One can often differentiate between New Yorkers and tourists — or “out-of-towners” — based on the trajectory of their gazes; visitors, no doubt dazzled by the soaring skyline, walk around with their eyes fixed on the tops of the skyscrapers. Natives, meanwhile, navigate their way through the obstacle course of slow foot-traffic with their eyes on the sidewalk. But even those whose field of vision is fixed to their feet are unlikely to give the bric-a-brac littering the sidewalks more than a cursory glance.
That’s why Irving Penn’s photographic series depicting gum caked to the pavement and discarded matches and cigarettes offers such a unique perspective on urban life.
The 36 photos in the series “Underfoot” (1999–2001), which are on view at the Art Institute of Chicago as part of “Irving Penn: Underfoot,” portray larger-than-life litter. Matches resemble two-by-fours, and gum reads, at times, as faces, skulls or brains. Most of the “faces” are centered on the page, but some have more exciting compositions.
Some “portraits” appear to smirk; one seems to stick out its tongue; another winks. One could even double as a profile view of a pig, while others look like scarier versions of Krang from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
But the series (which is accessible on the Art Institute’s website) is not only about the “positive” space of the gum, the matches and the cigarette butts, but also the “negative” space of the pavement. Penn has so abstracted his forms that the Manhattan streets — which he documented sitting on a stool and extending his medium-format Hasselblad camera nearly to the pavement — are unrecognizable and appear more magical, like night skies with stars. The contrast in the photos, all of which are black and white, is so stark that some of the images resemble crime scene sets from “Dexter,” with what almost looks to be “blood” gushing from human organs.
A museum guard watching over the exhibit was asked if the ghostly images got scary after too long. “No, Sir,” he said, noting that he and his colleagues rotate rooms every 30 minutes. “It’s strange, but it’s [just] gum.”