Review by Wayne Swanson •
In the spring of 1975, a budding photographer from Cheyenne, Wyoming, just 21 years old, checked in to a single-room occupancy hotel in Hollywood. During her three-month stay there she created portraits of her fellow residents that launched what would be a long and successful career. “All I had to do was show my binder full of hotel photographs and more often than not, something good would happen,” Penny Wolin writes.
But getting a book of those photos published was not one of those good things. “Time and again, it was accepted by art directors and editors in the New York publishing world, but ultimately and always was rejected by the accounting department.” The bean counters could not imagine who would want to buy such a book.
So nearly half a century later, Wolin did it herself. Guest Register, published by her imprint Crazy Woman Creek Press, captures a moment in time as well as the timeless striving of dreamers, known and unknown, searching for their place in the world. The setting is the St. Francis Hotel, built in 1926, which once catered to the Hollywood stars of the silent film era. By the 1970s, however, its glory days were long gone, and its residents were on the far side of the Hollywood dream. “I could see that the St. Francis Hotel was a constantly changing milieu of dreamers; in particular, dreamers who had not yet realized their dreams or had left them behind,” she writes.
They included the former bronco-riding champion in Room 309. The former child actor in Room 412. The Taekwondo master in Room 415. The orphaned brothers from Nebraska in Room 421. And Walter, the plumber in Room 323, who was “well-liked and respected by everyone that gets to know him.” He left for work each morning in his overalls, but in the evenings could be seen in a fancy dress, high heels, make-up and a wig. In all, Guest Register presents 34 images of the hotel’s diverse clientele.
Wolin’s approach was simple. Using a medium-format Hasselblad, a tripod, and often just a single strobe light, she created black-and-white portraits that bring to mind the works of masters like Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, and Arnold Newman. Her environmental portraits were mainly shot within the cramped four walls of each resident’s room. Yet Wolin’s eye for the details — from the beer cans, litter, and unmade bed of Room 332 to the immaculate interior of Room 505 — are as telling as the clothing, posture, and demeanor of her subjects. The portraits are detached and nonjudgmental, yet affectionate, respecting the inherent humanity of the eclectic residents.
The images are supported by her captions, some wry, some deadpan, some descriptive, that provide a glimpse of the hopes, dreams, or current malaise of the resident. The middle-aged man in Room 208 was “Hungry out on the road at 18, joined the army and came to California. Still in California, sometimes still hungry.” The young man with the vacant look on his face in disheveled Room 332 “Wasn’t really present in the room when he was being photographed.” But the smiling young man in Room 110 told her “I got Jesus; everything is alright.”
The design of the book mimics a classic hotel register, with a pebbled cover followed by end pages showing the sign-in pages from actual St. Francis hotel ledgers. The images are presented one to a spread on oversized pages, set off by black borders and a black facing page. They progress from the empty 1st-floor room of a former Hollywood stunt man who died the night before Wolin was scheduled to make his portrait, up to the room of the writer in the 5th-floor penthouse.
Engaging text by Wolin sums up the project and her career. She fondly describes her encounters with her fellow residents and the sense of community she experienced there. She also shows where this portfolio took her career — to editorial portraits for national publications of musicians, actors, photographers, and activists; a solo exhibition at the Smithsonian American History Museum, three monographs of photographic portraiture; an ongoing position as adjunct professor at ArtCenter College of Design, and more.
Not a bad legacy for a book the bean counters delayed for nearly 50 years.
Wolin’s Descendants of Light: American Photographers of Jewish Ancestry was previously reviewed by Photobook Journal.
Wayne Swanson is a Contributing Editor and a San Diego-based fine art photographer and writer.
Guest Register, Penny Wolin
Photographer: Penny Wolin, born Cheyenne, Wyoming, resides Sebastopol, CA, USA
Publisher: Crazy Woman Creek Press (Cheyenne, Wyoming, USA, copyright 2022)
Essays: Penny Wolin
Hardcover book, case-bound Smyth-sewn binding, 14 x 11 in., 88 pages, 51 tritone plates, printed by Trifolio SRL, Verona Italy, ISBN: 978-0-9676357-4-3
Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.