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Irving Penn Phyllis Posnick
Photography Irving Penn

How Irving Penn and Phyllis Posnick changed the language of beauty

We explore how the duo created some of their most iconic images

For over three decades, Irving Penn and Phyllis Posnick bulldozed the fashion world, leaving a trail of unforgettable images in their wake. Together, the American photographer and stylist made over 400 pictures for Vogue magazine. Posnick was the fashion editor with a razor-sharp eye for detail. Penn was the prolific photographer who had shot everyone from Pablo Picasso to Philip Seymour Hoffman. Together, Penn and Posnick were a one-of-a-kind creative partnership responsible for some of the most iconic looks of the latter part of the 20th century.

They met in 1987 on a two-week couture shoot for Vogue, when Posnick was quickly gaining a reputation as the magazine’s most meticulous stylist. Usually dressed head-to-toe in black, with dark hair and minimal make-up, Posnick worked closely with Penn on concepts and paid especially close attention to the casting of models. One of her responsibilities was the magazine’s health and beauty section, where a theme was typically illustrated by a single image shot by Penn. These were striking grab-you-by-the-throat images that seemed to leap from the page, leading the Telegraph to dub her “Vogue’s most provocative editor”.

You sense a cheeky side to their work in images like 1996’s Cult Creams, which features a model whose face is splashed with thick white cream. The shoot was about some new cream moisturizers, which were “incredibly dull to photograph,” Posnick said in a Vogue interview. To make it less dull, she says Penn had the idea of dropping the cream on the model’s head, something he’d seen on an old 50s TV show. Like a custard pie to the face, the picture is playful and fun. It’s typical of their collaborations, marked by humour, surrealism, and a sense of play. It shows the beauty, too, in something that’s both dreamy and gross. But above all, it looks like they had fun shooting it – even if the model didn’t enjoy having thick splats of cream on her face all day.

Leafing through their pictures, extreme close-ups pop up again and again. Sometimes the model’s face is obscured, there’s just a detail of the lips, the eye, or it’s hidden altogether by a football. Bee Lips shows a tightly framed bee crawling across bright red lips. “There was an expression way back in the 1950s for women who had fuller lips,” Posnick said in 2017, “it was called ‘bee stung lip’, and Penn loved those kinds of expressions.” Similarly, they shot Mascara Wars (2001) as an extreme close-up of a heavily painted eyelash. The eye is bloodshot, the face pale, its total effect creepy and unsettling, like nothing you’d see in an actual mascara ad on TV. “Penn wanted to shoot with the model’s eyes closed in extreme close-up,” Posnick later told the Telegraph. “He’d been pushing and prodding the brushes around her lashes. At the end of the day when she opened her eyes, this was how she looked, so he shot it spontaneously. I don’t know whether it was infection or irritation.”

Other times they pulled the camera back and showed us faces we knew. Kate Moss appeared in Confessions of a Hair Color Junkie, in the July 1994 issue. She has short bright yellow hair, her fingers pressed to her temple, with a vivid blue and yellow hat that looks like a Matisse painting in 3D. Moss then appeared again in 1995, in Changing Faces, dressed in 1920s throwback, with curls and a glitzy dress. What makes the shot original is its stark gothic vibe: the lighting abrasive, Moss with heavy eyeshadow, appearing more like a ghost from The Great Gatsby.

Penn and Posnick also blended goth with a Disney aesthetic when photographing and styling Lisa Cant in 2005. Her dark eyes pop out from behind a black lace Minnie Mouse mask, another example of the dark wit they would inject into their work. “I liked the Minnie Mouse couture look of [this mask] and brought it to Penn,” Posnick said in an interview with the Guardian. “He thought it was charming and imagined it on a young woman wearing an old fashioned negligee.”

For three-plus decades, the pair’s work was the beating heart of Vogue. Today the legacy of their strikingly surreal images is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine how groundbreaking it was in the fashion world back then. Penn, for example, was reportedly among the first photographers to pose subjects against a simple colourless backdrop. You’d be hard-pressed to find a magazine that doesn’t do this now. But this was his unique skill: to elicit the personality of someone or something by isolating them. He’d place a subject against a plain background, strip away all unnecessary baggage, and sharpen his focus on details that revealed character. Typically minimal and less-is-more, his photos burrow to the core of something by the most simple of means.

Penn was artful without any artistic pretensions. He celebrated the human form just as Man Ray did, though Penn’s art just happened to appear in the pages of a glossy mag. “My client is a woman in Kansas who reads Vogue,” as Penn humbly put it to the New York Times. “I'm trying to intrigue, stimulate, feed her. My responsibility is to the reader.”

In the last years of Penn and Posnick’s collaborations, their working relationship was so smooth and streamlined that Posnick was apparently the only Vogue editor Penn would work with. And work they did, almost right until the end, when Penn died in 2009, aged 92.

Just last year Posnick stepped down from her role as fashion editor at Vogue, though she’ll reportedly be working with the mag “in some capacity”. Her own legacy there is well documented. She has a couple of books that chronicle her vast catalogue of shoots, including Stoppers, which she dedicates to Penn. The word ‘Stoppers’ was what Alexander Liberman, Conde Nast’s editorial director, called images that were so visually arresting they would stop you from turning the page. Among the 400-plus pictures of Penn and Posnick, there’s a whole bunch of those.

Posnick, in a 2016 interview with the Telegraph, says that Penn taught her to see and to think laterally. “Everything is questioned.” And in relation to her own book, she says: “I couldn’t have done it without him. I learned so much from him. And to this day I still think, What would Penn do?”