A lens on remote peoples, Worlds in a Small Room, by Irving Penn. New York: Viking. $19.95.
"In my early years as a photographer," Irving Penn writes, "I would often find myself daydreaming of being mysteriously deposited (with my ideal north-light studio) among the aborigines in remote parts of the earth. These remarkable strangers would come to me and place themselves in front of my camera."
Instead, Irving Penn went to them. Setting up his "ambulant studio" on the edge of the Sahara, the cliffs of Cuzco, or even the steeps of Nepal, he invited the inhabitants to step, for a moment, from their world to his. There in the neutral territory of the studio, he made records "of physical presence."
Penn's famous photographs, reprinted in this new edition, are far more than physical records. They are intense human encounters. Within his stagelike studio, Penn's subjects become characters in a cultural drama. Outsiders brought in. Whether they're gypsies or aborigines, Penn's subjects are all poised on the rim of the world.
The fascination of the photos, therefore, is how the familiar and the foreign exist in equal measure. On one hand, the stark studio backdrop throws cultural differences into sharp relief. Yet purged of their social contexts, subjects are also more forcefully familiar. A young girl of Diamare, for example, is at once exotic and universal in her beauty. Penn not only preserves the dignity of his subjects, he pronounces it.