Temporary studios – Penn and Avedon

Making portrait photographs in a studio gives the photographer control of background and lighting. However, a permanent studio is expensive and also requires the sitter to travel to a fixed location, which is inconvenient. I suspect that it only really works if money has changed hands: either the sitter has commissioned a studio portrait or the photographer is working with a paid model (in which case I question whether this is a portrait or some other form of image)

Richard Avedon, in his 5-year road-trip project ‘In the American West’, took the opposite approach and brought the studio to his subjects. His signature style of a plain background, evenly-lit and with crisp detail assured by using an 8×10 film camera was simplified further. A roll of white background paper was taped to a convenient building, RV or other support and the subject lit by ‘open shade’. The process is described in a YouTube video by Marcy James (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeWSbdBqxzs) embedded and summarised in a Phoblographer posting (2017)

source: New York Times

While Avedon’s temporary studio may have been convenient, Irving Penn had a deeper purpose. In the anthropological studies (he uses the word ‘ethnographic’) which became ‘Worlds in a Small Room’ he addressed the balance of power between photographer and subject and the ‘home turf advantage’ by using either a borrowed studio or, later, a temporary tent-like structure. (McLauglin 2013 and Art Institute of Chicago 2013)

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. (Irving Penn)


A selection of Penn’s images may be found in the Door of Perception blog.

A Google search for Penn’s tent studio also brought up images of similar structures used by other photographers; a selection of which are shown below.



Art Institute of Chicago (2013) Irving Penn Archives  – Ethnographic Studies [online] Available at http://archive.artic.edu/irvingpennarchives/ethnographic [Accessed 08 January 2019]

McLaughlin (2013) Classic – Worlds in a Small Room [online] Available at https://imageonpaper.com/2013/07/21/review-worlds-in-a-small-room/comment-page-1 [Accessed 12 January 2019].

Phoblographer (2017) How to Photograph Like Richard Avedon (The American West) [online] Available at https://www.thephoblographer.com/2017/08/25/video-tips-richard-avedon-american-west [Accessed 11 January 2019].

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