Irving Penn shoots Truman Capote, 1948

Irving Penn :: Truman Capote, 1948

Let’s break down this shot by Irving Penn, shall we?

This was a favorite setup of Penn’s in the 1940s. He set up two “walls”, large pieces of badly painted wood that he could move. He would often put them at a fairly tight angle, and then have his subject pose in between them, sometimes alone, sometimes with a prop (like Capote’s chair). The lighting is very simple, looks like one light source high above the subject, kinda medium sized (you can tell because the shadows from Capote’s face and jaw are hard-ish…. not super soft like a large modifier would create, not super hard-edged like a small modifier would make). The walls are a light color, which will act as a bit of a  fill, bouncing light into some of the shadow areas and increasing the range of tones in the final image.

Irving Penn :: Duchess of Windsor

Irving Penn :: Duchess of Windsor

Also, the background “walls” set was of benefit to how people would pose:

According to Penn “This confinement surprisingly seemed to comfort people,” …. “It soothed them. The walls were a surface to lean on or push against.”

How could this setup be used today?

I’ve got some thoughts. How would a clamshell-type lighting setup look with this background? What if I put a gelled light behind the subject, pointed at the apex of the “walls”? Color especially could be very interesting, since it’s an element that wasn’t available in the 1940s for Penn to experiment with. What about different angles and lens choices? What about painting the “walls” or texturing them in some way?

There are so many possibilities for ways to “remix” these types of setups into new and exciting forms. What ideas do you have using this type of a setup?

Irving Penn :: Igor Stravinsky, 1948

Irving Penn :: Igor Stravinsky, 1948