A lens on changeOne man's Philadelphia
Michael Penn photograph
Michael Penn walks the streets of the city, from Little Pete's to Market East to wherever, photographing what he describes as the "scary" pace of change in Philadelphia.
By Jenelle Janci | Daily News Staff Writer

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Michael Penn has a hard time sitting still.

Talking with a reporter one recent day in Old City, the neighborhood he's called home for 21 years, he remarked that the conversation would be the longest time anyone had seen him sedentary.

His restless nature could explain why he's deep into multiple photography projects, from his street-art epic "The Philadelphia Project" to his ode to beloved but development-threatened Center City diner Little Pete's.

Penn, 45, learned photography basics from his late father and began seriously pursuing his art in 2005 after years of bartending. Early projects were met by roadblocks, like being scolded by security at the Ben Franklin Bridge and at an abandoned Fishtown power plant.

So he began shooting street art, experimenting with 15 different cameras and launching a major project to take 1,000 photos on Philadelphia streets between June 2010 and July 2013.

Penn said everything he saw was equal to him — whether a building, a person or something laying in the street. So what captured his attention as something worth photographing?

"Things that I have to look at more than once," he said.

DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Michael Penn, street photographer.

Penn initially wanted to release "The Philadelphia Project" as a single book containing 1,000 images. Printing costs were prohibitive, though, so he decided to do multiple, smaller books. Looking for further ways to drive down costs, he turned to something a little unorthodox — the copy machine.

Penn said Marathon Printing and Graphics in Old City was able to produce the high quality, affordable product he needed.

Penn is releasing "Philadelphia Project" in 40 monthly installments. Book 27 will be shipped out by the end of January. Each book is limited to 50 copies, and every edition to date has sold out. Penn sells them for $10 each, plus $5 shipping.

Penn's prints are also available individually through his website. He says selling four individual prints within five minutes of his first show's opening at Old City gallery Silicon Fine Art Prints in 2007 put the fire in him to keep at it.

"We stuck one of his bridge images in the window and immediately sold one, which is very unusual for us as we are primarily a printmaker and not focused on selling art," Silicon owner Rick De Coyte recalled. "I have been following his career with interest. What's nice is that his work is very focused and Phillycentric, which I like a lot."

Michael Penn photograph

Getting the books ready gives Penn a chance to reflect on his work.

"It's funny now, because as I prepare each month's book to go to the printer, I'm looking at the photographs, and it's amazing — 'This person died, this person's gone, this building's been destroyed,'" Penn said. "Even though it's been a little over a year, it's quite scary. And it's exactly what I wanted to capture — how fast things are changing now."

His ongoing "Welcome to Market East" project looks at major construction and its effects on the homeless on the 1100 block of Market Street. Then there's Little Pete's on 17th Street, which is likely to be torn down — it's not clear when — to make way for a hotel.

Penn started going to the 24/7 eatery more than 20 years ago after his bartending shifts. As he started noticing more downtown diners closing, he decided he should document life inside Little Pete's.

About 18 months ago, he began bringing a discrete point-and-shoot camera when he went to eat there. About seven months into his project, news of the diner's possible demolition surfaced. He says he will continue shooting until the restaurant closes.

Michael Penn photograph

"The difficulty at this point is just finding something new," Penn said. "It's a very small place, and the farther I get into the project, it's depressing to know what's coming."

While cameras and customers eating may not seem like a palatable combination, Penn says he's only received positive reactions. He carries around a small album of his work to show potential subjects, a tip he learned from New York City street photographer Bruce Davidson.

Asked how he makes ends meet, he responded, "I support myself by being an artist, or at least try to."

Penn said he also was challenged by a dearth of fresh subjects while shooting "Philadelphia Project." Trekking for miles in inclement weather didn't bother him, but constantly seeing the same things did.

"After the second year, what I started noticing is I could almost walk around the city blindfolded," Penn says. "There's Mark sweeping his porch at this time, you know? I could step over Cynthia who's asking for money on Market Street. And everyone says, 'Hi Michael, Hi Michael, Hi Michael.' So, it wasn't a city anymore. It became like a small little town."

(For more information on Michael Penn's work, visit michaelpennphotography.com.)


Michael Penn photograph

Contact Jenelle Janci at jancij@phillynews.com or 215-568-5906.

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