Here is a true story that characterizes the perfectionism of Irving Penn, who died yesterday at the age of 92: after being presented with 500 lemons from which to select the singular best of the bunch, he proceeded to take 500 photographs of that one lemon to arrive at l’image juste. The anecdote not only typifies the photographer’s dogged pursuit of the ideal, its symmetry might well be a metaphor for his uncompromising classicism.
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Penn’s reputation was secured in the middle of the 20th century primarily as a photographer for Vogue, where Alexander Liberman, the legendary editorial director of Condé Nast magazines, had hired him in 1943 as an art director. Within a year, however, Penn had published his first cover photograph for the magazine, and his career as a photographer was launched. He produced so much of his celebrated work over the course of twenty years at Vogue—both portraiture and fashion photography.
During his lifetime, Penn photographed so many prominent cultural figures of the 20th century that he came to be regarded as an equal among them. But his stature grew not just because of his venerated subjects—he advanced the genre of portraiture. His formal rigor, graphic daring, and studied simplicity brought the portrait to a new level of representation. The rich, mottled tones with which he crafted his portraits are less about creating mood than about rendering pure physicality. With bold, contrasting light, he cast his accomplished subjects in nothing less than monumental terms—as if each one is chiseled, for the ages, in stone.
His fashion work placed him at the top of that field because of his meticulously crafted, utterly soigné, optically titillating pictures. The model for many of Penn’s best-known fashion photographs was Lisa Fonssagrives, to whom he was married for 42 years, until her death in 1992. Regardless of the model, though, 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.
For years Penn produced impeccable negatives for pictures he sometimes did not see until they were printed in the pages of Vogue—printing over which he had no control. In the early 1960s, as the printing quality of commercial publications declined with the growing cost-consciousness of publishers, Penn’s dissatisfaction with the way his own published pictures were printed led him on a personal artistic exploration of the intricate and laborious platinum printing process. He went on to make one of a kind platinum prints of many of his Vogue images.
During the final years of his life, Penn had been actively securing his own legacy, methodically placing bodies of his work in several important museum collections. In 2002, he donated 85 one-of-a-kind platinum prints to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the museum subsequently exhibited the work in a large show, "Irving Penn: Platinum Prints," in 2005. Last year, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles announced their acquisition of 250 Penn prints from his blue-collar series of portraits called "The Small Trades" and a show of the same name opened in September. The museum purchased 125 of the prints, and Penn donated the rest. The same arrangement was made that year with the Morgan Library in New York; Penn donated 35 portraits, and they purchased an additional 32 for their collection, for the museum's inaugural exhibition of photographs.
Many of the great writers, artists, and musicians of the last half-century compose Penn's visual pantheon of arts and letters: W.H. Auden, Francis Bacon, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, and Tennessee Williams, to name just a few. 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.
Consider Penn’s portrait of Jean Cocteau made during a 1948 trip to Paris for Vogue. Each thread of Cocteau's tie, vest, and suit is etched in light and shadow; the patterns and the texture pop out in vivid, tactile detail. The drape of his coat over an extended arm adds drama and balance to the composition. There is an air of studied flamboyance about him, until you look at his face. His dead-serious expression registers the fierce intelligence of a keen observer, as if he is taking our measure while deigning to allow us to take his.
Penn simplified the picture frame, too, using light in sculptural terms. His photograph of Philip Roth, for example, recalls Rodin's The Thinker, or, even, his majestic Balzac. You can study the lines of Roth's face, as if for clues about the syntax of his sentences. The curls in Colette's hair suggest the way her ideas bristle. The bulbous shape of Francis Bacon's face echoes the forms in his paintings.
In 1951, Penn devised a backdrop for portraits in his downtown studio by placing two tall stage flats together to create a narrow corner in which to photograph his subjects. Penn invented the corner, he has said, because he felt unequal to his famed subjects. It's easy to imagine that Penn's subjects might have felt backed into that corner and thrown off guard. Truman Capote, for example, hardly the shrinking violet, wrapped himself in his coat and stood on a chair—cloaked, beseeching, trapped.
Surprisingly, given the artistic accomplishments of the people he photographed, Penn wasn't one to study the work of his subjects before he shot them. Responding to a question about how he prepared for his sittings, he commented: "A knowledge of a sitter's artistic accomplishments generally contributed flavor to the sitting but was not absolutely necessary." Nor did he offer his sitters much in the way of instruction. Penn was not known to direct people or to make small talk, though he once admitted to asking his Vogue sitters on occasion: "What does it feel like to realize that this eye looking at you is the eye of 1,200,000 people?"
In a published description of his 1957 session with Picasso in Cannes, Penn said he considered the artist "a great presence, deeply aware of his own image, he peered silently at the reflection of his head in the camera's lens, occasionally altering the attitude." Picasso's penetrating eye resides at the center of Penn's portrait of the artist, elegantly framed between the lines of his hat and coat as the rest of his face recedes in shadow. The frame, divided into sections, bares the geometric abstraction of the artist's Cubist period. That Picasso was scrutinizing his own reflection in the lens of Penn's camera is a delicious detail. We are given a true glimpse of his focused concentration, as if he were indeed peering intently into our eyes.
Of course, for every Picasso there is a Braque, for every Pollock, a de Kooning. Penn, too, was not alone at the top of his profession. Richard Avedon also worked for Liberman at Vogue. The rival photographers vied for pages, position, and subject matter. They even occasionally made portraits of the same people. While the two of them kept upping the ante in terms of imagination, style, and technique, each one succeeded in establishing a distinct visual signature. Avedon distilled the picture frame to nothing but his subject against a white backdrop—wrinkles, bad teeth, and all. Penn may not have made himself a student of his subjects, but their stature is what he always seems to render with an uncanny eye to history—theirs, and, perhaps, his own.
Today, Penn’s obituary ran on the front page of The New York Times along with three of his photographs. Perhaps I exaggerate, but isn’t that tantamount to canonization in Western civilization? It is certainly a fitting acknowledgment of his legacy.
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Philip Gefter was a picture editor at The New York Times and wrote regularly about photography for the paper. His book of essays, Photography After Frank, was recently published by Aperture. He is producing a feature-length documentary on Bill Cunningham of the Times, and working on a biography of Sam Wagstaff.