NPR’s On The Media aired an excellent piece on how the popularity of penguins has turned them into political pawns. First anti-abortionists praised March of the Penguins saying, “Almost every scene and narrative verified the beauty of life and the rightness of protecting it.” Now liberals are being criticized for co-opting the penguin with a pro-gay children’s book And Tango Makes Three and a pro-environment animated film Happy Feet. I haven’t seen any of these productions, but it has been interesting to watch both sides spinning penguins.
This mix of penguins and propaganda got me thinking about Bruno Penguin Zehnder – the Swiss penguin photographer who died in a blizzard in 1997. While I don’t really know Zehnder’s pictures, I’m fascinated by his legacy. Zehnder is the ultimate example of a photographer who is directly linked to a single subject. When anyone brings up Zehnder’s name, people respond by saying ‘He’s the guy that photographed penguins.’
I have a theory that no matter what kind of photographer you are, everyone will end up saying one sentence about you. It is a kind of cultural shorthand. Some examples:
- He took celebrity portraits with a white background
- She took pictures of freaks and committed suicide
- He took picture of Parisian architecture at the turn of the century
- She makes creepy digital pictures of kids with big eyes
- She takes large-format pictures of her wealthy family and friends
Zehnder embraced his sentence so much that he changed his middle name to Penguin. This biographical fact, along with his death in a blizzard, has actually become part of his sentence. (For an example read his Time Magazine obit here).
Biographical details often make their way into the sentence: ‘She was Arbus’s teacher’ (Lisette Model), ‘He was Edward Weston’s son’ (Cole & Brett).
Some artists have a sentence that is tied to a single picture: Iwo Jima Flag Raising (Joe Rosenthal), Piss Christ (Andres Serrano), Couple Kissing in Paris (Robert Doisneau).
While artists aren’t usually as blatant as Penguin Zehnder, most work to shape their sentence. In the recently discussed interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson, for example, he downplayed his early interest in Surrealism but repeatedly described himself as ‘an anarchist.’
I admire the way Paul Shambroom has shaped his sentence. On the front page of his website he writes: “Artist/Photographer Paul Shambroom’s work explores power in its various forms.” I’ve heard Paul repeat the same thing during his lectures. Repetition, after-all, is what makes the sentence.
But while photographers can help shape their sentence, they can’t control it. No matter how many times Cartier-Bresson called himself an anarchist it would never make the sentence. And if Paul Shambroom ends up taking a picture of George Bush’s assassination, that will be his sentence. Unless you change your name, the sentence can only be shaped, not controlled.
Hmmm, Power Shambroom does have a ring to it.