“I’ve always been in search of that defining moment where I feel really connected to someone,” says Sam Penn, 24. “Whether that is a lover, a friend, or even myself. It’s an obsessive practice.” The New York–based photographer’s reverence for everyday interactions is exemplified in Some Girls, her first print publication, released earlier this year by New York Life Gallery.
Put simply, the zine is an homage to moments themselves: fleeting ones and weighty ones alike, in the diaristic vein of artists like Nan Goldin. Penn captures her close circle of friends—including actor Hari Nef and artist Ser Serpas—at the beach, lazing in the tub, or smoking on the stoop; the barrier between the photographer and her muses so fluid that each one appears to be staring through the camera and directly into Penn’s eyes. She readily acknowledges this effect: “The only real directive I ever give is, ‘Look at me.’”
Being an expert in her subjects allows the photographer to access the in-between—the elusive, unposed alchemy of affection and ease that saturates her work. “I know when they’re going to turn away. I know when they’re going to exhale cigarette smoke. I know when they’re going to open their eyes,” she says. “I’m locked into their patterns and their movements, and I just want to freeze that moment.”
Penn’s predisposition for the personal can be traced back to her earliest interactions with the medium. A shelf in her childhood home in Philadelphia was dedicated to photo albums that her mother filled with snapshots of Penn and her sisters marking every conceivable childhood milestone. Penn inherited this urge for constant documentation, regularly photographing her younger siblings on disposable Kodak cameras and eventually picking up her first DSLR at age 12.
Last summer, Penn’s images of her New York community left the confines of the group chat for gallery walls. “It’s Personal,” a buzzed-about group show at OCDChinatown, put the photographer’s work in conversation with that of her friends Nash Glynn and Serpas. The press release for the exhibition was penned by writer hannah baer, another member of their intimate circle, and prompts a question that’s an apt thesis for Penn’s oeuvre thus far: “[W]ho gets to look at women and girls”?
Want to meet more rising stars? See CULTURED's full list of 2023 Young Photographers here.