I He was a 21-year-old student at ArtCenter College of Design in California when I was assigned a documentary photography project. One of the models I was working with suggested I come and see a hotel in Hollywood he used to live in. It was great. I could see that there was a whole lot of characters out there.
I’ve always wondered who lives in this kind of single room hotel, where people can stay in anything from one night to 30. I grew up in Wyoming, in a big house with a lawn and a dog, so it was weird to me. I decided to move on and later realized, when I studied visual anthropology, that what I was doing was “observe the participants”. I’ve continued to work in this way throughout my career – and have been directly involved in my subjects for a long time. It took me eight years to do a project.
Guestbook was relatively fast. I photographed and interviewed 36 people over the course of three weeks. This fellow was a Sunday desk clerk. His dream was to have an ice skating rink in Pico Rivera, a neighborhood in greater Los Angeles — not one that people necessarily aspire to. It wasn’t like saying, “I’m going to own a clothing store in Beverly Hills.” It was, in a certain way, a microcosm of the idea that dreams are for all of us.
It was a reality – one might say, terse. He was just doing his job, and he had to get along with people. The sign reads: “No response. No pets without principal’s approval.” There were pets, of course, and he would have known. It was a kind of live and let live.
I love the design of this image. It is an example of a problem that creates an opportunity. It was behind the glass, so if I photographed it directly, I would have been reflected in the photo. I had to move to the right side, which created a whole visual dynamism of the angles and lines. I used Hasselblad, with black and white film. In that time, you can make a Polaroid so you know you’re on the right track with your own lighting and design. Once I was satisfied, I would make between 12 and 24 photos.
The project was well received and spread to publishing houses in New York. The art departments had always wanted to get it published, but the bean counters were saying, “Who is going to buy this book?” That went on for decades. I was going to show it to people and it brought me a lot of Hollywood and did great things for me, but it never got published. Then I kind of forgot about it until 2018, when I showed the pictures at Photography Master Retreat In France, and they all said, “That’s cool. You should do something with it.” The pandemic has given me time to prepare it for publication.
The guestbook is a book of goals and dreams, some achieved and some not. You can see the mail carrier in the background of this photo: Each of those slots represents a person, a life in the hotel. Many have found a way of living that can bring them peace. Some would be over 100 if they were alive today. But there are others my age or younger, so I’m really excited to see if anyone progresses once the book is published.
I consider this to be my greatest. We have the greatest intelligence in our early twenties. I think we spend the rest of our lives trying to get back to this Age of Enlightenment. The hotel taught me a lot of things that I carry to this day. It gave me the confidence and the will to continue being this crazy thing called being a photographer.
Guestbook Penny Wolin posted by Crazy Woman Creek Press. More information at pennywolin.com
Benny Wolin’s biography
Boy: Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1953
trainee: ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. MA in Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Film Direction at the American Film Institute, Los Angeles.
Effects: “Diane Arbus, Arnold Newman, Margaret Bourke-White, and Dorothea Lange. I have their books from the beginnings of my career and they are boisterous and ramshackle ears.”
high point: 1992 Solo Exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution, Museum of American History, of Wyoming Jews: The Edge of the Diaspora, as well as Life Magazine Commission to Depict a Monk Building a Convent for Meditation and Silence in the Central Nebraska Cornfield.
low point: “The 21st century has shifted the public perception that equipment can replace the photographer in question. Wrong – wrong – wrong. Cameras don’t make great pictures. Photographers do!”
Most important tip: As wonderful portrait photographer Arnold Neumann said: “Photography is 2% inspiration and 98% moving furniture. “Move that furniture. Make pictures of what you understand or want to understand. Give yourself tasks with fixed deadlines. Shoot, process, edit, print, and repeat.”