Dry Jewish Humor Informs Irving Penn's Photographs

One Man's Trash Is Another's Art, On Display in Chicago

Picturing Pablo: A photograph of Pablo Picasso by Irving Penn, some of whose work is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago in “Underfoot (1999-2001)”
Getty Images
Picturing Pablo: A photograph of Pablo Picasso by Irving Penn, some of whose work is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago in “Underfoot (1999-2001)”

By Menachem Wecker

Published February 18, 2013, issue of February 22, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.