Penny Wolin

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Portrait of Penny Wolin

Penny Wolin (born June 5, 1953), also known as Penny Diane Wolin and Penny Wolin-Semple, is an American portrait photographer and a visual anthropologist. She has exhibited solo at the Smithsonian Institution and is the recipient of two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and one grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work is held in the permanent collections of such institutions as the Layton Art Collection at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the New York Public Library and the American Art Museum, administered by the Smithsonian Institution. Known for her documentary and conceptual photographs, she has completed commissions for major corporations, national magazines and private collectors. For over 30 years, she has used photographic portraiture with oral interviews to research Jewish civilization in America.

Youth and education[edit]

Wolin is the youngest of five children born into a Conservadox Jewish family in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Her father, Morris Aaron Wolin (ne Wolinsky) immigrated there as a child, directly from the Russian town of Grodno, later to become a businessman. Her mother, Helen Sobol Wolin, came from Denver, Colorado, and was an artist. At age 10, Penny began using a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye. At age 16, her brother Michael Wolin gave her a high quality rangefinder camera and the necessary darkroom equipment to begin a career.

Wolin attended the University of Wyoming and then was graduated from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, majoring in photography and film. She also attended a masters' program in the department of cultural anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, under the mentorship of Cultural Anthropologist Johannes Wilbert.[1] Then she was awarded a directing fellowship to the American Film Institute, Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies.

Major projects[edit]

Descendants of Light: American Photographers of Jewish Ancestry[edit]

In 2005, Wolin began researching Descendants of Light: American Photographers of Jewish Ancestry.[2] Since the 1850s, these photographers have contributed significantly to the fields of journalistic, fashion, portrait, advertising and fine art photography. By photographing and interviewing each photographer, (or interviewing the living descendants of those who are deceased) re-photographing heirloom images of their ancestors and showcasing an iconic image that is of their own creation, Wolin is able to visually and verbally document a multi-generational story of the intersection between American Jewish culture, modern America and the history and practice of photography. The book is now available and the large gelatin-silver prints are being prepared as a traveling exhibition. Penny photographed and interviewed more than 70 of the leading and most original Jewish-American photographers in history, including Lillian Bassman, Jo Ann Callis, Lauren Greenfield, Elinor Carucci, Lois Greenfield, Bruce Davidson, Annie Leibovitz, Herman Leonard, Helen Levitt, Jay Maisel, Joel Meyerowitz, Arnold Newman, Robert Frank and Joel-Peter Witkin. Posthumous interviews include the families of Philippe Halsman, Herb Ritts, Nickolas Muray, Arthur Rothstein, Roman Vishniac and Garry Winogrand. Alan Trachtenberg, Ph.D., Yale University has written the introductory essay entitled The Claim of a Jewish Eye. This documentary work was partially funded by crowd-sourced funding from Kickstarter and is now published by Crazy Woman Creek Press, Cheyenne, Wyoming © 2015.

The Jews of Wyoming: Fringe of the Diaspora[edit]

In 1982 Wolin met the late Shirley Burden, the major donor to the photography department of The Museum of Modern Art. With his encouragement and financial assistance as well as that of two National Endowment for the Humanities grants, as administered through the Wyoming Council for the Humanities, Wolin completed a visual and verbal study of 140 years and five generations of Jewish culture in Wyoming. The Jews of Wyoming: Fringe of The Diaspora[3][4][5][6] was sponsored by what is now known as the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, California, and exhibited solo at the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, National Museum of American Jewish History, Judah L. Magnes Museum and Ucross Foundation. A book of the same title is published by Crazy Woman Creek Press, Cheyenne, Wyoming © 2000.

Jackalopes, Cowboys and Coalmines: A Photographic Survey of Wyoming[edit]

In 1978, Wolin was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts major survey grant to complete Jackalopes, Cowboys and Coalmines: A Photographic Survey of Wyoming.[7] Because of Wyoming's mineral and oil-rich natural resources, the state's history had been one of a boom or bust economy and culture. A national energy crisis made for a huge energy boom in Wolin's native state. This energy boom brought a final "Americanization" to the rural towns that sparsely dotted the least populated state in the union. Shopping malls and fast food outlets arrived; local downtown businesses closed, and the existing ranch economy was in turmoil. A worker's wage to tend cattle was no match for the higher wages being paid to work in an open pit coal mine or a drilling rig. Traveling during each season throughout Wyoming, Wolin photographed and interviewed the native and newly arriving residents, ranging from cowboys to oilfield roughnecks to elected officials. The resulting work became a traveling exhibition that toured Wyoming as sponsored by then Governor Ed Herschler. The photographs and text are now held in the permanent collection of the Wyoming State Museum and the Smithsonian Institution, American Art Museum.

Guest Register[edit]

In 1975, while still at Art Center College of Design, Wolin created Guest Register,[8] an important body of work consisting of 32 photographs with excerpted interviews that documented the residents of each room in the St. Francis Hotel in Hollywood, California. The hotel was located on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue and sheltered a range of people that stayed there anywhere from one night to thirty years. Their connection to one another was simply that they had come to Hollywood to pursue a dream. This opus piece set up a working style of text and image and brought her to the attention of a number of graphic designers, museums and collectors. At that time, Bob Cato at A&M Records commissioned Wolin to photograph the rock group The Band; Lloyd Ziff, Art Director of New West magazine in Los Angeles, commissioned her to photograph Ansel Adams and George Burns; Los Angeles County Museum of Art invited her to participate in a group exhibition; and Marvin Israel, a highly regarded graphic designer working in New York, began designing Guest Register for publication by Aperture Books. Aperture subsequently withdrew from the publication and the work remains unpublished.

Selected reviews[edit]

  • The New York Times, California Today, Good Morning McDonald's In the charred rubble of Santa Rosa it was the McDonald's that drew Penny Wolin, a photographer who lives nearby. Touring the destruction last week, ... (Mike McPhate,Columnist, October 20, 2017)
  • The Photo Book Journal, [1]: Descendants of Light: American Photographers of Jewish Ancestry: "Telling stories about storytellers is not an easy task, but Penny Wolin excels at it. This book is a painstakingly researched and intelligently thought-out compendium of ideas and visual content along several dimensions.…Suffice it to say that all the pages in this book are fascinating. Each time you pick up this volume, there are new things to discover. The artists included constitute a virtual encyclopedia of creative forces that have allowed us special views of the world through their informed creative eyes. Just to name a few: Sid Avery, Lilian Bassman, Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Lauren Greenfield, Philippe Halsman, Claudia Kunin, Annie Leibovitz, Helen Levitt, John Loengard, Joel Meyerowitz, Melvin Sokolsky, Arthur Tress, Joel-Peter Witkin, and many, many more." (Gerhard Clausing, July 20, 2017)
  • Kirkus Reviews, [2]: Descendants of Light: American Photographers of Jewish Ancestry: The entries, arranged alphabetically, offer an intriguing range of opinions, styles, eras, and insights, together with large, beautifully reproduced photographs… A rich, well-documented collection for students of photography and Jewish culture.(Kirkus Starred Review, Posted Online: Dec. 9th, 2016)
  • The Wall Street Journal, [3]:What To Give Photography Books: "Rather than speculate on why so many Jews have been involved in photography, Penny Wolin, herself a Jewish photographer, decided to ask them. In Descendants of Light: American Photographers of Jewish Ancestry (Crazy Woman Creek Press, 244 pages) she has testimony from or about Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Bruce Davidson, Philippe Halsman, Annie Leibovitz, Helen Levitt, Rosalind Solomon, Alfred Stieglitz, and more than 60 others." (William Meyers, Photography Critic, Nov. 18, 2016 2:18 p.m. ET)
  • The New York Jewish Week, In Search of the Jewish Angle on Things: "Penny Wolin has been described as 'a street photographer who knocks on the door.' She has the openness, spontaneity and spirit of the street, along with the gift of conversation. Working on her new book, Descendants of Light: American Photographers of Jewish Ancestry (Crazy Woman Creek Press), she traversed the country to meet photographers in their homes and studios." (Sandee Brawarsky, Culture Editor, June 14, 2016)
  • The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization Volume 10: 1973-2005. [9] Penny Wolin's work and biography is included (page 587) in this multi-volume set published by Yale University Press. "A treasury of Jewish creative works from around the world, this volume of the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization introduces readers to the great diversity of Jewish civilization, covering the momentous period from 1973 to 2005." [10] "Readers seeking primary texts, documents, images, and artifacts constituting Jewish culture and civilization will not be disappointed. More important, they might even be inspired." [11]
  • Films Not Dead[4] Interview by London-based on-line photography magazine in conjunction with successful Kickstarter Campaign to garner partial completion funding for Descendants of Light: American Photographers of Jewish Ancestry by Penny Wolin (Tori Khambata, May 1, 2012)
  • Huffington Post, A Picture of Persistence, How a Photography Collection Was Born In honor of NYPL's new exhibition, Recollection: Thirty Years of Photography at the New York Public Library, Wolin's work is included, as part of a collection of photography gifted to the library by the estate of Shirley Carter Burden.( Julia Van Haaften, October 1, 2010)
  • The New York Jewish Week, Text Content - The Photography Issue "Photographer Penny Wolin raises a key question as to why so many Jews are drawn to the field of photography; her piece previews her work-in-progress of crossing the country, interviewing photographers. We caught up with her as she was traveling in her van through the Southwest." (Sandee Brawarsky, June 26, 2009)
  • Through the Lens of the City: NEA Photography Surveys of the 1970s "Wyoming was not inundated with the mass American culture. There wasn't a McDonald's in every town nor a Holiday Inn. I could see that was changing and felt compelled to document people and their sense of the changes. Although Wolin didn't particularly like the influx of corporate services chains, her 1978 survey was not an indictment of the changes in Wyoming. It was, instead, a project that sought to document "America's last frontier…small town societies, and the western spirit." A press release from the Wyoming Council on the Arts noted that Wolin's central concern was "the final and inevitable assimilation of the Old West into the American culture." (emphasis added.) Wolin's survey was less an overtly political act than a nod to a passing way of life." (Mark Rice, January 2005, University of Mississippi Press, Page 52)
  • San Francisco Chronicle, Sonoma Festival Takes a Closer Look At Women in Film :"But the most exciting aspect of the festival is its resurrection of past classics, giving the public a chance to see a trio of great black-and-white films in their original splendor... Penny Wolin, the programming chair of the festival, chose 'Olympia' on the basis of artistic quality and importance." "If you want to show documentaries by or about women," says Wolin, "the greatest ones ever made were by Leni Riefenstahl." (Mick Lasalle, March 29, 2000)
  • San Francisco Chronicle, A Menorah Moose and Other Tales: "She had a wonderful way with black and white portrait work, and a loving approach to her my mail arrived a splendid book called The Jews of Wyoming: Fringe of the Diaspora. (Jon Carroll, September 1, 2000)
  • Los Angeles Times, Lost and Found in America: The Jews of Wyoming by Penny Diane Wolin tells the more complex story of adaptation and evolution. Wolin, a documentary photographer who has made a living for the last two decades photographing celebrities, spent 15 years putting together this triumphant epic of the 150-year history of Jews in the Cowboy State. ...Indeed, the book's wide range of images and personalities is what gives it its dynamism. Wolin has not sought to define what it means to be Jewish in the least populated state of the union. Instead, she seems to revel in the multiplicity of definitions among believers and nonbelievers; those who identify strongly as Jews and those who do not. Her subjects are posed in the settings or with the props that make them unique as individuals. A young member of the Future Farmers of America holds a pig by its hind legs before an open field. 'I don't eat them,' he says. 'But I give someone else a good product.'" (Gregory Rodriguez, November 26, 2000)
  • The Washington Post, [5]: At National Museum of American History: "Going through the exhibition takes time as the viewer tries to understand the text and the photographs, both works of art. The words and pictures are so poignant and sometimes so surprising that they are worth the study. Wolin is a fine photographer and a first-class interviewer and her choices of people on whom to focus are inspired." (Sarah Booth Conroy, August 26, 1992)
  • Los Angeles Times, Alone in the Desert:"An unlikely people in an unlikely place, the Jews of Wyoming did not become "the cowboy mensches " entertainer Mickey Katz sang about in his Yiddish rendition of I'm an Old Cowhand. Their co-existence alongside such an incongruous culture, however, did make them an unusual microcosm of the Jewish experience in the United States." (Elizabeth Venant, December 13, 1990)
  • Los Angeles Times, "Art Review: 'Hollywood' Resembles A Cutting-room Floor:" "The show's one saving grace is its photography, in particular Penny Wolin's Diane Arbus-like Guest Register (1975), a poignant yet devastating documentation of the residents of the St. Francis Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. Combining image and text, Wolin's examination of life's lost souls and anonymous citizens who are just passing through manages to be both emotionally distanced without being condescending." (Colin Gardner, August 11, 1986)
  • American Photographer magazine, Getting a Grip on Hollywood: "She is...a methodical, quiet professional who uses large negatives, poses her subjects carefully and concentrates on details... Unlike so many top photographers, Wolin is good at paying attention to other people and at submerging her ego to that of her subject." (David Roberts, October 1985)

Selected commercial projects[edit]


  1. ^ Johannes Wilbert
  2. ^ The Camera and the Jewish I: A Photographer's Search for the Mysteries of American Photography, Jewish Week, Sept. 16, 2009 Archived 2015-04-15 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Alone in the Desert, Los Angeles Times, December 13, 1990
  4. ^ Kosher Cowboys: The Jews of Wyoming, Washington Post, August 26, 1992
  5. ^ Lost and Found in America, Los Angeles Times, November 26, 2000
  6. ^ A Menorah Moose and Other Tales, San Francisco Chronicle, November 26, 2000
  7. ^ "Through the Lens of the City: NEA Photography Surveys of the 1970s, University Press of Mississippi". Archived from the original on 2011-09-27. Retrieved 2009-07-28.
  8. ^ Guest Register, Los Angeles Times, August 11, 1986
  9. ^ "Posen Library".
  10. ^ The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, Volume 10: 1973–2005. 20 November 2012.
  11. ^ Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization: V.10, 1973–2005, edited by Deborah Dash Moore | Booklist Online.

External links[edit]