Icons of Photography: Irving Penn

Irving Penn was born on June 16, 1917, in Plainfield, New Jersey – a small commuter town across the Hudson from Manhattan that was also home to Jeff Barry (songwriter, Da Doo Ron Ron), George Clinton (funkateer, One Nation Under A Groove) and Penn’s own younger brother Arthur (film director, Bonnie and Clyde).

All those men have, in their own way, made their mark on our world. Penn, though, shaped our world – and our view of it. And he did it not just more than any other living photographer, but more than all but a few other visual artists. His pictures reveal to us what has always been there in front of our eyes – only unseen, unnoticed, uncomprehended. ‘I myself have always stood in awe of the camera,’ he told American Photo in 2001. ‘I recognize it for the instrument it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel.’

In 1991, The New York Times described him as ‘one of the most complex and intriguing artists of the latter half of this century’. He only came to photography after trying – and rejecting – both art directing and painting. There are, though, clearly traces in his photographs of the emphatic perspectives and dramatic foreshortening in the work of his youthful passion, 15th century Italian painter, Uccello. Both artist and photographer favoured the same kind of eye in their images, too: large ones with a wide gap between eye and pencil-thin eyebrows. Penn’s eyes came almost to symbolise a particular kind of 1950s Manhattan. ‘It has been helpful,’ he wrote, ‘to think of myself, a contemporary fashion photographer, as stemming directly from painters of fashion back through the centuries.’

He went to the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, where he studied under Alexey Brodovitch, the Bauhaus-minded, white Russian émigré who also taught Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand. In 1943, he was hired by Harper’s Bazaar, as assistant to Alexander Liberman, the magazine’s then-new art director. Penn’s job was to suggest covers for the magazine. His ideas were not welcome, so Liberman arranged for Penn to shoot them himself. His very first professional picture was also Vogue’s very first colour cover. It was of a bag and some fruit. Right from the start, Penn could make a lot from very little.

Soon after, he went to off to war, working as a volunteer ambulance driver and photographer in Italy and India. Returning in 1946, he opened his own studio in New York and began his life as a commercial photographer. Over the next seven decades, he made bravura, technically dextrous and psychologically complex pictures in at least five different disciplines: fashion, still life, portraiture, ethnography and nudes. Oh, and he shot campaigns for Issey Miyake, Clinique and Plymouth cars. ‘Penn shows me what I do,’ Miyake had said.

Fashion, first. When we think of post-war, pre-Beatles Manhattan, it’s most likely through the prism of Penn’s lens – or rather, his eye and brain. Sharp, sassy, sexy women in big hats, often with a martini glass in hand. A modern city of glorious monochrome, lit to reveal unaccountable depths and detail. In step with Richard Avedon, Penn brought new life, emotions and meanings to fashion photography. ‘I made pictures in simple circumstances of women I could imagine and I could want to possess . . . the girls I went to school with. They seemed right for America in the post-war period.’ Half-hidden in his fashion pictures is a love story. The model is often Lisa Fonssagrives; six years his senior and the ex-wife of another inventive and acute, Brodovitch-schooled photographer, Fernand Fonssagrives.

While his contemporary, Richard Avedon, took his camera out into the street, Penn developed his world inside a studio, even if that meant taking his studio around the world with him. His portraiture introduced a new aesthetic – of extreme, sometimes imprisoning close-up – and formed our visual memory of a generation of artists and intellectuals. Picasso, Colette, Francis Bacon, Miles Davis: when we think of them, we often have a Penn shot in mind.

When photographing New Guinea mud men, Andean villagers and other ‘exotic’ inhabitants of our world, his approach and technique were essentially no different than when he was shooting, say, Truman Capote. Democratic, inquisitive, precise. ‘My client is the woman in Kansas who reads Vogue. I’m trying to intrigue, stimulate, feed her. My responsibility is to the reader. The severe portrait that is not the greatest joy in the world to the subject may be enormously interesting to the reader.’

His photographs of consumer durables and perishables have the dignified attention of, say, Velázquez immortalising a plate of fish. Penn’s food not only looks good enough to eat but has been dramatised by him it in such a way that it indicates exactly why it might be good enough to eat. ‘Photographing a cake can be art’ – that was his statement of intent when he opened his studio in 1953.

When you look at Penn still life, you know all is right – and witty – with the world. He had the skill and imagination to make both a laugh-out-loud picture of frozen food and deep, forensic contemplations of cigarette butts. A non-smoker, he began taking his fag-end pictures in 1972, sending an assistant out to pick up cigarettes discarded on the street – he was always far too grand to do that kind of thing himself. They were first shown at MoMA in 1975, a significant moment towards the acceptance of commercial photographers into museums – if still grudgingly. They are remarkable images, with clear, sometimes amusing echoes: of Spanish still lifes, of Warhol’s soup cans, of classical statuary. A gag, too: Penn the great ad photographer making gorgeous images of the detritus of a whole manufacturing trade. And there is death in them, of course. They are a sly kind of memento mori. Et in arcadia ego.

He was consistently technically expert, astute and imaginative – though difficult to work with, according to Liberman. His early work is often overprinted and bleached – consciously, carefully with intellectual decision aforethought. His book, Passage, was printed in eleven inks, with letterpress text. His nudes – barely seen from 1950 when they were made until their 2002 showing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – have both an abstract, formal fascination with composition and the deep appreciation of flesh and the vagaries of desire you find in, say, Lucien Freud.

Starting in 1964, he reintroduced the world to platinum prints, reviving a technique from photography’s earliest days. Perfectly matt with the blackest of blacks, platinum prints are almost immortal. Because of him, they are now first choice for museum-level prints. His print of a naked Kate Moss sold for $97,000. (Kate’s online fans voted Penn their favourite photographer of their love object, giving him 48 per cent share to Albert Watson’s 30.)

Like many, he was a bit lost in the 1970s. In the 1960s, Look had used him for subculture assignments – he even photographed Hell’s Angels and the Grateful Dead. Then the work dried up. He had to close his 5th Avenue studio, so pristine it was known as ‘the hospital’. He turned to making TV ads. ‘I am a professional photographer because it is the best way I know to earn the money I require to take care of my wife and children.’

Rarely photographed or interviewed, he led the most domestic of lives, telling The Washington Post in 1989: ‘I’m a little commuter: I get on the train at night and go home to the country, get up at 5am and make breakfast for my wife and get back on the train. I spend most of my life with my wife and family.’

His wife died three years later, in 1992, but he stayed in New Jersey, still taking exceptional pictures well into the 21st century. Right up to his death, in fact, at the age of 92, on October 7, 2009.

© Peter Silverton 2019

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