Penny Wolin, Guest Register

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2022 by Crazy Woman Creek Press (here). Casebound hard cover with branded leather title, 14 x 11 inches, 88 pages, with 51 black and white plates. Includes numerous texts by the author. In an edition of 2000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: To outside observers, California might appear on the verge of collapse. Headlines report an atmospheric river of end-time catastrophes: wildfires, earthquakes, flooding, sinkholes, mudslides, and more. The whole place seems one storm from sliding into the Pacific. A scary prospect, but it’s worth remembering that a degree of instability has always been integral to the state’s DNA. It manifests at times in turmoil, but California’s malleability also provides fertile ground for new settlers, innovation, and lifestyle experiments. The state has been a beacon for dreamers since the 1849 gold rush. The locus of aspirational culture later shifted south to Hollywood, where new stars are born every week, albeit outnumbered by flameouts.

Photographer Penny Wolin heard the siren call of California in the early seventies. Fresh out of high school, she migrated west from Cheyenne, Wyoming, eventually reaching trail’s end in Los Angeles. She flitted from place to place before briefly alighting at the St. Francis Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, a fortuitous discovery as it turned out. Built in 1926, the hotel’s better days were behind it. By the time Wolin arrived in 1975, it had transitioned into a weekly SRO which housed a revolving stable of iconoclasts, drifters, and free spirits.

Enamored by the scene, Wolin rented a room for 3 weeks that spring. She turned her cameras on her fellow residents with a mix of fascination and curiosity, and made several hundred portraits. She eventually compiled her favorites into a dummy monograph she called Guest Register. She enlisted Marvin Israel to design it, fresh on the heels of his landmark Diane Arbus book. The stars were aligning and Guest Register seemed destined to hit the big time. But, as with so many Hollywood projects, the final green light proved elusive. The dummy was left at the altar by several publishers, “ultimately and always rejected by the accounting department” as Wolin explains it. Yet another ill fated pipe dream. 

That was the mid-1970s. Eventually her book proposal lost steam and Wolin moved on to other things. She enjoyed a long and varied photo career in L.A. shooting fine art and commercial work. Ironically, her old Guest Register portfolio served as a calling card for new photo gigs. “All I had to do was show my binder full of hotel photographs,” she says, “and more often then not, something good would happen.” But the actual monograph remained unrealized.

In late 2022, Wolin finally published Guest Register under her personal imprint Crazy Woman Creek Press. It’s an impressive tome, and worth the wait. I have not seen the early prototype designed by Marvin Israel, but I’m guessing that some of its features endure in the current version. The end papers reproduce facsimiles of the old St. Francis guest register with entries handwritten into a lined ledger. The photos are sequenced by room number. Guest Register’s internal layout and typeface would feel right at home in 1975, as would the image treatment—full-frame bordered photographs weighted toward middle tones—and expansive author essay. Wolin’s language is still spiced with seventies idealism. “We all live at the same hotel,” she explains on the opening page. “Some may go to Encino to escape it, but that is no more effective than pulling your blind down to escape your neighbor’s turned up radio. We are all here, now. We all make decisions, we all laugh and love and feel; and we all end up somewhere. Think of that the next time you walk past an old hotel.”

If the intention in all of this is to bring the reader back to 1975, it’s effective. Wolin was energized that spring. She began by approaching a few residents for portraits. Once she had made their pictures and given out prints, word spread. Other hotel guests became receptive. The St. Francis management endorsed her efforts, and even arranged sittings. Pretty soon she’d shot just about everyone in the building plus several neighborhood regulars. “It was still an honor to have someone put a camera on a tripod, set up lighting, and make your portrait,” she writes, describing a less cynical era whose heyday has mostly passed. Looking at Wolin’s photos now, they crystalize a bygone freewheeling lifestyle, where a passing stranger might shack up for a few weeks and create her magnum opus. California remains a flexible place, but social mores have tightened.

Wolin arranged appointments for most sessions. While some subjects were shot as encountered in stairways or halls, her preference was to photograph people in their living quarters. “What drew me inside,” she writes, “was the relationship between the individual and the room, melding together to form a uniquely personal space.” Of the thirty-four photos in the book, none show the hotel exterior. One can search it out now on Google to get a sense of the structure. It’s brick clad with fire escapes and a recessed courtyard. But browsing the book, these qualities are ineffable. The St. Francis is something of a tabula rasa, an amorphous space where people and possessions might be scripted into Hollywood sets. Each photo is a mini drama. “I came with a camera,” Wolin writes, “and left with a book of life lessons.”

Stylistically Wolin’s photos tend to follow currents of the period. She often used a Hasselblad 500C with wide angle lens. A handful of photos are 35 mm shot with a Nikon F. She used Tri-X and available light when possible. Her tendency was to center people in the frame, sometimes sitting or standing, and always set against unstaged, and often unkempt, backgrounds. Everyone photographed in the book gazes back at Wolin’s camera, smiling or at least in a good mood. It was 1975 in the promised land. Anything was possible. If a curious photographer came knocking, it was just another event in La-La land.

Meanwhile, Wolin’s poetic captions tell a slightly different story. They are droll and deadpan, and many upstage the accompanying photos with a blunt factuality recalling contemporaries Bill Owens, Diane Arbus, and (a decade later) Richard Avedon’s In The American West. Even when the texts don’t steal the scene they radically alter it. Room 332: Wasn’t really present in the room when he was being photographed, reads the photo caption of an unkempt hippie figure. Room 407: Ex-Marine, Ex-private detective, Ex-husband, still looking reads another. The photo shows a man in pajamas near spent beer cans. Room 532: Knows a lot of women, sometimes works as a chef, and moves quickly. 

Room 526: Came from Cheyenne, Wyoming, fascinated by being a tenant. This last caption accompanies a self portrait of Wolin herself. Her face is lit with a strobe, centering a darkened background lined with work prints, bed, and alarm clock. Her gaze is convincing. One gets the feeling it would be hard to turn down a photo request from this woman.

Taken collectively these words and portraits capture a community at loose ends, of alternate paths and dreams deferred. You don’t need a map to realize the St. Francis must be some distance from Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. “Existential Hollywood,” writes Wolin, “which is the real Hollywood, has little to do with geographic boundaries and everything to do with the multiple ways people can express the dreams and desires of their lives.” A strand of golden state DNA is present, but some of the chromosomes have mutated.

Wolin’s subsequent career is a case in point. The last pages of Guest Register sample her later work with photographs and explanatory prose. It’s a snug coda to a book which is well designed and produced throughout. Best to swing for the stars in Hollywood, and Wolin has done just that. The pebble-coated cover houses inset leather titling, textured more like a high-end purse than a photo book. Guest Register’s 11 x 14 dimensions mimic the size of her original photos printed on Agfa Portriga fiber. These are reprinted at actual size on thick matte paper, separated by mottled dark dividers. A signature page subtly copies Wolin’s penciled handwriting and Agfa watermark. No expense was spared, and the resulting product may still scare off accounting departments – 2000 casebound copies are available at $125 each. But no matter, the thing is done now. And if its marketing equation feels pie-in-the-sky, well, that’s Hollywood.

Wolin remains idealistic, but she’s faced adversity, and grievances surface. Taking the measure of photography she writes about her young self, “the photographer in room 526, and others in her chosen field, have been accused of being charlatans, magicians, creating apparitions and stealing souls.” Yikes, is that what photographers do? A cursive note from Room 540 and Family seems to support the view. Reprinted in the appendix, it warns of “Barbarians” out to get Wolin, a catch all term for naysayers and antagonists. Pitfalls come with ambition, and California is strewn with straw men. If they help move the needle ahead, there’s no long term harm. That seems to be the case here. “Did the Barbarians get me?” Wolin asks. “Sometimes, but not completely and not forever.” Guest Register is sufficient proof.  

Collector’s POV: Penny Wolin does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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