Category Archives: UPenn: Photography Students

Victoria Meng: Book Review – Susan Sontag’s, On Photography


Venus and the Rags. Photo: Victoria Meng, Copyright 2018


Photography and Text by Victoria Meng, Copyright 2018


Book Review – Susan Sontag’s, On Photography


Raw emotions frozen in time, the essence of an era preserved forever, ecstatic motion immortalized in texture. Empirically, photographs are magical. From light and film, life is created within two dimensions, from detail and abstraction comes an irresistible invitation to stop and stare.

Yet the incredible experience of viewing a masterful photograph is inherently linked to the process behind the camera. Susan Sontag’s On Photography, ultimately invoked within me the idea that photography is far more than just capturing reality. Rather it is creating a new reality reframing the world to illustrate both metaphorical and literal light and darkness.

Interestingly, Sontag strays away from fixating on a photographer’s inherent talent, expressing that “time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.” So it seems a true differentiator of great photographs lies in the ability to preserve fragile “ethical content” and to convey the emotional charge of a moment. I now understand that by hiding more of reality than it exposes, photography is infinitely flexible. The most mundane scenario can be made exotic and dangerous, while the strangest of subjects can be humanized.

Another fascinating facet of photography was revealed in Sontag’s discussion of Surrealism. Defying conventional associations between Surrealism and imaginative, albeit alien, interpretations of life, Sontag’s emphasizes a discussion of politics and class. In her view, “what renders a photography surreal is its… intimations about social class”, that Surrealism itself is a bourgeois disaffection. This resonated with my own concerns about the ethics of documentary photography and the concept of voyeuristically capturing the plight of other human beings. Here the documentation of strife becomes “the gentlest of predations”, especially when one has not experienced that strife first hand. The danger of social tourism through photography is especially pertinent now in the social media age, and as I continue my own journey as a photographer empathy will be an added dimension I will strive to capture.

However, the potential for exploitation in photography is also coupled with the potential for exploration and celebration. Later essays in “On Photography” explored the idea of democratizing beauty through photographic interpretations. A camera can introduce paradoxical elicitations of aesthetics, either being extremely forgiving of flaws in a subject or exaggerating those flaws to the point of creating a newly invented interpretation of beauty. I find this unconventional view of the world inspiring as it creates within the minutiae of everyday life the potential for ingenuity. 

The idea that potentially any subject can serve as a blank canvas for crafting a message, or what Sontag so eloquently describes as “sensorially stimulating” confusion, inspired my choice of image for this report. For greater context, my grandfather, who first introduced me to photography, accompanied me to the National Mall this summer. As we weaved between museums trying to avoid Washington’s scorching August heat, we eventually wandered into the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Upon entering the building, I can’t say that I was instantly impressed. Paintings came in the form of a few abstract dots on the wall, while a sculpture consisted of dilapidated car crash wreckage. Perhaps it was the heat exhaustion or simply my own preferences for non-contemporary art, but I felt in that moment that the entire art world had evolved into the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Looking around the Hirshhorn, I certainly experienced the confusion Sontag described, but no residual effects of emotion or humanity. However, upon wandering upstairs, “Venus of the Rags” provided me with a suspiciously timely answer. A cheekily ironic sculpture, which I have photographed above, “Venus of the Rags” relies on jarring juxtaposition to relate a simple message: art, like life, is what you make of it. Conventions about aesthetics are often overly institutionalized, even arbitrary. Perhaps the value we assign to the perfect figure of Venus could just as well be applied to the chaotic abstraction of the rags.

Ultimately, reading On Photography helped me consolidate an insight I’ve been struggling to grasp since my experience at the Hirshhorn this summer. I’ve now come to realize that rather than fixating on the inherent artistic worth of different subjects, I should apply my own creativity to explore the context of a presented reality. While it is ultimately impossible to gain 100% of the truth in any circumstance, when I am behind the viewfinder of a camera, I will try to capture with honesty and dignity my own understanding of the world around me.


in Washington D.C., I was truly seeing.


About The Author: Victoria Meng is a Sophomore enrolled in the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020. To access additional articles by Victoria Meng, click here


Also posted in Art, Blog, Book Reviews, Documentary, History, Photography, Popular Culture, UPenn, Women

Matt Garber: I Say We Care

Roosevelt - Truman Campaign Event 1944

Roosevelt – Truman Campaign Event 1944


Photography and Text by Matt Garber, Copyright 2018




After reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography, the one question that I could not drive from my mind was this: why take a photograph? Specifically, why take one of this subject at this moment? This issue is treated extensively by Sontag, and it represents the biggest shift in my attitude towards photography for having read the book.

The question of why to take a photograph seems like it should have a quite simple answer. We capture what is for some reason beautiful or relevant. However, Sontag describes the role of photographers in molding the very ideas of beauty and relevance. What makes a beautiful photograph is not necessarily capturing a subject previously understood to be aesthetic, and a photo’s relevance can be determined as much by its artistic motivation as by the context.

This translates into a considerable amount of power naturally afforded to the photographer. The individuals who master the camera, in a way, get to determine how we remember history. The photographer has nearly as much influence over what is considered worthy of photographing as any natural beauty or relevance inherent in the scene.

Several years ago, my grandmother came across something remarkable in cleaning up my late grandfather’s things: she found his photographs. Among them is the photograph below, picturing Orson Wells, Hellen Keller, and Anne Sullivan at a Roosevelt-Truman campaign event in New York.

The rally, held September 21, 1944 at Madison Square Garden, helped kick off the transition between Roosevelt’s Vice President Henry Wallace and his new Vice-Presidential nominee, Harry Truman.

Prior to reading On Photography, the photograph gave me a sense of pride because it told me that my grandfather, a freelance photojournalist at the time, was there to capture something history considers important. Now, the photograph gives me a sense of pride because it tells me that my grandfather helped decide what history considers important.

This particular rally is remembered not so much for the 20,000 people who came but rather for the handful of celebrities who were present. Among the speakers were Orson Welles and Helen Keller (photographed), as well as Sinclair Lewis, Senator Robert F. Wagner, and David Dubinsky. Frank Sinatra was just one of the entertainers. Truman and Wallace’s speeches were likely not the most memorable for many of the 20,000 in attendance.

What makes this special is that that election marked the beginning of celebrity politics in America, and that rally was the most star-studded of them all. And the trend continues to this day. Last year, we watched Lady Gaga on the campaign trail with Hillary Clinton. Beyoncé dances with Michelle Obama.

Through his camera, my grandfather played at least a small role in shaping how these rallies were perceived. His decision to use his film to show Keller and Welles as opposed to Truman, Wallace, or any of the 20,000 regular folk in attendance, provided some degree of importance to their being present. In a small way, my grandfather’s decision to photograph the subject he did changed how we think about history, and how history unfolded.

The active role of the photographer in shaping what we believe was not entirely lost by me before reading Sontag, but its extent and importance was never something I considered. Now, just like I consider my grandfather’s photography a small but nevertheless important shaper of our history, I start to think about my own photography as a chance to impact what people care about.

I am excited by this. As I move forward with my photography, it will be impossible to remove it from my conscious decision making. The determinative power of my choices will be as important a consideration as framing and exposure.

Each piece of photographic art I create will be my small contribution to what we care about. After all, if my grandfather could create and decide what is an important part of our story, then so can I.


About The Author: Matt Garber is a Freshman enrolled in the College of the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020.  To access additional articles by Matt Garber, click here


Also posted in Blog, Documentary, History, Photography, Politics, Popular Culture, UPenn

Julia Chun: A Review of Susan Sontag’s Classic, On Photography

Photo: Julia Chun, Copyright 2018

Photo: Julia Chun, Copyright 2018


Photography and Text by Julia Chun, Copyright 2018


A Review of Susan Sontag’s Classic, On Photography


Throughout the book, I felt that Sontag’s messages were quite heavy, as if she was warning me about the weight my act of photographing could have. She described the act of taking a picture as an act of non-intervention, aggression, possession, work, interpretation of reality, beautification, and truth-telling. I didn’t agree to and couldn’t possibly resonate to all the claims she made, difference in view which probably comes from our difference in professionalism as well as our personal views. But to someone so newly introduced to photography and in a stage caught up with taking a visually pleasant photo, the points she brought up were a timely reminder on the weight and implications of photography. 

Since I never had the intention of becoming a professional photographer, the purpose of every photo-shoot has been either for class or for my own satisfaction. I thought of it as a great opportunity to bring to life what I always pictured in my mind or a way of recording a fragment of my life using professional equipment I didn’t previously have access to. Its consequences were never heavy. But regardless of what my end goal was, I realized that some picture had to be captured in a certain way to fulfill my intention. Activists giving political speeches would be captured at the moment I felt best represented them, based on my subjective view of the matter. If I choose to take a picture of a particular moment, I am deciding to do so rather than taking an action to prevent something dangerous from happening or even asking my subjects to put themselves in the particular situation.

So although I may never grow to be a photographer whose pictures are used to let the citizens of the country reveal the horrors of war, while I continue to grow as a photographer aware of everything a picture could do, many of the points Susan Sontag made in the book will be relevant to me.

There were also points that just struck me, which made me happy to know that someone so professional also had the same experience in the journey as a photographer. “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed”. I always want to capture the best representation of each subject and I feel a strong sense of possession when I take a satisfying picture. Consider the picture below for instance.


About The Author: Julia Chun is a computer science major enrolled in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2019. To access additional articles by Julia Chun, click here


Also posted in Art, Blog, History, Photography, Popular Culture, Science, Student Life, Women

Alexis Masino: Versace Man

Portrait of Bryan Abrams by Tony Ward, Copyright 2018

Portrait of Bryan Abrams by Tony Ward, Copyright 2018


Article by Alexis Masino, Copyright 2018




A black silk surface is swallowed up by bright hues of gold and electric blue creating the appearance of a fiery gate. God-like stone figures are the main characters in view, but there are small portrayals of animals accompanying them: elephants, birds, giraffes, dolphins. And at the very top of each point in the gate, there is a golden globe of the world held up by cherubs. This surreal scene and work of art created by Gianni Versace himself takes its final form on a button down shirt, and sells for a market price of $1300.

The man beneath the shirt is Bryan Abrams, owner of what is rumored to be the most expansive private Versace collection in existence. Totaling over 1,200 pieces of Versace including shirts, ties, jewelry, watches, shoes, limited edition Barbie dolls, and even a one-of-a-kind fuschia jacket, his collection is renowned worldwide. In the world of fashion, Bryan Abrams is Versace Man.

But Abrams was not always so passionate about fashion. In fact, he was completely indifferent. Weighing over 200 pounds in his youth, Abrams had no particular interest in clothing. “I mean I never cared about clothes, I always made fun of guys who read GQ and stuff like that.” Abrams says he limited himself to the section in stores called “Husky” for lack of better options.

It was not until after he graduated from the University of Delaware that Abrams lost a significant amount of weight. “I started to take up running and I wanted to impress this girl to get a date, so I invited her to see my first race.” By the end, he was so far behind that they picked up the finish line for him. His plan might not have worked the way he wanted, but it reaped its own benefits.

“It spurred me to the point to get serious and I started running and running and running…Before my car accident 5 years ago, I had run 50 marathons.”

Abrams dropped the pounds quickly with his running. In his new fit shape he decided to get into fashion, and started with Philadelphia’s own designer Willie Smith. After a self proclaimed “preppy” phase, Abrams started reading outlets like GQ and developed an interest in high fashion. He started with the big names of the time, until one day when he noticed an ad in the paper to meet a fashion designer and decided to attend. Not yet a big name in fashion, it was a meet and greet with Gianni Versace.

Abrams fell in love with the collection. He immediately bought and changed into his first Versace shirt. And from that day, Abrams had a new passion.

“Versace is my life.”

And he means it. His entire wardrobe consists exclusively of Versace — 6 walk-in closets and 12 wardrobe sets full of it — and has since before the ‘80s. Abrams has struggled to protect his precious collection, seeking insurance coverage overseas by Lloyds of London when no company in America would cover the items of clothing.

His vacation plans revolve around Versace as well. Destinations are chosen based on where there is a Versace retailer Abrams has not visited before. The new store will be the first task checked off the list, then the city’s history and other attractions. As for the Versace stores in North America, Abrams can list each one along with the name of its respective manager.

Even when he is not shopping, he visits his favorite stores to catch up with the employees. They know him by name and invite him to their parties. The friendships are genuine. And of course, Abrams always has first pick from new collections.

“People think it’s an expensive hobby but it’s not.” Abrams compares his Versace hobby to any other, explaining that it’s all just about what you choose to spend on. “Some people collect books, some people go to the country club, whatever their passion is.” Versace is Abram’s passion.

For 32 years, Abrams managed a large ticket selling agency in Wilmington, Delaware until they were bought out five years ago. Not much later, he was involved in a horrible car accident. After a few surgeries, Abrams started to recover. He began working in sales at Nordstrom, but did not keep that position very long due to surgery complications.

Now, Abrams focuses most of his time on his passion for Versace. He attends parties and events regularly, as well as store openings and of course, every fashion show. The other passion that has always remained constant in Abrams’ life is his love for his family.

Bryan Abrams was the oldest of five brothers and was raised by a single mother. There was always a lot of love. “It was the single best family dynamic because of my mom. Everything that she did in her life was for her boys.” Abrams remained close with his mother for the rest of her life. She had epilepsy, was a chronic smoker, and developed emphysema as well as cataracts and glaucoma. He lived with her and took care of her until she passed. But despite her conditions, Abrams says “she still had a zest for life and for her boys and so she imparted that on to us.”

The Abrams boys all went on to lead quite impressive lives. This includes work as a published award winning photographer, despite being self taught, a top salesperson, a ballet dancer, and school teacher. The brothers remained close throughout their lives and family was always Abrams’ absolute top priority in life. Although it’s now just Bryan Abrams and his brother Ronnie, the two still keep in touch and Abrams has family photos around his childhood home, where he still lives today.

Save his love for his own family, it seems there is little Abrams values more than this coveted Versace wardrobe, other than the Versaces themselves and his Versace family.

“The day Gianni died, I had several phone calls in minutes.” Twenty years later, Abrams is still devastated by the death of his longtime friend and idol. Abrams says Gianni treated everyone kindly, no matter who they were and always treated Abrams incredibly. And Abrams exhibits this same feature, speaking as fondly of his friendship with Gianni’s limo driver, Cleveland, and the employees of the company as he does of Gianni and Donatella themselves.

He even still maintains his friendship with the family and company and attends each of their fashion shows by personal invitation. At each show, Abrams has a front row seat. He meets CEOs and important company people as well as celebrities. One of his fondest memories is sitting next to Elton John at a show.

Abrams is also a factor in the corporate sector for Versace headquarters, though he would never officially join the company. He was the motivator for opening the Versace store in King of Prussia mall, and also responsible for having it shut down when he disapproved of how the place was managed. Now he sticks to his favorite outlets in New York and Milan, where the store owners and employees know him on a first name basis.

Considered a sort of Ambassador for Versace, Abrams is known and remembered by many. He always stands out wearing a bright Versace shirt, causing people to inquire about the fashion and ask to take photos of him. People have remembered him a long time later after meeting him once. For years, he was a bright Versace icon in the floor seats at every Philadelphia 76ers game. He keeps in touch with the important company people and they value his opinions. On an interesting occasion, his contact information was even mixed up with a CEO.

After Versace North America hired a new CEO, also named Bryan, Abrams started getting emails from the Milan CEO, Jonathan. The emails contained sales projections and other important company information. Though the information was meant for the CEO, Abrams’ had been the go-to Bryan on Jonathan’s contact list.

Abrams loves to talk about Versace as much as he loves to wear it. He is always willing to discuss the brand, the fashion, and his love for it. In Fall semesters, he lectures about Versace and brings in parts of his collection to be photographed for Tony Ward’s Fashion Photography course at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Fun, sexiness, and overtness is Versace, and like no other. I mean, there’s others who have tried to copy him but he was and still is the king.” Abrams loves Versace for its colors, uniqueness, and the way it the fashion can make the wearer stand out. No matter the occasion, be it a fashion party or just a day in the city, Abrams can always be spotted displaying a

decadent Versace top and matching shoes. Even the license plate on his baby blue Fiat reads VERSACE.

“How you dress is who you are. It’s the first thing people look at and it determines how they see you.” And Abrams certainly dresses for who he is: Versace Man.


About The Author: Alexis Masino is a freshman enrolled in the College of the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020.  To access additional articles by Alexis Masino, go here


Also posted in Accessories, Art, Blog, Current Events, Documentary, Fashion, Friends of TWS, Men, News, Photography, Popular Culture, Portraiture, Student Life, UPenn

Linda Ruan: Imitation Kills


Photography and Brand Concept by Linda Ruan, Copyright 2018




simple . unique . stylish


ImitationKills is a clothing brand for women. The goal is to make simple designs without losing the ability to highlight one’s beauty. Like its name, the brand aims to encourage each woman to find her own style instead of purely imitating styles of others. Therefore, rarely do I promote the brand using an image that captures a whole outfit. Three main styles under this brand are Office Style, Street Style, and Night-out Style. However, each piece of design can be cross-listed and mixed together to create a different look.

I am using myself as the model and a tripod as well as a remote control for this assignment. Not being able to see and to control the image position each time during the shoot made the whole process longer and harder. Blurry images occurred because of the inability to position myself at the right focus point.

The lighting that I am using is a reading lamp that can point at a specific direction. Playing with light and shadow is one fun point during this shoot. I tried to use a flashlight but the result was too plain and flat. The reading lamp, on the other side, gave each image a richer texture and a more complex background. Since the location for this shoot was in my apartment where the space and body movement was limited, the reading lamp was in fact necessary.

In the editing part, I edited three styles in different colors. Black and white for the OL style to create a serious yet sexy mood. A warm red-yellowish filter for the street style to emphasize the energetic feeling that typically embodied in that style. Original lighting effect was used for the night-out style but a strong contrast was added to construct an ambiguous mood. The brand name was typed in bright red color and was placed at the bottom right corner of each image.


About The Author: Linda Ruan is a sophomore with Painting and Art History concentration at Bryn Mawr College.  To access additional articles by Linda Ruan, go here



Also posted in Advertising, Art, Erotica, Fashion, Glamour, Models, Photography, Popular Culture, Student Life, Women