Irving Penn’s portraits of Hell’s Angels and his description of the experience.

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In Irving’s Penn’s impressive book Worlds in a Small Room published in 1980 Penn personally guides the reader through his explorations through a selection of his natural daylight studio portraits. The majority of the work in this publication explores his travels throughout the world; Nepal, Cuzco, Cyprus, Morocco, New Guinea and Cameroon but right in the middle of the book we unexpectedly find Penn’s portraits of Hell’s Angels and Hippies taken in San Francisco in 1967. For what could quite easily pass as looking like an anthropology book Penn’s placement of the then contemporary subculture plays with interesting ideas about human adornment. Where Penn’s book could easily be considered an uneasy example of creating images that replicate us  looking at people almost in a similar way in which we go to the zoo the choice of photographing what were then thought of as a threatening aspect of American culture exaggerates a notion of the unattainable that Penn created. Creating portraits of remote tribes in Cameroon would have involved an expansive amount of planning and travel to complete. However creating images of Hell’s Angel exist right on his doorstep. Therefore these images create interesting ideas of how threatening America at the time found this subculture and how unattainable they were thought of.

Below you can read Penn’s description of how he created these fantastic images.

Irving Penn's Hell's Angels

In 1967 there was word coming out of San Francisco of something stirring – new ways of living that were exotic even for California. People spoke of a new kind of young people called hippies, and of an area where they had begun to congregate called Haight-Ashbury. They seemed to have found a satisfying new life for themselves in leaving the society they were born to and in making their own. There was talk of drugs, communal living, and group sex. There were a new kind of music and new musicians, and accompanying the music there was a new visual form, the light show.

These early hippies were gentle creatures, quite different from that other group also centred in the San Francisco Bay area, the Hell’s Angels. These tough motorcycle people were not quite so new on the scene – there had already been movies inspired by them, and many young people all over the country romanticised their kind of life-outlaw, free, violent. They were the ‘outs’ who found strength in banding together.

It grew on me that I would like to look into the faces of these new San Francisco people through a camera in a daylight studio, agasint a simple background, away from their own daily circumstances. I suggested to the editors of Look magazine that they might care to have such a report. They said yes-hurry. Their perceptive editor on the West Coast, George Leonard, had already been urging a story about this new lifestyle. Leonard and I met, and our collaboration was immediate and sympathetic. Our thought-and our promise to the subjects- was the only text to accompany the pictures should be the actual spoken words of the people photographed. Look agreed and was scrupulous in keeping faith with this promise.

I rented space on the second floor of a vast barn of a building in Sausalito where the beams were strong enough to support the heavy concrete sweep that we built of two-by-fours, chicken wire, and mortar – concrete thick enough to support the heaviest motorbikes of the Hell’s Angels. There was a large freight elevator for the bikes. The exposure was toward the north, as wished.

Choosing subjects from among the hippies took endless conversation and tests of good faith. On the other hand, the Hell’s Angels quickly agreed to come – for simply a stiff fee. That was quicker and easier, and at twelve noon one day we met in the park and looked over one another over. The deal was made.

During the photographing the hippies and the rock groups surprised me with their degree of concentration. Their eyes remained riveted on the camera lens; they were patient and gentle. The distracted quality which I feared would be typical of this new kind of person was not a problem at all.

The Angels were something else again. They were like coiled springs ready to fly loose and make trouble. Being inside a building with their precious bikes (and the wives and children I had asked them to bring) frustrated their natural tendency to smash up the place and do mischief. The delays and provocations were endless. Still, the hypnotic lens of the camera and the confinement of the studio held them in check long enough for the pictures to be made. When the experience was over and theitr screaming bikes went down the road, I breathed me deepest sigh.

Irving Penn's Hell's Angels

Irving Penn's Hell's Angels

Irving Penn's Hell's Angels

Irving Penn's Hell's Angels

Irving Penn's Hell's Angels

 

 

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