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A dreamer in a Hollywood hotel – Penny Wolin's best shot | Art and design

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I I was a 21-year-old student at the ArtCenter College of Design in California when I was given a documentary photography project. A model I was working with suggested I come see a Hollywood hotel he was living in. It was fascinating. I could see there was a whole cast of characters there.

I had always wondered who lived in this type of single room hotel, where people could stay between one night and 30 years. I had grown up in Wyoming, in a big house with a lawn and a dog, so it was foreign to me. I decided to move in and realized later when I was studying visual anthropology that what I was doing was “participant observation”. I continued to work like that throughout my career, to be directly involved in my subjects for a long time. It took me eight years to do a project.

Guest registration was relatively quick. I photographed and interviewed 36 people over three weeks. This guy was the Sunday receptionist. His dream was to have a roller rink in Pico Rivera, a neighborhood in greater Los Angeles — not the one people necessarily aspire to. It wasn’t like saying, “I’m going to have a clothing store in Beverly Hills.” He was, in a way, the microcosm of the idea that dreams are for all of us.

He was very down-to-earth – you might say, laconic. He was just doing his job and he had to get along with people. The sign reads: “No Refunds. No animals without the agreement of the manager. There were pets of course, and he would have known. It was a live-and-let-live kind of place.

I like the design of this photograph. This is an example of a problem creating an opportunity. He was behind glass, so if I had photographed him from the front, I would have been reflected in the shot. I had to switch to the right side, which created a whole visual dynamic of angles and lines. I used a Hasselblad, with black and white film. Back then, you could do a Polaroid to know you were on the right track with your lighting and design. Once satisfied, I made between 12 and 24 images.

The project was very well received and made the rounds of New York publishing houses. The art departments always wanted to publish it, but the bean counters were like, “Who’s going to buy this book?” It went on for decades. I was showing it to people and it got me a lot of work in Hollywood and did wonderful things for me, but it didn’t get published. Then I kind of forgot about that until 2018, when I showed the photos at the photography master’s retreat in France, and they all said, “That’s great. You have to do something about it. The pandemic gave me time to prepare it for publication.

Guest Register is a book of goals and dreams, some achieved and some unachieved. You can see the mail holder in the background of this image: each of these slots represents a person, a life at the hotel. Many have found a way of life that could bring them peace. Some would be over 100 years old if they were alive today. But there are others who were my age or younger, so I’m really looking forward to seeing if anyone comes forward once the book is published.

I consider it to be my magnum opus. We have our greatest intelligence in our early twenties. I think we spend the rest of our lives trying to get back to that Age of Enlightenment. The hotel taught me many things that I have carried over to this day. It gave me the confidence and the will to continue being this crazy thing called a photographer.

Penny Wolin’s Guest Register is published by Crazy Woman Creek Press. More information at

Penny Wolin. Photography: Penny Wolin

Penny Wolin’s Resume

Born: Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1953
Qualified: ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. Master’s degree in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, filmmaking at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.
Influence : “Diane Arbus, Arnold Newman, Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange. I have their books from the beginning of my career and they are chipped and worn.
High point: “The 1992 solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution, Museum of American History, Jews of Wyoming: Fringe of the Diaspora, plus a commission from Life magazine to photograph a monk building a monastery of contemplation and silence amid ‘a Nebraska wheat field.’
Low point: “The 21st century shift in public perception that equipment can replace the photographer concerned. Bad. Cameras don’t make great pictures. Photographers do!
Trick : “As the great portrait photographer Arnold Newman said, ‘Photography is 2% inspiration and 98% moving furniture.’ Move this piece of furniture. Take pictures of what you understand or want to understand. Give yourself assignments with firm deadlines. Film, process, edit, print, repeat.