One of my favorite photographers shuffled off this mortal coil October 7, and I feel compelled to mark his passage here. He wasn’t an Ansel Adams or an Annie Leibowitz; unless you are into photography and art, or fashion, you would not have heard of Irving Penn.
It is a shame, because there are many lesser artists out there in the public consciousness; many hacks who have enjoyed more fortune and fame. But this in no way diminishes him or his work. He was one of those rare commercial photographers that made art. There are a number of ways that one could interpret that statement; I’ll leave it up to you. He was a photographer’s photographer ; the methods that he developed are still in use by many today, both in the fashion and art worlds — the use of a dark, stark studio backdrop, and the placement of his subjects within a narrow corner created with his backdrop, for example.
But praising a photographer or an artist with words is kind of silly, I suppose, if not downright ironic. I first noticed an image of Penn’s back in the 1990s; it was a nude of Kate Moss, which you will find below. It’s NSFW, so if you click on the “read more” link, consider yourself warned; if you navigated to this page directly, sorry. But his images really moved me, but not because of his subject, but rather what he managed to do with her image. Moss is certainly beautiful in that near anorexic, super-model kind of way; a pixie that almost makes one feel perverted for enjoying her — at least that is how she typically comes across in fashion shoots.
But unlike many modern fashion photographers, Penn didn’t produce an image of some gaunt, alien-looking, genetic mutant; rather, he made her look human. Or let her look human. The result is beautiful images of a beautiful woman — beautiful in a way we don’t typically get to see her. Even in these small images, his genius and her beauty comes through.
What always amazes me too is that in spite of the fact that a), it’s Kate Moss, and b) she’s naked, in both images one is always drawn to her face. Even in the second image, which is seemingly dominated — at first — by her surprisingly ample posterior, the eye is led to her elegant profile; the pose and the lighting all contriving to set her face apart from the rest of the image.
Penn also processed these images in what was his trademark — a process that also adds to their visual impact. Later in his life, well after he had made his mark in the fashion and art worlds, he began to experiment with his printing process and make his own old-fashioned plates to make prints. It was these plates that lent a depth and richness to his work; he even went back and reproduced some of his earlier work that had been printed conventionally and reprinted them on platinum-palladium photographic plates. The Kate Moss images above were also printed this way.
Many of his most well-known images are of his wife — Lisa Fonssagrives, whom many peg as the first super model (she certainly had the figure for it). My favorite image of her by her husband is not one of the typical images he made of her, but rather a more candid shot. At least it looks candid; I’d love to know if this was a staged photograph, or one he just made off the cuff during a break or before/after a planned shoot. So many times, the best shots seem to be the ones you take when you’re setting up or just fooling around after a shoot. In any event, the lighting, the composition — everything about this photograph is amazing.
I also like this image of Salvadore Dali — Penn photographed many famous people in his day, particularly from the world of the arts — for the same reasons I love his shots of Moss. Photographers often tried to capture the essence of Dali — which I’m sure Dali encouraged –with the results one might expect; images like this one of Dali by Philippe Halsman. A fitting tribute to Dali, perhaps, given that Dali’s image was perhaps his biggest work of art, one that spanned his entire lifetime. But I prefer Penn’s image of Dali:
Again, one glance and it is clear who this is, but it’s Dali as a human being, not as Dali the persona. I can’t help but wonder what Dali thought of this photograph. I’ve enclosed a couple more of my favorite Penn images below; I’ll let them speak for themselves. If you’re interested in more about Irving Penn, there is always Wikipedia. Want to see more of his images? Try these places:
Art Pages’ entry on Irving Penn (this Ukrainian site is all in Cyrillic, by the way).
Christie’s past auctions of Irving Penn prints. This is a rather interesting, as not only does it give you the title and year of each image, but how much it sold, and what kind of print it is. That first image of Kate Moss, by the way, Kate Moss (Hand on Neck), it sold for $75,563. The image of his wife above, Woman in Moroccan Palace, sold for $307,200.
So … thank you for sharing your art with me and the world, Irving Penn. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If it were up to me, our paths would cross again in the next life, if for no other reason than to be able to tell you this myself — although I’d love to discuss photography, if you were so inclined.