When Experience Leads to Insight – Review of “Street” by Phil Penman

It takes a bit of magic to transform a photo book into a classic.

This bit of magic has little to do with book design or subject matter. It has nothing to do with the technical aspects of photography, either. It does, however, have everything to do with voice. It has everything to do with a way of seeing.

“Street” by Phil Penman
Published by G Editions, 2019
review by W. Scott Olsen

Photobooks need something extra to become larger than just a collection of well-done images. Something about the images needs to get into your head and heart because they just seem, well, right. They resonate with something ineffable yet immediately knowable.

Phil Penman’s book, Street, is one of these wonderful bits of magic and insight.

I will admit, here at the beginning, I am a fan of Phil Penman’s work. I had the good fortune to interview him for the FRAMES magazine podcast. I follow him on Facebook and Instagram. I find his work remarkable and inspiring nearly every day.

© Phil Penman

So, it is especially embarrassing for me to also admit I had not seen his book until just the other day. I knew it was out there. I had been told it was good. But it was just old enough to not rise against the crush of newer books on my desk. I knew I would get to it someday, but because I see a fair number of Penman images on social media each week, I did not feel a sense of urgency.

This was a mistake.

© Phil Penman

Street, I now know, is an essential book on its way to becoming a necessary classic. Along with the work of the street photographers who have preceded him, Penman is defining street photography these days. His work catches the energy, the absurdity, the frenetic pace of New York City life, and the deep well emotional presence of the architecture and light.

Street is divided into three main sections. The first section, “Citizen,” is a celebration of the wonderful, unexplainable-out-of-the-city oddity of individuals on the streets of Manhattan. As a genre, street photography is always looking for something else, something other, and Penman has found characters for this collection which provoke wonder and curiosity and humor and pathos, sometimes all at once. Whether it is a woman in a long black dress also wearing a spacesuit helmet, a mariachi band in a back alley, or a man holding a boa constrictor, these images discover and then give light to the peculiar. 

To be clear, however, this is not side-show exploitation. To me, these images are a celebration.

© Phil Penman

The second section, “Celebrity,” is an anthology from Penman’s early career life as a paparazzo, a celebrity photographer.  And while there are images of celebrities in this section, the real appeal comes from his images of other paparazzi, the rush and hustle and madness of that world. Perhaps this is what I mean by voice.  Looking at Street, I always feel like I’m inside a type of deeper, wiser vision.

© Phil Penman

“Celebrity” also contains several sections of sidebar columns of text, spaces where he tells the stories of his life chasing stars. These stories are recollections, filled with both action and insight. His writing is clear, entertaining, often a fast-paced whirl through Manhattan. These small essays recount his encounters with celebrities and what it took to get their picture. Just like there are insider images of photographers taking pictures, these stories are not about the celebrities.  These are stories about security guards and police officers and limo drivers. They are the real life of this business. Every one of them is illuminating.

The third section is called “City.” Readers familiar with Penman’s recent work will smile and whisper “Oh, yes” a lot here. The section contains mostly black and white images focused on the environment, the milieu, the umwelt of New York City. These are images of setting, of light and shadow.  Deep shadow has become a Penman trademark, and these images are filled that particular sense of an edge.

© Phil Penman

Street is about what it feels like to be in New York City. While there are people in these images, the real subject is larger and more contextual. There is nothing common or cliche about this work. There are very few people who have developed an individual and recognizable approach and style. Phil Penman is one of those people.

Penman’s introduction to Street begins this way: “I’ll never forget chatting with a homeless man on the corner of 5th Avenue and 55th Street, across from the Disney Store in Manhattan. A policeman came up to us and said to me, “He knows all and sees all,” referring to the homeless man, who then asked, “What happened with the bomb scare inside the Disney Store this morning?” The policeman responded with surprise, “How could you possibly about that? We had undercover police officers, and it didn’t go out over the wire.” But somehow the homeless man knew from just sitting there for hours and watching the comings and goings that were oblivious to anyone else but him.”

© Phil Penman

This anecdote sets the tone for the whole book. This is a book of high energy and patient observation. Every image in this book makes you wonder, either with a grin or some other expression.

It would be a mistake to think of Penman as only a photographer. It would be more precise, and more truthful, to say Penman is a storyteller. If you, like me, are familiar with his work but not familiar with this book, then you, like me, should get a copy soon. You will enjoy every moment.

© Phil Penman
© Phil Penman
© Phil Penman

A note from FRAMES: if you have a forthcoming or recently published book of photography, please let us know.

Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation. Learn more >>>

Comments (2):

  1. Dennis D.

    April 1, 2023 at 14:27

    Spot on review of Phil Penman’s “Street”! Like you Scott, I’ve been following Phil for some time and a big fan of his work. You reminded me of just how meaningful it is to come across an insightful review by someone who “gets” an artist’s work.

    You did a great job of conveying what makes Phil so special as a photographer. His style, his “voice” is as unique and recognizable as Dylan, whether singing in his twenties or seventies.

    Of course it’s the stories he chooses to tell and the scenes he captures to tell them. Phil’s sensibility is finely tuned to both the magic and the drama of humans making their way in the sometimes hostile, sometimes humorous intensity of New York City.

    Phil Penman has a heart for people and a keen eye for what makes us unique as individuals. His care and respect in portraying those unique, sometimes quirky characters draws you toward them and reminds you how much we all have in common.

    You’re right, Phil’s work vibrates with “high energy and patient observation”. And he is indeed a storyteller of our day, the kind we need to remind us how precious those stories are. Thanks for reminding us of that!


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