(Crazy Woman Creek Press, 2022)
When I came to New York at the beginning of the 1970s, I discovered that the university I would be attending had no room for me. I was domiciled in the Paris Hotel on the Upper West Side, a single-room occupancy hotel. Sex workers trolled the lobby, I received my mail out of wooden cubby holes from the old Russian couple who ran the hotel and, unlike everyone I knew at school, I had clean sheets and towels twice a week.
Meanwhile, three thousand miles away, Penny Wolin was checking into room 526 and signing the cumbersome guest register at the St. Francis Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, a residency hotel that, like my Paris, had seen much better days. She was equipped with the one thing I wish I’d had: a camera. And she wasn’t afraid to use it. The result is a beautifully published volume that mimics the proportions of the register. Behind the nubbled and heavy cover is a frontispiece photograph that reproduces two pages of the original register. By the time you turn the last page, where the register is reproduced again, there is a poignant sense of presence and transience. Guest Register is a black-and-white postcard from another time, or maybe a love letter to a Los Angeles that no longer exists.
Wolin came to Los Angeles from Wyoming at twenty-one, moved by the energy and unquenchable desires of the city and the unjustified hopefulness that drives New Yorkers crazy when they visit. As she tells us in a concluding reminiscence, “Hollywood Underground,” she liked bumping into movie stars at the supermarket and the car culture of southern California (she managed to talk a film producer into letting her drive his red Ferrari). But most of all she liked the people, and for three and a half weeks lived in the hotel to photograph them.
The thirty-four full-page photographic portraits are a deeply affectionate slice of period life. Bracketed by blank black pages that emphasize the black-and-white world of analogue photography, they feel larger than life, as if Guest Register were an attempt not only to bring back the dead but to resurrect an entire way of photographic seeing. The portraits don’t really have an east coast equivalent. Julia Calfee’s Inside: the Chelsea Hotel, photographed more than twenty years after Wolin, is all post punk edge and mythmaking. Closest in spirit is probably Harvey Wang’s New York, his 1990 photographic survey of small businesses and their owners that used to make the city a more personal place. But Wolin is not a sociologist, rather a humanist. She was interested in both the dreams of the residents and how they inhabited their confined spaces. Each portrait is staged differently. In some of them, the subjects fill the frame, as if to signify their outsize ambitions or fantasies, like room 323, a plumber by day and at night someone else, “in a fancy dress, high heels, makeup, and a wig,” as Wolin describes him in her reminiscence. Others give touching and sometimes disturbing reality to the lives lived inside. Wolin hints at these in captions that accompany each portrait. The young woman in 505 keeps a pristine, almost minimalist apartment, and half of Wolin’s photograph is a foreground of empty, immaculate carpeting as if to say, It’s okay to have dreams but you better be organized and in control. The former child actor in 412 exercises a different form of control. We don’t see his collection of old newspapers and coffee cups described in the caption, but next to him as he sits on his bed is a paper bag filled with cigarette butts.
One portrait jumped out at me immediately. The hotel manager—also a resident, in 503—sits in front of the wall of numbered mail slots, just like the ones at my Paris Hotel. He is a young-ish, vaguely preppy Yale graduate, who looks least likely to be running such a place. But as Wolin sums him up, he was a “major studio set designer” who is now divorced and disillusioned. You can’t miss the ticking clock at the top of the photograph: time is running out. He presents a stark visual contrast to the middle-aged Sunday desk clerk in 439, with his leather jacket and cigar, straight out of central casting for a 1950s noir film. But he, too, harbors a fading dream, to open a roller rink in Pico Rivera.
More frequently than glimpses of disappointment, however, Wolin’s portraits convey the pleasure her subjects seemed to derive from the fact that she knocked on their doors, took the time to hear their stories and let the camera acknowledge their particularity. Diane Arbus once famously remarked that for many people a photograph is a reasonable kind of attention to be paid. In the St. Francis Hotel, Penny Wolin lovingly paid that attention, and it was reciprocated.