Irving Penn

Underfoot IV, New York, August-September 2000


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Not on display

Irving Penn 1917–2009
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 487 × 484 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisition Committee and Tate Americas Foundation 2018


Underfoot 2000 is a series of thirty-six black and white photographs that documents detritus on the streets of New York City. Focusing primarily on chewing gum, but also on discarded matches and cigarette butts, the subject matter is enlarged so as to bring fascinating detail into sharp focus. The humble subject of masticated gum adopts unique forms and variations, revealing what former Director of the Art Institute of Chicago James Wood has described as ‘the cosmos underfoot’ (quoted at, accessed 20 July 2017).

Shot by Penn when he was aged eighty-four, Underfoot is one of the artist’s last bodies of work. The series can be viewed in relation to his work from the 1970s in which he photographed discarded cigarettes, paper cups and other detritus gathered from the streets of New York. As well as sharing a conceptual approach to still life, both Underfoot and this earlier work explore traces of human life and notions of life and death. For his earlier photographs from the 1970s, such as the Cigarette series, Penn collected detritus from the street to be carefully arranged and photographed in the studio. Underfoot marks a departure from this approach, with Penn moving from the studio out onto the street, but retains the formal rigour and simplicity of the earlier series. The artist employed a hand-held medium-format Hasselblad camera, which was specially fitted with tubes that allowed him to extend the lens very close to the pavement to achieve extremely close-up views of the chewing gum. This distortion in scale, coupled with a shallow pictorial space, monumentalises the humble subject matter. Similar to Penn’s photographs of cigarettes in which the subject takes on stately sculptural forms, the chewing gum in Underfoot often appears like abstract marble sculpture.

The silver gelatin prints are the result of enlarging transparencies in the darkroom onto large format panchromatic film. Each print is graphic with rich variations in tone, line and texture. While remaining simplistic in composition, the abstract nature of the work allows for a proliferation of forms and meaning. Katherine Ware, Curator of Photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has stated that studying these photographs is an exercise in ‘looking at clouds’ (quoted in press release for exhibition at Fraenkel Gallery, New York, 2005, at, accessed 20 July 2017).

In several images the balls of gum are bulbous and shiny, with layers folded in intricate patterns which could be likened to Penn’s closely cropped nudes of voluptuous women from the 1940s and 1950s, such as Nude No 66 c.1949. At times the formations appear threatening or ominous. They also take on humorous human features. Commenting on this aspect of the series, critic Adam Kirsch has noted:

It is when discarded items become humanised or humanoid that they are most uncanny … It is a joke of course about how easily we see faces in things, a kind of parody of the urge to ‘constellate’ that Penn plays with in so many forms. But it is not only a joke, since to see everything as facelike is to see a consciousness everywhere, to imagine meaning and even surveillance lying under our feet.
(Adam Kirsch, ‘Still Life, 1968–2007’, in Hambourg et al. 2017, p.305.)

Simultaneously grounded in the mundane, yet giving free rein to the imagination, the work chimes with a note Penn wrote to himself in his later years describing photography as that which ‘deals with the real world but at the same time seeks to free itself of it’ (quoted in Foresta 2015, p.13).

The series retains a certain humour in turning the lens towards the pavement and away from New York’s more glamorous sensory excitements. In this way, Underfoot maintains Penn’s irreverent interest in how the smallest and lowest subject matter can be elevated to the status of art. Curator John Szarkowski wrote in the catalogue accompanying Penn’s retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1987: ‘Until now [Penn’s work] has demonstrated for photography in our time what must be relearned by most arts in most times: that the apparently inconsequential can be redeemed by artistic seriousness; that a plain vocabulary is the most demanding; that high craft is the just deserts not only of monuments and ceremonial vessels, but of the ordinary baggage of our lives.’ (In Museum of Modern Art 1987, online at, accessed 20 July 2017).

Penn is recognised as one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century, with a career spanning from the 1940s to the early 2000s. He is well-known as a fashion photographer, having dominated the pages of Vogue throughout the second half of the twentieth century, however he also worked prolifically across portraiture, still life and conceptual projects. At the Museum of Modern Art, New York, his were the first photographs to be shown outside the museum’s prints and drawings room and in the department of twentieth century art instead.

Further reading
John Szarkowski, Irving Penn, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1987.
Merry A. Foresta, Irving Penn, Beyond Beauty, New Haven 2015.
Maria Morris Hambourg, Jeff L. Rosenheim, Alexandra Dennett, Philippe Garner, Irving Penn: Centennial, New Haven 2017.

Sarah Allen
July 2017

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