The retrospective of the centenary – which marks the birth, in 1917 – of the American and virtuoso photographer Irving Penn is to be discovered until January 29 in Paris. The work is breathtaking because of its beauty, which is a craft constantly revived. A masterly course of rare clarity.
Europe was on the brink of World War II when a lovely butterfly-daredevil in a Lucien Lelong dress with a “winged” skirt was toeing the outer edges of the Eiffel Tower. The woman who put herself in danger for this illustrious, immortal fashion photograph by Erwin Blumenfeld for Vogue was the Swedish-born supermodel (etcetera) Lisa Fonssagrives. In the lens of another German-American photographer, Horst P Horst, she used her dancer’s body to spell out the magazine’s name with five callisthenic bends for American Vogue’s June issue the following year. Fonssagrives claimed she had been a complete novice to fashion magazines, and that she studied and mimicked the gestures and movements of the beautiful ladies in their resplendent evening dresses in the paintings in the Louvre during a crash course there before her modelling career took off in 1936.
“I would stand before the camera on a set and concentrate my energy until I could sense it radiate into the lens and feel the photographer had the picture,” she told writer David Seider in an interview in Bomb magazine (Spring, 1985). “I would imagine what kind of woman would wear the gown I was wearing and assume different characters. I would look at myself in the dressing room mirror before going on the set and distinctively try to solve the photographer’s problems. I would look at the cut of the dress and try different poses to see how it fell best, and how the light would enhance it, and basically try to create a line the way one starts a drawing. I would objectify myself and become more of a director than an actress.”
A group of belles (most of them in their mid-thirties) forms the Beatonesque tableau The Twelve Top Models of the 1940s, which artistic director Alexander Liberman at American Vogue called “one of the most extraordinary tours de force of fashion photography” (published in the May issue of 1947). The clothes and the postures, and the overall sense of a surreptitious parlour game, along with the traces of Liberman’s art direction is reminiscent of something clicked by Cecil Beaton and hence frozen in time. But the photograph is painted in shadows and light and perfected with a measured “unfinished” look with the workman ladders and the wavy carpeting. (In lack of the even northern light that the photographer always preferred to work with, he had to use hot tungsten lamps that forced the models to fix a position for twenty seconds and repeat this twenty-nine times.) The woman in the centre in Nefertitian profile is of course Lisa Fonssagrives. As Irving Penn (1917–2009) recalled it in the 1990s: “When Lisa came in, I saw her and my heart beat fast and there was never any doubt that this was it.” It was love at first sight. And beautiful Lisa is the one who greets us at the Grand Palais in Paris from a lush platinum-palladium print of Woman with Roses (Lisa Fonssagrives in Lafaurie Dress), Paris, 1950 – and she practically ropes you in like a cool yet merry festaiuolo, the “feast-maker” in Italian Renaissance plays and paintings who establishes eye contact with the public and introduces us to what is going on.
Seminal to Mr Penn’s photography, and his greatness, was how he treated each and every individual he portrayed with absolute attention and equality. Man Ray, in his short piece L’Age de la Lumière, talked about “the removal of inculcated modes of presentation” and how – “in this exalted state” – “Race and class, like styles, then become irrelevant, while the emotion of the human individual becomes universal. For what can be more binding amongst beings than the discovery of a common desire? And what can be more inspiring to action than the confidence aroused by a lyric expression of this desire?” In her foreword to the excellent On the Edge: Images from One Hundred Years of Vogue (1992), author Kennedy Fraser suggests that, “Penn is like a Zen monk meditating before a flame.” Mr Penn’s images are meticulously astringent but they are all very much aroused by human fire.
Lisa Fonssagrives is an oak and a willow. Former Director of Photography at MoMA John Szarkowski called Woman with Roses “a masterpiece of the genre”. “The true subject of the photograph is the sinuous, vermicular, richly subtle line that describes the silhouetted shape,” he wrote in Looking at Pictures. Well, that was before Irving Penn produced his platinum prints where the full structure of the pleated black chiffon evening dress comes alive with its wearer, who brims with lustre in a matchless pose. There were better dresses from the fantastic autumn 1950 collections (one only needs to mention the name Balenciaga – Dior called him “the master of us all”), but this phenomenal picture is indeed the masterpiece from the couple’s ten heady days in Paris in June that year. A few weeks later they married in London and remained inseparable for forty-two years.
“It is such an iconic image, and three years ago we also opened the show with this image,” Christie’s specialist Matthieu Humery fills in. “I think she was impressed by his very specific vision of the world. And apparently they were really, really in love. When Tom Penn talks about his parents he is always very emotional, and he always mentions how much they were in love with each another. When Lisa died, it was very difficult for Penn. The way he represents her and the way he represents Small Trades is to show people on the same high level. What was quite interesting at the time was that it was unusual to reproduce such images in Vogue, to realise them in the middle of a fashion magazine. It’s art but it is also a document – from this point of view – of disappearing small trades. Of course, there is this portrait tradition coming from Atget.”
In 1950, Mr Penn expressed that the fashion magazine was “one of the few contemporary media in which commercial success and the highest aesthetic standards are not incompatible”. French Vogue sent Robert Doisneau to scout for craftsmen and small traders from the area around rue Mouffetard for Penn’s ennobling Small Trades series (continued in London and later in New York, and then published in these three editions of Vogue) which he photographed in the same threadbare studio, six rickety flights up on rue Vaugirard, on the same spot and against the same blotched backdrop as he eternalised Fonssagrives, Régine Debrise and Bettina Ballard in the otherworldly haute couture costumes that was brought in each day by bicycle messengers.
The picture of Fonssagrives is accompanied by a dozen of these angels of reality (a sewer cleaner, a balloon saleswoman, a fishmonger, two butchers and so on). In their sight you see the world again. “If our age is to have a lasting art, its roots must be in a broad base of human understanding and need,” the photographer wrote to his editor at Vogue. “Irving Penn could work in its rarefied atmosphere for only so long before seeking fresh air. He had not been born to privilege and never craved its niceties; the social whirl was nothing to him,” argues author Maria Morris Hambourg in Irving Penn: Centennial, the great book distributed with the show. “The stunning recognition that any people, however remote, are not the other but oneself in different guise generated a sympathetic current and an urge to bridge the disconnect. This is an underlying premise of Penn’s portrait practice.”
“I preferred the limited task of dealing only with the person himself, away from the accidentals of his daily life, simply in his own clothes and adornments, isolated in my studio. From himself alone I would distil the image I wanted, and the cold light of the day would put it onto the film,” Penn explained. “I’m a surprisingly limited photographer, and I’ve learned not to go beyond my capacity. I’ve tried a few times to depart from what I know I can do, and I’ve failed. I’ve tried to work outside the studio, but it introduces too many variables that I can’t control. I’m really quite narrow.”
“Penn was very conscious of the fleeting quality of what he was photographing,” says writer Edmonde Charles-Roux – who was exceptionally useful to him when he was in Paris for the Vogue commissions – in Anne Lacoste’s interview in the publication about the Small Trades series. “Penn’s powers of observations were worthy of an entomologist. When I watched him work, I often found myself comparing him to the great, brilliant monsieur [Jean-Henri] Fabre, the world-famous Provençal scientist. I suspect that Irving, like him, could stay interested for hours in an ordinary insect, a fly, or an ant. His exceptionally powerful perceptiveness takes him very far, very much beyond photography, and we learned this as we went along. Penn also has that magnificent capacity to reflect deeply and to question himself.”
The clearcutness of Irving Penn’s imagery (his studio was sometimes referred to as the Hospital) has its moments of conscious “self-sabotage”. Is that mouse droppings on the studio floor in some of his Corner Portraits? What about that fat fly in his fruity Still Life with Water Melon, New York, 1947, or the earring that produces the “wart” on Fonssagrives’s chin in Woman with Roses? Humery stops at the soft and fleshy Nude No 147, New York, 1949–1950. “It is something between sculpture and painting, and he did these heavy bodies to play with the flesh as a reaction against the very thin and elegant beauties in the magazine. It was one of the first works he did for himself. It is really amazing when you see that.” He whispers in wonder and points at the model’s mole on her belly.
Mr Penn kept this series for himself for several decades. Edward Steichen, who was heading the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art with his post-World War II ideas of a global family, said that he wanted anything from Irving Penn but “None of those nudes.” In his The New Yorker (January 21, 2002) review of the Penn nudes in the Earthly Bodies show at The Met, Anthony Lane writes how he “began to envisage Penn as a quiet American cousin of the Catherine Deneuve character in Belle de jour . She, blessed with a husband who looks like a male model and behaves like a perfect gent, seeks afternoon solace in the paws of the misshapen and the voluminous, as if to reassure herself, like Penn, that beauty is not always truth, and that truth comes in different sizes.”
Irving Penn’s photograph of the two children, Cuzco Children, 1948, came out of a three-day session in December 1948 when Penn took two thousand pictures with his Rolleiflex, as he was photographing the people in the old Inca capital – quite in the tradition of Eugène Atget and August Sander and quite not – in a rented studio with a tattered, seamless backdrop and windows facing the north. A much contrary story to his singular out-of-studio picture that he had taken the week before of Jean Patchett at a café table in Lima: “We flew 3,200 miles [5,000 km] and after we got there, a week went by and Mr Penn still hadn’t used his camera. I started getting nervous about it. Every day I got up and got dressed but he never took a picture. Finally one day we found this little café, and there was a young man sitting across from me; and I was getting frustrated. So I just sort of said to myself to heck with this and I picked up my pearls and I kicked off my shoes. My feet were hurting. And he said, ‘Stop!’” The picture is a classic.
Penn’s pictures are lyrical expressions of human familiarity. He found the chewing gum-ness of the chewing gum in a still life and the Duchamp-ness of Marcel Duchamp in a portrait – he conveyed the essence, the allure and the Penn-ness of whatever went through his camera into a sublime union of spirituality and thinghood. “A still life is a representation of people,” he told his students at the Famous Photographers School in the 1960s. “Each still life object has got to tell as much of human story as if you looked right into a human being’s eyes. Without this, the still life has very little validity in my mind.”
The abovementioned Vogue photographers snorted their disapproval of the magazine’s new talent in 1943, so Alexander Liberman provided Penn with a smaller large-format camera, a technical aide and a permanent space in Vogue’s photo studio at 480 Lexington Avenue to try out his ideas for himself – Penn was barely an amateur photographer at the time – and since Penn found himself as a photographer almost from the onset, he consequently landed his first Vogue cover as early as October 1943. “Liberman’s recognition of Penn’s talent and, in turn, Vogue’s indulgence of its demands amounted to an exalted patronage of the sort once enjoyed by artists in the courts of kings,” Hambourg explains. “The collaborative trust and rapport of this hand-in-glove duo was respected, envied, and naturally resented.”
Liberman wrote: “His portraits are not idealisations, and he is never over-impressed by the sitter, as so many photographers are […] There is no deceit in his pictures; his camera does not lie. He seeks to convey individuality by showing how light hits the planes of the face, the knobs of bones […] Sometimes he uses an extreme close-up, sometimes a long shot, a change of angle or point of view, all subtle means of making us see a person entirely. He can not and will not compromise with flattery.”
Penn’s Portraits with Symbols series with pictures of famous contemporaries like Dorothy Parker (March issue, 1945) and Orson Welles (August issue, 1946) are ingenious, strict but playful examples of how he early on fused the still life with the portrait. In the Resonance show, New York Still Life, 1947 is side by side with a group portrait from the Ballet Theatre, New York, 1947. Indeed, they look like Dr Pretorius’s jabbering homunculi in his underground lab in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The earliest pictures of individual people are Penn’s portraits of 1947 – of luminaries like Alfred Hitchcock, Salvador Dalí and Marc Chagall, all resting on crates piled up and covered by a greyish carpet kind of void – and then, of course, Mr Penn’s ground-breaking, existential Corner Portraits of 1948–49.
The shaved Rrose Sélavy was the guinea pig for the Corner Portraits. Pushed into a miniscule cubicle, set in a narrow 22.5-degree angle, Marcel Duchamp muses and shines as the prime dandy of cerebral art. Other cornered names in the exhibition are Georgia O’Keeffe – famous for her New Mexico paintings of labia flowers and desert skulls – the Origin of the World, and the end of it – and the Duchess of Windsor, the aristo-Fascist who was tailed by the FBI since the war, and for good reason, and who in our time was treasured in Madge’s claptrap costume drama W/E from 2011.
Hambourg writes: “How each person managed in his or her tight corner or carpeted wasteland and what, within those reduced circumstances, the talented and famous made of being caught there are basically existential questions that had deep resonance in that postwar epoch.” She suggests that these portraits “with their barren, metaphysical climate and strategic intensities, seem to ask of the sitters their very essence”. Vogue editor Bettina Ballard claimed that, “These sombre, soul-searching portraits became a badge of success for the sitter, like going to the most fashionable analyst.”
Penn himself noticed how “This confinement, surprisingly, seemed to comfort people.” He loved the game of baseball and the design of the baseball diamond. The heightened atmosphere in the “diamond” in his studio revealed not only the sitter but also the predicament and the potentiality of the individual (any individual) after the Second World War. People were more than survivors, what more then? In his 1955 afterword to The Outsider, Camus described his protagonist Meursault not as a reject “but a poor and naked man, in love with a sun which leaves no shadows. Far from lacking all sensibility, he is driven by a tenacious and therefore profound passion, the passion for an absolute and for truth. This truth is yet a negative one, a truth born of living and feeling but without which no triumph over the self or over the world will ever be possible.” The novel was published in 1942.
Penn did over three hundred of these portrait sittings for Vogue between 1944 and 1950. Marlene Dietrich escaped the corner in 1948 but not the will of Irving Penn. “Now, look, in this experience you be Dietrich and I’ll be the photographer,” he told her. “Boy she boiled, but she stayed with it.” Mr Penn was famous for working in silence, from the very beginning of his career to the final years in the studio on Fifth Avenue (where he used to take a short nap on the floor during lunch break when he was almost ninety years old). Alber Elbaz, who designed for Lanvin for a decade and a half, told The New York Times (December 22, 2009) that Penn cleared the studio when he arrived for the shoot: “It was just us in a studio with big daylight windows. We talked for two hours, sitting on stools. He had read some of my interviews, and he knew my work. He listened to me, and then he said, ‘Take off your glasses.’ No photographer had ever said that to me. Penn said, ‘When you take off your glasses, something about your stability is gone.’ And that was the picture.”
Irving Penn’s parents were Jewish émigrés from Russia. After their divorce, Penn followed his father to Philadelphia where he finished high school and received a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art in 1934, for his noticeable gifts in the visual arts and his wish to become a painter. But this wasn’t just any local school of applied arts. It was here that the great Alexey Brodovitch – a “white émigré” from Imperial Russia, who had been steeped in the creative energy of Paris before landing his profession in Philadelphia in the fall of 1930 – set up his Design Laboratory to teach his students about the best and most advanced design ideas from Europe, though much of it were spurs of his own genius. Brodovitch was of course the unsurpassed art director of Harper’s Bazaar, which under his command from 1934 to 1958 was a better-looking magazine than Vogue. Typography, Layout, Design, Package and Product Display were the topics in this aggregate of fifteen-week courses given at the school, for the third and fourth year students who were lucky enough to embark on his Design Laboratory adventure:
“The aim of the course is to help the student discover his individuality, crystallise his taste, and develop his feeling for the contemporary trend by stimulating his sense of invention and perfecting his technical ability. It is conducted as (a) an experimental laboratory, taking account of continuous change, the discovery of new techniques, new materials, new fields of operation; (b) a practical workshop in close contact with current problems of leading magazines, department stores, advertising agencies and manufacturers. Experience and natural gifts of the students are taken into account in preparing them for the ever increasing opportunities in the commercial field.”
The nineteen-year-old Penn could not have had a better start in 1936. (After Brodovitch’s initial brush-off, that is: “I have nothing to teach you and I’d like you to leave my class.”) Penn quickly advanced to become one of Brodovitch’s favourite students, and spent the summers in New York City as the art director’s closest aide at Harper’s Bazaar. Penn worked for no salary and slept on the sofa in Brodovitch’s studio (which had a huge collection of design and fashion magazines), and in return learned things that were invaluable to his photography. “In some ways Brodovitch was my father. I can say that without much tenderness for him, but with the greatest respect and a curious kind of love,” Penn reckoned. “Even when I didn’t like him, I was always vulnerable to the last word he ever said.”
Penn became an art director himself at the Junior League Magazine (a periodical devoted to women’s issues in public life), where he also used his own photography and compositional skills for the forward-looking covers. Soon he also worked as an advertising director for Saks Fifth Avenue, where he came upon another “white émigré” who had managed to leave Russia in the wake of the Revolution and, via Paris and Vu magazine, arrived in New York to work for Condé Nast for over fifty years. Alexander Liberman was on top of that Vogue’s legendary art director between 1943 and 1961, and the one who in June 1943 perennially tied Penn to the Vogue mother ship after his return from Mexico. “[Penn] showed me the contacts of photographs he had taken while travelling across the US and Mexico. They confirmed my instinct that there was a mind, and an eye that knew what it wanted to see. This, I still believe, is the essence of an original photographer.”
Late in 1940, Penn had resigned from his assignments to spend a year with his wife Nonny Gardner (to whom he was only married a few years) in Coyoacán in Mexico City to pursue a career as a painter. “I very much wanted a change of work,” as he wrote in Passage (1991). “I had for a time been making sketches for paintings I wanted to do, and I longed to wander in strange places without the discipline professional work demanded. Europe was at war. Mexico seemed a possible alternative, accessible and within my limited means.” Mr Penn needed that year to conclude that he would never stand a chance to become an original painter. All he brought back to the US was his drawings and two human skulls, which one can contemplate as The Poor Lovers, New York, 1979.
In November 1944, Penn arrived by boat to Naples as a volunteer for the Allies’ Italian Campaign to abolish all Nazi forces in and about Italy. He had been offered a post as a war photographer (or “artist photographer” as it was called) but joined in with the American Field Service to support the British Army as an ambulance driver in the Apennine Mountains. During his year in service, Penn also used his Rolleiflex while stationed in Yugoslavia and India.
In his piece about Alexander Liberman in The New York Times (November 5, 2013), Vince Aletti argues that Liberman both “mentored and traumatised several generations” of Vogue staffers and contributors, however “Long before Pop, he had a genuine appreciation for both high and low culture that was – in one of his favourite words – modern. That sensibility – and an insatiable appetite for new stimuli in any field – is what made his editorial design more original and influential than his art. He may have run roughshod over editors and art directors, but his real art was collaborative and surprisingly inclusive.”
Penn was the photographer Liberman always dreamed of becoming. After that big sweep of imaginative portrait sessions for Vogue, Liberman sent Penn to France and Italy in 1948 to photograph the cultural names that had gone invisible since the war, people they both regarded with much esteem. “I was extremely surprised by Penn’s attention to, interest in, even admiration for European art world personalities,” said Edmonde Charles-Roux at Paris Vogue who helped him on these journeys. “Penn’s arrival in France and my encounter with a young American photographer who was enthusiastic about our cultural life were like a sign. His arrival predicted the imminent end of a harsh blackout.” Penn had been to war, but the misery he came face to face with in Naples “was the most important episode in Penn’s life,” according to Charles-Roux. “There was a Penn with whom I arrived in Naples, and another Mr Penn who returned to Rome. He had changed.”
Liberman sent him to Paris again in 1949 to give him a sense of haute couture, just to register the beauty and the folly of the high fashion circus. Penn recalled that Liberman “thought I was a bit of a street savage”: “Alex called me and told me that I’d need to go out and buy myself a dinner jacket. Can you believe it? In those days the showings were at night, black tie, no mob of paparazzi, no loud music, just little gold chairs, huge arrangements of flowers, champagne, very civilised. Then the girls came out, and they were so snotty to the audience. It was wonderful.” The following year on rue Vaugirard – the six rickety flights up – he showed how wonderful it was. Penn wrote in his notebook: “The light was the light of Paris as I had imagined it, soft but defining.” He photographed the models in the fancy articles and the small traders from the fifth arrondissement in their outfits, with their accoutrements or samples of merchandise – styles of a life that has dignity. This was and this is Irving Penn.
It was nonetheless the end of his fashion work for the magazine for quite a time when Jessica Daves became the editor-in-chief at American Vogue in 1952. Penn was told that his fashion photography was “too severe” and “burned the page”. That year – when the couple’s only child was born – Penn went from couture to Jell-O when he set up his own studio at 80 West 40th Street to enable a very successful side career in advertising photography.
“In fact,” as Arthur Marwick delineates the decade in Beauty in History, “far from being the centre of an all-pervasive international culture, the United States in the 1950s was an inward looking, self-regarding, parochial society, while at the same time it was affluent, colourful and, in some respects, ‘modern’ in ways in which European countries simply were not. Far from being part of an American-dominated international culture, these countries were still very much dominated by their own traditions, and very ‘backward’ in comparison with the United States. The full international cultural exchange which is an essential prerequisite of a completely modern conception of beauty had yet to come.”
In 1961, Penn knew that he had been running on empty for too long. To challenge himself, he travelled Europe with a Nikon to (who knows?) rival the kinds of pictures we all know from National Geographic. “To take a photographic landscape was to see the world as separate from oneself, yet Penn made sense of the world by connecting intimately with people and objects,” as Hambourg argues. “When he portrayed people, he was with them in close quarters, and if they spoke no common tongue, he arranged the pose through touch. Objects too, were near at hand: the things he collected he cathected. Penn related personally, psychically, and physically to the adjacent world. To make it his he brought it close.”
Liberman remembered that a certain feeling of impuissance prevailed at Condé Nast in the early 1960s and for the reason “that Harper’s Bazaar was a more elegant magazine than Vogue. The team at the Bazaar – Brodovitch, Vreeland, Avedon, and of course Carmel Snow – had been quite exceptional. And we thought it would be a great coup to bring Vreeland to Vogue.” The coup was a fact in 1963, and in 1965 Diana Vreeland brought over Richard Avedon as well. “Years later, it would emerge that Penn considered Avedon was a gun aimed straight at him,” writes Michael Gross in The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers. “Though Penn’s guarantee was raised to two hundred pages a year (double Bert Stern’s), he later called Avedon’s arrival a turning point, the moment he began putting his personal work above his job at Condé Nast. Penn likely also worried, and quite correctly so, that Vreeland would prefer Avedon’s theatrical approach to fashion photography.”
Penn told Newsweek in 1978 – during the Richard Avedon retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – that he stood in awe of Avedon, “For scope and magnitude, he’s the greatest of fashion photographers. He’s a seismograph.” But away from the groovy “youthquake” business fancied by Vreeland, Penn was always the genius at American Vogue. “Avedon was just a royal pain,” as Grace Mirabella, the long-term Vogue editor who replaced DV in 1971, put it. “Irving Penn, on the other hand, was a dream.” If Penn was a bit lost in the early 1960s he also to a greater extent ascertained the Penn-ness of his art and made it vividly alive again.
Raymond Queneau declared that his fellow author Raymond Roussel’s imagination joined “the mathematician’s delirium to the poet’s logic”. One must talk about the delirium and the logic of Mr Penn’s impossibly sublime prints. “As he was obsessed with the printing process, Penn could play like a painter and try different things,” says Matthieu Humery. “I like his ideas, and a lot his vision with images and how he plays with the status of the image. There are not so many photographers with his very high vision that a photograph is not only an image, it could also be an object.”
Mr Penn visited the George Eastman Museum in Rochester in 1963, the same year that Diana Vreeland became the editor-in-chief at Vogue and began to swap couture with prêt-à-porter and adult female models with dolly flappers (Penn found them impossible to photograph) – and worse, to compromise the quality of the printing of the magazine, all for the gloss and for the guardians of regular tides. As Penn professed: “The printed page seems to have come to something of a dead end for all of us.” He wondered at the beauty and the stamina and the grisaille of the platinum and palladium prints that Steichen had amassed at the Museum of Modern Art. In June 1964, Penn began to reinterpret his old pictures (through those internegatives) by brushing an emulsion of platinum and palladium salts onto watercolour paper and put his Cuzco and Small Trades series under UV light for minutes or hours to burn them into the paper stock.
Virginia Heckert writes in Irving Penn: Small Trades how he “introduced a further dimension to the platinum medium – that of a powerful expressiveness that could range from refined elegance to raw immediacy”. In the early 1970s, Penn furthered his visual obsession with debris, refuse and decay – the interminable story of time passing, of longing, and death. In 1972, he photographed butts of cigarettes picked from the streets and presented them as psychological blow-ups, a deeper form of Pop Art, when time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth. The Cigarettes series was the first one he did with the platinum medium in mind, and this raw immediacy continued with his Street Material series (1975), the bones (1979–80) and Archaeology (1980).
Hambourg writes: “Indeterminate and unclassifiable, the Cigarettes were heroic, lush, tender, archaic of process, and minimal in form, all at the same time. What’s more, the contrast between the low subject matter and the high-art treatment was extreme and, it seemed, not only unprecedented in Penn’s oeuvre but perhaps unseemly. Everyone knew Penn as the king of commercial photographers, and here he had jumped rank into the artists’ camp, when photography as Art was still a battle only half won.”
The Skulls series (1986) is the twenty-one animal skulls from the Museum of Natural History in Prague. “It is the whole series, and I don’t think there is any other collector that has this complete. Here he reversed the process and toned the gelatin prints, so you have all this texture on the skulls,” Humery explains. “When you are a creator, at some point death can also be some kind of obsession. Being a creator, it’s a complex paradox seeing yourself disappearing while your works will survive you. I think many artists create for when they will not be around anymore, they project themselves outside life.” Watch how uncannily these images depict the eye sockets, the jawbones and the nasal hollows of these animals in super-sharp focus, with a polar-white background. But rest assured that this tidy suite of pictures is about the triumph of art in the face of death.
Death as a condition for life is also present in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) with the boar’s skull in the bedroom belonging to James and his frightened sister Cam: “‘Well then,’ said Mrs Ramsay, ‘we will cover it up,’ and they all watched her go to the chest of drawers, and open the little drawers quickly one after another, and not seeing anything that would do, she quickly took her own shawl off and wound it round the skull, round and round and round, and then she came back to Cam and laid her head almost flat on the pillow beside Cam’s and said how lovely it looked now; how the fairies would love it […] Cam was repeating after her how it was like a mountain, a bird’s nest, a garden, and there were little antelopes, and her eyes were opening and shutting, and Mrs Ramsay went on speaking still more monotonously, and more rhythmically and more nonsensically, how she must shut her eyes and go to sleep and dream of mountains and valleys and stars falling and parrots and antelopes and gardens, and everything lovely, she said, raising her head very slowly and speaking more and more mechanically, until she sat upright and saw that Cam was asleep.”
In the gorgeous Flowers (1980), one of the nine exquisite books that Irving Penn published during his lifetime, he confessed that he was hardly a man with green fingers: “I even confess to enjoying that ignorance since it has left me free to react with simple pleasure just to form and colour, without being diverted by considerations of rarity or tied to the convention that a flower must be photographed at its moment of unblemished, nubile perfection. In fact, the reader will probably note my preference for flowers considerably after they have passed that point of perfection, when they have already begun spotting and browning, and twisting on their way back to the earth.”
A picture that looks like it is a hundred years old is the portrait of Dr and Mrs Gilbert Grosvenor, Washington DC, 1951. Grosvenor had served as the editor of National Geographic for over fifty years when this picture was taken. He and his wife are joined by a motley crew of peoples from Penn’s vast family album – “The idea here,” says Humery, “is to have different examples of tribes” – with pictures from The Incredibles (published in Look magazine in January, 1968) of San Francisco hippies, rock stars and Hells Angels members side by side with portraits from Dahomey (1967), Cameroon (1969) and New Guinea (1970) for Vogue.
Russell Heart argued in American Photo (March, 1989) that these pictures were “shocking because they showed native peoples out of their context – an effect that’s the antithesis of National Geographic’s familiar naturalism. These and other images in Penn’s extended series of ‘location’ photographs turned gestures and styles of ornamentation that might have been less a surprise in the jungle or the veld into astonishing and beautiful theatre.” Many have used the word shocking here – Penn too, in his introduction to Worlds in a Small Room (1974): “Taking people away from their natural circumstances and putting them into the studio in front of a camera did not simply isolate them, it transformed them. Sometimes the change was subtle; sometimes it was great enough to be almost shocking. But always there was transformation.”
There was always transformation with Penn. “You can only feel humble for his power and his ability to find the beauty in people without the fake. He knew exactly what to do – before and after,” says Matthieu Humery. “In the middle and the end of the 60s, America had huge problems and members of the African American community were being killed. So imagine having these black people naked in a fashion magazine. That’s why they are so much more than just beautiful images – to see beauty where a lot of people were very racist and did not see anything or did not want to accept their beauty. Penn had this magic trick where he could transform black colour into light, making black people luminous.” He pauses, once more in awe. “It’s crazy, non?”
“Penn was known to describe a photograph as a beatitude. Beatitudes are beneficial thoughts and deeds, forms of salvation from misery, pain, and suffering,” Hambourg writes in The Met Penn exhibition catalogue. “Penn was wholly determined to the sanctity of his undertaking, not unlike those dedicated to serving the divine.” The last picture in here is Ripe Cheese, New York, 1992, a droopy Camembert as lost in time as Dalí’s melting clocks in The Persistence of Memory (1931). Lisa was gone.
Tintin Törncrantz is an art writer and the editor of The Stockolm review.
September 21, 2017 – January 29, 2018
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