RIP: Penn, The Grand Master
Sophisticated: Mouth for LOréal (1986) by Irving Penn
From my earliest memory in cultivating an appreciation for art and imagery, the man who captured my fascination and was instrumental in developing my eye, my taste and my sense of composition was Irving Penn. I remember my first trip to New York as a college student and my girlish need to simply glimpse the exterior of his studio from the street, as though sharing the proximity of his very space would somehow endow me with his gifts, so in awe was I of his inimitable talent. I never knew him, of course, but like countless others, I studied his work, marveled at his genius and collected the ads and pages of magazines featuring his imagery. The announcement of his death yesterday at 92 leaves me feeling empty and unbearably sad. It’s curious how we come to know, revere and even love someone through our hopeless and unrequited attachments.
I have profiled his work before on EA with “The Bones of Beauty” and “The Irving Penn Exhibition.”As a talent and as a human being, Penn embodied pure class in every sense of the word. He was truly the master who sought no attention other than what was conveyed in his photographs. He will be missed.
In a way of a tribute, I have assembled some of his more iconic photos, pairing them with excerpts from a variety of sources, including two beautifully crafted obituaries, one from the New York Times and the other, The Los Angeles Times.
Irving Penn, one of the 20th century’s most prolific and influential photographers of fashion and the famous, was known for his signature blend of classical elegance and cool minimalism.
His talent for picturing his subjects with compositional clarity and economy earned him the widespread admiration of Vogue readers during his long association with that magazine, beginning in 1943. “At the time, I didn’t know a Balenciaga from a baseball player,” Penn said in a 2007 interview with Vogue.
His career at Vogue spanned a number of radical transformations in fashion and its depiction, but his style remained remarkably constant. Imbued with calm and decorum, his photographs often seemed intent on defying fashion. His models and portrait subjects were never seen leaping or running or turning themselves into blurs.
Penn was the natural heir to Cecil Beaton and Edward Steichen, both of whom photographed cultural figures central to the early half of the 20th century for Vanity Fair and other lavish publications of the day. But, while Beaton and Steichen shared an element of theatricality in their portraiture, constructing for their subjects a public persona out of ambient lighting, elegant clothing, and props—chaise lounges, grand pianos, bouquets of flowers, swank cigarette holders, Penn banished the accoutrements. He relied on manner, attitude, and countenance to represent a subject’s legacy.
Instead of offering spontaneity, Mr. Penn provided the illusion of something fixed, his gaze precisely describing the profile of a Balenciaga coat or of a Moroccan djellaba in a way that could almost mesmerize the viewer. Nothing escaped the edges of his photographs unless he commanded it.
His fashion work placed him at the top of that field because of his meticulously crafted, utterly soigné, optically titillating pictures. Regardless of the model, with nothing less than virtuoso skill he rendered the palpability of skin, the texture of fabric, the elegant line of a dress, as if enunciating every detail with breathtaking precision.
His 1947 image “Twelve of the Most Photographed Models of the Period,” a group portrait, includes, at its center, Lisa Fonssagrives.
Fonssagrives later appeared in some of Mr. Penn’s most memorable fashion images …
… among them “Mermaid Dress” and “Woman With Roses,” both taken in 1950, the year she became his wife. Historian Diana Edkins, a former curator of photography for Conde Nast Publications, once noted that “The Penns’ romance lasted their whole life together.”
He captured the famous of his time including Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe and Truman Capote.
He is also celebrated for his portfolio of fleshy abstractions of the human nude (Kate Moss).
Penn was equally at home photographing Peruvian peasants or bunion pads.
Merry A. Foresta, co-organizer of a 1990 retrospective of his work at the National Portrait Gallery and what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, wrote that his pictures exhibited “the control of an art director fused with the process of an artist.”
A courtly man whose gentle demeanor masked an intense perfectionism, Penn adopted the pose of a humble craftsman while helping to shape a field known for putting on airs.
Schooled in painting and design, he chose to define himself as a photographer, scraping paint off his early canvases so they could serve a more useful life as backdrops to his pictures.
Unlike Richard Avedon, the other important new fashion photographer of the postwar period, Mr. Penn expressed himself and his subjects best through a Shaker-style restraint. Avedon made the streets his studio and loved movement and expression. Penn brought “poetry to immobility,” as one admiring critic, Rosamond Bernier, said of his style.
Passing the age of 65 without a thought of retirement, Penn devoted himself increasingly to still lifes. He was a consummate technician, known equally for the immaculate descriptive quality of his still-life arrangements and for his masterly exploration of photographic materials.
“What Penn does with an honesty that few of his peers can muster, is remind us that a body, rounded and grounded, is one of the more enthralling objects on earth,” Anthony Lane wrote in the New Yorker magazine in 2002.
A notorious perfectionist, he traveled widely, carrying his own studio to the ends of the earth to photograph Peruvians in native dress, veiled Moroccan women or the Mudmen of New Guinea. Many of his personal photographs are collected in his books, luxurious objects in their own right.
Those who worked with Penn said his apparent effortlessness wasn’t at all as it appeared. “There is the famous story of Irving photographing a lemon,” Babs Simpson, a former Vogue fashion editor, said in 1990 in Vanity Fair.
“First, you had to buy 500 lemons for him to pick the perfect one. Then he had to take 500 shots of that lemon until he got the perfect one.”
The results were what counted, Penn’s longtime boss at Vogue, Alexander Lieberman, told Vanity Fair. “A Penn photograph,” he said, “will always be a great photograph.”
Exalted though the name Irving Penn may be in the worlds of fashion and photography, the man himself has always preferred the flip side of fame—privacy almost to the point of anonymity.
In his 60-odd-year career, Penn has rarely given in to the curiosity of a journalist and has almost never allowed himself to become the subject of a photograph, even one of his own—all too wary, perhaps, of just how much can be revealed in a click. “I don’t want to be a ‘personage,’ ” he explained.
From the beginning, however, he has been unusually open about one thing: the secrets of his craft, discovered through a love of experimentation with light and long hours in the darkroom, secured, perhaps, by the thought that the most important ingredient in capturing a soul—whether it belongs to a dress or a person or a piece of meat—is part of the same mystery that can’t be known.
I draw your attention to a beautifully crafted and elegant eulogy to Irving Penn by Owen Edwards who experienced and enjoyed the pleasure of his company.
Many glowing eulogies will be written about Irving Penn in the course of the next days and weeks, and all of them will be richly deserved. With Penn, who died on October seventh at the age of 92, we come to the end of the great age of glamour in magazines, and a remarkable period when brilliant photographers who happened to make their livings in fashion and advertising were finally recognized for the artistry of their eyes, whether they were making pictures of dresses or street debris, celebrities or nonentities.
Though I have made part of my living as a photography critic, and have always admired Penn as a protean artist of limitless scope, my feelings about him are based on what I knew of him as a person.
We first met sometime in the mid- to late seventies, when the New York Times magazine asked me to interview him around the time of his first one-man show at the Marlborough Gallery. Penn had cause to be wary of me; in a piece on fashion photographers for New York magazine, I had been gulled by a mischievous Richard Avedon into describing the hard-working Penn as “semi-retired.” (In fairness, the hyper-energetic Avedon probably thought of anyone less frenetic as semi-retired.)
But Penn was gracious, and it wasn’t until much later that he joked about his reaction on reading that description. Penn was about 20 years older than I, and very famous, so naturally I called him “Mr. Penn.” And he responded by calling me “Mr. Edwards.” And such was his natural formality that we didn’t shift to a first name basis until we’d known one another for several years. In a world where last names are discarded before the first handshake, Penn’s old school formality might have restrained our relationship, but instead I found it freeing. I was a mere journalist, he was one of America’s best known photographers, and yet mutual formality implied mutual respect. When we finally shifted to “Irving” and “Owen,” (his doing, of course) I realized that there was nothing unearned about our friendship.
Penn’s formality came naturally to him, as it does to others born well before World War II, at a time when men wore hats and ties and women wore gloves and dresses, and good manners were not optional. Penn was ten years younger than my father, but both men had an air of properness that I recognized the instant we met. (Penn and his director brother Arthur came from Plainfield, New Jersey, a town right next to Westfield, where I grew up; in both towns, young men were taught the cardinal virtues of decorum.) It was this formality that became the hallmark of his work, whatever he was photographing. The camera is an infamous stealer of souls, an intrusive device almost rude by definition. But Penn, in his portraits and fashion shots and even his immaculately conceived still lifes, managed to build in a certain discreet distance between the subject and himself, and that relieved the viewer of the uncomfortable feeling – so often found in photography – of being caught staring. Not the least of Penn’s accomplishments was the ability to be formal in his approach, and somewhat antiquated in his technique, without keeping us from getting to the heart of the matter.
The first photograph I ever bought was a Penn, from that original Marlborough show. It’s a platinum print, one of the Small Trades series that he worked on for several years in New York, Paris and London, and it shows a French cucumber vendor meticulously framed against one of Penn’s trademark mottled gray backgrounds. The man is shirtless and very thin, his arms resembling the elongated cucumbers in a wooden box he’s holding. On his chest is a tattoo of a woman’s face. He’s someone whom it might be easy to feel sorry for, but Penn gives him such dignity – it’s a “mister/monsieur” relationship – that pathos is stopped in its tracks. This is a man doing a job, nothing more or less. I have had that photograph on the living room wall of every apartment and house I’ve lived in for more than 30 years, and it has never made me uncomfortable, nor has it ever seemed exhausted of visual and poetic possibilities.
I have no idea about how Mr. Penn felt about religion, other than knowing that he was Jewish. But in all of his photographs, even his whimsical still life of frozen foods or “portraits” of street debris, there is a kind of existential reverence for the beauty of everything and anything. In this, he was as spiritual as any artist I can think of. On another living room wall, I have three of his monumental, exquisite platinum prints of cigarette butts. One would not think that the joy of discovery could be found in squashed Camels and Kents, but I never look at them without marveling at the beauty Penn saw and that we see only because of him. They are my Rothkos.
My favorite memory of Penn has nothing to do with photography. After we’d known each other for a couple of years, and I’d written a few critical columns about his shows (not always, in fact, uncritical), he invited me and my wife to come one Saturday to his house on Long Island for lunch with his wife and a few editors from Vogue. We left our weekend house on the North Fork and headed “up island” on my motorcycle. About halfway there, the sky turned black, and then opened in one of those torrential rains that make summers on the East Coast so dramatic. We were past the point of no return, and so pressed on, arriving soaked to the skin, looking no doubt like drowned rats. Clearly, we were in no shape to meet the folks from Vogue. Penn and Lisa Fonsagrives, his beautiful model-turned-sculptor wife, met us at the door, and before we could be mercilessly appraised by the visiting editors, whisked us up the stairs. We were given towels and fresh clothes (luckily my wife and Lisa, and I and Irving, were the right sizes) and became miraculously presentable. By the time we were introduced to the counts and countesses of Conde, we looked as if we’d arrived by limo.
In describing his early years with Vogue, Penn told me that when he was first sent to Paris for the fall collections, his mentor Alexander Liberman told him not to take any photographs. “I just want you to see how it’s all done,” the art director said. “Figure out which forks to use.”
At the risk of an awful old cliché, those were the days. We won’t see the likes of them, or Penn, again.