was shown them in 1983.

Sommer combined the democratic gaze of the camera with an attitude influenced by Surrealism. He would collect detritus found in Arizona rubbish dumps and arrange it in his studio in bizarre assemblages that were unprecedented in photography.

He liked the staring gaze of the large format camera, its ability to capture fine detail, but he focussed it on the lowest subject matter, rubbish that had baked in the desert sun.

He was friends with the Surrealist Max Ernst and you can see the affinity in the image above. Ordinary objects, the head of a doll and a piece of wood, are combined in a way that ‘multiplies’ the materials, giving them an eerie power. In Medallion, the camera stares at the doll and the doll stares back.

“He was interested in objects with histories, things imbued with the evidence of time and chance. (his still lifes) stand as emblems of memory. Sommer transforms these trivial relics into objects of talismanic power and mystery. – Keith F Davis.