As the Met’s anticipated retrospective opens in New York, we explore his visionary ‘fashion as art’ approach
Irving Penn is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential fashion photographers of the 20th-century. By taking an indiscriminately artistic approach to his work, regardless of the commission, he fluidly bridged the gap between art, fashion, and commerce as few had ever done before, redefining the language of fashion photography in the process. Over the course of his prolific 70-year career – 60 years of which he spent as a key contributor to American Vogue – he spoke very little of his work, but during an insightful talk at MoMA in October of 1950, he stated, “Whatever the photograph – a description of the battlefield, a portrait of a Hollywood celebrity, the turn of collar on the latest fashion, images for a small edition book or images to sell soap – all of them are equally important.” This is vital to understanding his remarkably varied output, from his pioneering fashion imagery to his candid portraiture and nude studies to his striking still lifes, which sought out beauty in such unlikely subjects as cigarette butts and street trash.
Eight years after his death, his distinct, pared-back aesthetic, distilling every subject to its very essence, continues to influence and inspire, particularly in the realms of fashion. As Anna Wintour perfectly summarised, “Penn changed the way we saw the world and our perception of what is beautiful.” Here, to mark the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York anticipated, centennial retrospective of the artist’s work – spanning both his most revered masterpieces and lesser-known prints – we consider the signature tenets of Penn’s distinctive practice and their enduring impact on modern fashion photography.
HE DIDN’T INTEND TO TO BECOME A FASHION PHOTOGRAPHER
Penn was born in New Jersey to a Russian Jewish family in June 1917. He studied drawing, painting, graphics, and industrial arts at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art under famous designer Alexey Brodovitch. He spent two years working as a freelance designer before moving to Mexico for one year with hopes of becoming a painter. While there, he realised his skill for photography, capturing pictures of the people and streets he encountered as well as surreal still lifes. However, when joined Vogue in the early 1940s, as the assistant to the new art director Alexander Liberman, he had no intention of pursuing a career in fashion photography. Liberman, who was new to the publication himself, was determined to modernise its imagery and saw in Penn a great “clarity of purpose” and “freedom of decision”, allowing him to capture some still lifes for the magazine, before branching out into full stories on the latest couture designs. Sure enough, over the next few years the young photographer blossomed, developing many of the pioneering traits that would come to define his seminal career.
BUT HE SOON MASTERED THE MEDIUM AND MADE IT HIS OWN
Perhaps most notably, Penn was quick to abandon the traditional notion of staging (as in the works of Cecil Beaton and Norman Parkinson who would frequently depict models in lavish, fussy settings) opting for instead for a plain white or pale grey backdrop that would allow the clothes to speak for themselves. This minimalist setting, which Penn employed throughout his career, allowed the photographer to focus on his key preoccupations, namely form, shape, detail, line, and light. For Penn, less was always more, his process one of “simplification and elimination,” as he termed it.
This is perfectly exemplified in his 1950 shot of Lisa Fonssagrives (his soon-to-be wife) modelling a ‘mermaid dress’ by Rochas. The scene is lit by a beautifully diffused natural light: another of Penn’s modernising techniques, which stood in stark contrast to the theatrical lighting employed by his predecessors. Fonssagrives stands silhouetted against one of Penn’s favourite backdrops – a found theatre curtain, decorated with discreet grey clouds, which will appear in The Met show – her black couture gown cast into sharp, graphic relief, its sculptural cut and contrasting textures masterfully highlighted.
When it came to detail, Penn was obsessive. As his assistant at the time Robert Freson recalled, “(he) was in admiration of the dresses... (and) would concentrate on finding the best lines and shapes, quietly directing the model, adjusting a detail, pulling a skirt. He was very concerned about the precision of the image, the need to respect both the idea of the designer and the fine work of the seamstresses.” That said, clothes were not Penn’s singular preoccupation. His love of portraiture found its way into many of his fashion stories, which playfully celebrate the individual personalities of his models – think his 1949 image Girl Drinking (Mary Jane Russell) which crops in on Russell in profile raising a champagne glass to her lips with a sensuous air of anticipation. (Experimental cropping and carefully considered titles were more innovations that Penn carried over from fine art photography).
WHILE PENN’S STYLE EVOLVED, HIS VISION REMAINED UNSHAKABLE
As the years went on Penn began experimenting with new techniques. In the 70s, for example, he perfected the (notoriously tricky) platinum printing process which allowed for the immaculate sharpness of detail and rich tonality that characterised his later works. He also employed the use of strobe lighting which he described as “most appealing for photographing small things. A stream of falling water is frozen into a physical revelation. An ant running across a cheese is held forever in running position. A bee preparing to sting a young woman’s lips is stopped cold in the act.”
In the 1980s the photographer focussed mainly on colour portraits and spent more time lensing flowers and still lifes – images that reflected his increasing interest in mortality – than he did people. He continued to work for Vogue, however, introducing these darker themes into his photographs of collections by his favoured designers, such as John Galliano for Dior, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel and Christian Lacroix. He also produced brilliantly surrealist images to illustrate beauty editorials, such as the aforementioned Bee on Lips (1995) and Head in Ice (2002), whereby he famously froze a red-lipped mannequin’s head in a block of ice and hacked into it with a pick axe. He also struck up an intimate and fruitful working relationship with Japanese designer Issey Miyake whose gloriously sculptural, paper-textured garments lent themselves perfectly to Penn’s style. “The clothes have been given a voice of their own,” Miyake marvelled of Penn’s depictions. “Here were my clothes, but shown in such a way that they appeared totally new to me.”
“Here were my clothes, but shown in such a way that they appeared totally new to me” – Issey Miyake on working with Irving Penn
AND HIS MINIMALIST APPROACH REMAINS A TIMELESS INSPIRATION
Although Penn’s methods and preoccupations evolved with time, the clarity of purpose that Liberman spotted in the imagemaker as a young man endured. While the clothes he shot morphed according to trends, he remained devoted to his rigorous and elegant brand of minimalism, “his photographs occupying a place beyond the whims or fads of fashion,” as Philippe Garner states in the Met exhibition’s catalogue. In his later years he would express that this aesthetic particularity had rendered him an “old-fashioned” fashion photographer – a statement that belies the timeless quality of his work. Along with Richard Avedon, Penn is rightfully credited with coining many of the concepts that have shaped the landscape of modern fashion photography as we know it. Many of the medium’s most influential contemporary practitioners, from Nick Knight to Patrick Demarchelier to Sølve Sundsbø, have declared themselves indebted to the photographer who, by maintaining his creative integrity at all times – whether shooting a L’Oreal advert, a portrait of a Hollywood star or a still life of decaying fruit – set a new precedent for the fashion photographer as an artist.
Irving Penn: Centennial is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from April 24-July 30, 2017