Worlds in a Small Room by Irving Penn

In Image on Paper, Tim McLaughlin reviews Irvin Penn’s (1917-2009) 1980 book Worlds in a Small World, telling the fascinating story of how the work came about. He quotes Penn’s comments on working in a temporary studio:

The studio became, for each of us, a sort of neutral area. It was not their home, as I had brought this alien enclosure into their lives; it was not my home, as I had obviously come from elsewhere, from far away. But in this limbo there was for us both the possibility of contact that was a revelation to me and often, I could tell, a moving experience for the subjects themselves, who without words—by only their stance and their concentration—were able to say much that spanned the gulf between our different worlds.

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From Penn’s words quoted in this review and in Sang Bleu Magazine, it is apparent that Penn paid many of his subjects for sitting. He was interested in photographing different types of people (the example above is from a group of Hell’s Angels) by bringing them into ‘pop-up’ studios (or ‘day-light’ studios as Penn refers to them).

We should note that Penn was a highly successful commercial photographer for Vogue (for slide show of photos see link below, or here). At least some of the Worlds in a Small World work was made in between commercial shoots; it is likely that he had both the means to pay people to sit for him and the necessity because of time constraints.


We learn of Penn’s practice from the Image on Paper article:

His trips were commissioned by Vogue … He finally perfected a portable outdoor natural light studio with a custom built tent. This structure was 11 feet high and had a 10 x 18 foot floor. He augmented the set-up with an 8 x 12 reflective screen … could be set up quickly by a team of assistants, and could fit on the top of a jeep … Penn took five Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex cameras and a compliment of close-up lenses.

So, pop-up studio with its suggestion of informality, is arguably a misnomer in this context; more like an on location shoot with entourage.

Although the subjects in Penn’s personal work are very different from the Vogue models, we can see the cross-over in his approach in that the sitters were tightly staged and directed. This creates an intense dynamic between the photographer and the sitters that is not necessarily present in a more observational style of portraiture, involving subjects who are not public personalities. This is something I’d like to experiment with in my own practice.


Guardian online [website]. Irving Penn obituary. Available from: [accessed 1.9.16]

Image on Paper [website]. Classic – Worlds in a Small Room. Available from: [accessed 1.9.16] [website]. Iriving Penn’s portraits of Hell’s Angels and his description of the experience. Available from: [accessed 1.9.16]

Vogue Magazine [online]. Irving Penn Photos. Available from: [accessed 1.9.16]


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