Irving Penn, Fashion Photographer, Is Dead at 92
By Andy Grundberg
Published: October 7, 2009
Irving Penn, one of the 20th century’s most prolific and influential photographers of fashion and the famous, whose signature blend of classical elegance and cool minimalism was recognizable to magazine readers and museumgoers worldwide, died Wednesday morning at his home in Manhattan. He was 92.
Mr. Penn’s talent for picturing his subjects with compositional clarity and economy earned him the widespread admiration of readers of Vogue during his long association with the magazine, beginning in 1943. It also brought him recognition in the art world; his photographs have been exhibited in museums and galleries and are prized by collectors.
His long career at Vogue spanned a number of radical transformations in fashion and its depiction, but his style remained remarkably constant. Imbued with calm and decorum, his photographs often seemed intent on defying fashion. His models and portrait subjects were never seen leaping or running or turning themselves into blurs. Even the rough-and-ready members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, photographed in San Francisco in 1967, were transformed within the quieting frame of his studio camera into the graphic equivalent of a Greek frieze.
Instead of spontaneity, Mr. Penn provided the illusion of a seance, his gaze precisely describing the profile of a Balenciaga coat or of a Moroccan jalaba in a way that could almost mesmerize the viewer. Nothing escaped the edges of his photographs unless he commanded it. Except for a series of close-up portraits that cut his subjects’ heads off at the forehead, and another, stranger suite of overripe nudes, his subjects were usually shown whole, apparently enjoying a splendid isolation from the real world.
He was probably most famous for photographing Parisian fashion models and the world’s great cultural figures, but he seemed equally at home photographing Peruvian peasants or bunion pads. Merry Foresta, co-organizer of a 1990 retrospective of his work at the National Museum of American Art, wrote that his pictures exhibited “the control of an art director fused with the process of an artist.”
A courtly man whose gentle demeanor masked an intense perfectionism, Mr. Penn adopted the pose of a humble craftsman while helping to shape a field known for putting on airs. Although schooled in painting and design, he chose to define himself as a photographer, scraping his early canvases of paint so that they might serve a more useful life as backdrops to his pictures.
He was also a refined conversationalist and a devoted husband and friend. His marriage to Lisa Fonssagrives, a beautiful model, artist and his sometime collaborator, lasted 42 years, ending with her death at the age of 80 in 1992. Mr. Penn’s photographs of Ms. Fonssagrives not only captured a slim woman of lofty sophistication and radiant good health; they also set the esthetic standard for the elegant fashion photography of the 1940s and ’50s.
Ms. Fonssagrives became a sculptor after her modeling career ended. In 1994, Mr. Penn and their son, Tom, a metal designer, arranged the printing of a book that reproduced his wife’s sculpture, prints and drawings. In addition to his son, Mr. Penn is survived by his stepdaughter, Mia Fonssagrives Solow, a sculptor and jewelry designer; his younger brother, Arthur, the well-known director of such films as “Bonnie and Clyde,” and eight grandchildren.
Mr. Penn had the good fortune of working for and collaborating with two of the 20th century’s most inventive and influential magazine art directors, Alexey Brodovitch and Alexander Liberman. He studied with Mr. Brodovitch in Philadelphia as a young man and came to New York in 1937 as his unpaid design assistant at Harper’s Bazaar, the most provocative fashion magazine of the day. But it was under Mr. Liberman, at Vogue, that Mr. Penn forged his career as a photographer.
In the book “Irving Penn: Passage” (1991), a compilation of the photographer’s career, Mr. Liberman wrote of meeting Mr. Penn for the first time in 1941: “Here was a young American who seemed unspoiled by European mannerisms or culture. I remember he wore sneakers and no tie. I was struck by his directness and a curious unworldliness, a clarity of purpose, and a freedom of decision. What I call Penn’s American instincts made him go for the essentials.”
Irving Penn was also a consummate technician, known equally for the immaculate descriptive quality of his still-life arrangements of cosmetics and other consumer goods and for his masterly exploration of photographic materials. Not content with the conventions of the darkroom or with the standard appearance of commercial prints, he was willing to experiment. He resorted to bleaching the prints of his nudes series, eliminating skin tones and making female flesh appear harsh and unforgiving but nonetheless sexually charged.
At the height of the cultural convulsions of the 1960s Mr. Penn taught himself to print his own pictures using a turn-of-the-century process that relies on platinum instead of more conventional silver. The process produces beautiful, velvety tones in the image and is among the most permanent of photographic processes, although it requires time-consuming preparation and precise control in the darkroom.
Over the next 30 years Mr. Penn labored to print all his new work, as well as to reprint much of his earlier work, using this platinum process, which requires that a photographer mix a recipe of exotic chemicals and then hand-coat them onto a sheet of drawing paper. Mr. Penn, who almost single-handedly brought the process back into popularity among photographic artists, perfected a method of coating the paper with multiple layers of metallic salts, greatly increasing the depth and luminosity of the final print.
Mr. Penn’s concern with the longevity of his prints was one aspect of an enduring career. Not only was he the photographer with the longest tenure in the history of Condé Nast, which publishes Vogue; he also created timeless images of fashion and celebrity, two arenas characterized by constant change. At the same time, he took pains to acknowledge mortality and decay in his photographs, focusing his more personal work on cigarette butts, sidewalk detritus and, while in his 70s, on the skulls of wild animals.
In his catalog essay for a 1984 retrospective of Mr. Penn’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski, then the museum’s director of photography, wrote, “The grace, wit, and inventiveness of his pattern-making, the lively and surprising elegance of his line, and his sensitivity to the character, the idiosyncratic humors, of light make Penn’s pictures, even the slighter ones, a pleasure for our eyes.”
Irving Penn was born June 16, 1917, in Plainfield, N. J. His father, Harry, was a watchmaker and his mother, Sonia, a nurse. As a student at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art, later to be known as the Philadelphia College of Art (and now the University of the Arts), from 1934 to 1938, Mr. Penn studied drawing, painting and graphic and industrial design. His most influential teacher was the designer Alexey Brodovitch, a Russian émigré by way of Paris who was familiar with vanguard developments in European art and design.
Although Mr. Brodovitch worked in New York City for Harper’s Bazaar, he traveled to Philadelphia on Saturdays to meet with his students and to evaluate their work. Mr. Penn’s graphic talent impressed Mr. Brodovitch, and he chose him to be his unpaid assistant at Bazaar during the summers of 1937 and 1938.
After finishing school and moving to New York, Mr. Penn worked as a free-lance designer and illustrator for Bazaar and other clients. He also bought a camera and began to photograph storefronts and signs he saw in Manhattan. In 1940 he inherited Mr. Brodovitch’s position as director of advertising design for the Saks Fifth Avenue department store, but within a year he decided to travel to Mexico and attempt a career as a painter.
Before leaving for Mexico Mr. Penn, at Mr. Brodovitch’s suggestion, offered his position at Saks to another Russian émigré designer, Alexander Liberman. Mr. Liberman declined, but by the time Mr. Penn returned to New York in 1943, with his canvases scraped totally clean, Mr. Liberman was the art director of Vogue, and he returned the younger man’s favor by offering Mr. Penn a job as his assistant.
Mr. Penn’s first assignment was to supervise the design of Vogue’s covers, and he obliged by sketching out several possible photographic scenes. Unable to interest any of the staff photographers in taking them, he took to the photo studio himself, at Mr. Liberman’s suggestion. The first result of this opportunity was a color still-life photograph of a glove, belt and pocketbook, which was published as the cover of Vogue’s Oct. 1, 1943, issue. Mr. Penn’s photographs would appear on more than 150 Vogue covers over the next 50 years.
During World War II, Mr. Penn joined the American Field Service and drove an ambulance in Italy, where he got a taste of European culture. Arriving in Rome in 1944, he spied the artist Giorgio de Chirico carrying a shopping bag of vegetables home from the market.
“I rushed up and embraced him,” Mr. Penn recalled in “Passage,” the 1991 compilation of his life’s work. “To me he was the heroic de Chirico; to him I was a total stranger, probably demented. Still, he was moved and said, come home and have lunch with us. For two days he showed me his Rome.”
During those two days Mr. Penn made his first black-and-white portraits, beginning what would become a celebrated archive of the leading artists, writers and performers of the second half of the 20th century.
Returning to Vogue in 1946 as a staff photographer, Mr. Penn went on to fill the magazine’s pages with portraits of cultural figures like Edmund Wilson and W. H. Auden, still lifes of accessories and graphic fashion photographs. His 1947 image “Twelve of the Most Photographed Models of the Period,” a group portrait, includes, at its center, Lisa Fonssagrives.
Ms. Fonssagrives would later appear in some of Mr. Penn’s most memorable fashion images, among them “Rochas ‘Mermaid Dress,’ Paris” and “Woman with Roses, Paris,” both taken in 1950, the year she became his wife.
Those pictures were made during Mr. Penn’s first assignment to photograph the Paris collections for Vogue. Using a discarded theater curtain for a backdrop and a borrowed studio filled with daylight, he choreographed some of the most spare and delicate fashion photographs yet produced, treating the clothes less as dresses to be worn than as shapes to be perceived in silhouette.
Unlike Richard Avedon, the other important new fashion photographer of the postwar period, Mr. Penn expressed himself and his subjects best through a Shaker-style restraint. In 1948, for example, he began to pose his portrait subjects by wedging them between two plain walls that met in a sharply angled vee, a scene offset only by a scrap of fraying carpet, on which subjects as prominent as Spencer Tracy, Joe Louis and the Duchess of Windsor stood, crouched or leaned.
The same year, while on assignment for Vogue in Peru, Mr. Penn ventured on his own to Cuzco and photographed the exotically dressed families who lived in the mountainous countryside, presenting them nonjudgmentally.
Two decades later he expanded on these portraits during trips to Dahomey (now called Benin), to Morocco, to New Guinea and elsewhere, using a portable studio to provide a textured but seamless background. The pictures, in color as well as black and white, were featured annually in Vogue. In 1974 they were published in a book, “Worlds in a Small Room,” which seemed to emphasize the perseverance of cultural diversity.
Mr. Penn was also capable of making Western culture seem strange and fascinating. In the early 1950s he made a series of portraits of small tradesmen (“Petit Métiers,” in French) working in Paris, London and New York. Again relying on his spare studio to separate his subjects from their surroundings, he nevertheless insisted that the tradesmen wear the clothes and tools of their work: two pastry chiefs in white aprons and toches hold rolling pins; a fishmonger carries a fish in one hand and a rag in the other.
In 1949 and 1950, Mr. Penn produced images of female nudes as a personal project, using fleshy artists’ models and focusing exclusively on their torsos. In the process of printing he attacked the light-sensitive paper with bleach and other chemicals to remove most of the skin tones, creating a rough chiaroscuro effect antithetical to then-prevailing notions of corporeal beauty. These unsettling pictures were not exhibited or published until 30 years later, in 1980, when the Marlborough Gallery mounted a show called “Earthly Bodies.” The critic Rosalind Krauss, writing in the catalog, called the nudes “a kind of privately launched and personally experienced kamikaze attack on his own public identity as a photographer of fashion.”
The quest to undercut fashion’s standards of perfection, and to find beauty in the disdained, overlooked or overripe, runs throughout Mr. Penn’s career. In an otherwise pristine still life of food, he included a house fly, and in a 1959 close-up, he placed a beetle in a model’s ear. From 1967 to 1973 he produced color essays of flowers, published each year in Vogue’s Christmas issue; in each case the blooms are past their prime, their leaves wilted, tinged with brown and falling.
Mr. Penn acquired a reputation for perfectionism at all costs. In the book “Passage,” Mr. Liberman recounts that when Mr. Penn was asked to take a picture of glasses falling from a serving tray, the photographer insisted that for authenticity’s sake Baccarat crystal be used. The art director ruefully remembered that several dozens of the glasses were shattered before the photograph was made to Mr. Penn’s standard.
In the mid-1960s, just as Mr. Penn began to be consumed by his experiments with platinum printing, fashion and fashion photography switched gears decisively. Neither his style nor his manner matched the era’s spirit of sexual liberation and spontaneous, sometimes drug-assisted creativity. The public image of a fashion photographer came to be exemplified by the anything-goes protagonist of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film “Blow Up,” played by David Hemming.
Mr. Penn observed the rebelliousness of the ’60s with a curious eye, even taking an assignment from Look magazine to photograph the “summer of love” scene in San Francisco. But his stylistic confidence seemed to falter when it came to portraying the minimally structured garments and ultra-thin models of the time. His photograph of the model Marisa Berenson, wearing a breast-plate-size peace sign and little else, suggests the photographer’s ambivalence about an era in which no clothes often seemed the preferable fashion. Not surprisingly, he concentrated on producing photographs intended to be viewed as art.
In 1975, the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented a small exhibition of his recent work printed using the platinum process: a series of greatly magnified images of cigarette butts. Transformed from gutter discards to iconic status, the mashed and bent cylinders again showed Mr. Penn’s penchant for straying far from the politesse of his fashion and portrait pictures. The cigarette butts were followed by a series focused on other forms of sidewalk debris, including flattened paper cups, deli containers and rags; these photographs, presented in platinum, were exhibited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1977 in a show called “Street Material.”
As a result of the two museum exhibitions, Mr. Penn’s work played a significant role in the rise of photography’s fortunes in the art world. In the late 1970s and early 1980s his pictures were exhibited several times at the Marlborough Gallery in New York. In 1984 a 160-print traveling retrospective of his career was organized by Szarkowski. Since 1987 his pictures have been exhibited on a regular basis at the Pace/MacGill Gallery, which now represents his work.
Passing the age of 65 without a thought of retirement, Mr. Penn devoted himself increasingly to still-lifes, on assignments for Vogue and for advertising clients like Clinique cosmetics, and in photographs for exhibition. On his own time he constructed arrangements of bones, steel blocks and bleached animal skulls. These table-top compositions recall Dutch vanitas still-lifes as well as Giorgio Morandi paintings. At the same time, Mr. Penn produced several memorable portraits for Vogue of older artists of his own generation, like Willem de Kooning, Isamu Noguchi and Italo Calvino, and began contributing portraits to the fledgling Condé Nast magazine Vanity Fair. In 1985 he began to draw and paint again, after a hiatus of 43 years.
A collection of many of his most important images, in a variety of genres, was acquired jointly by the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art in 1990; the museums, both branches of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, also mounted an exhibition of the collection titled “Irving Penn: Master Images.” In its first foray into modern photography, the Morgan Library & Museum in New York acquired 67 of Penn’s portraits in 2007 and exhibited them last year. Another major show opened in September at the J. Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles.
In 1996 Mr. Penn donated the bulk of his archives and 130 of his prints to the Chicago Art Institute. An exhibition of these prints, “Irving Penn: A Career in Photography,” organized by Colin Westerbeck, opened at the Art Institute the following year and subsequently toured the country. In 2005 the National Gallery in Washington mounted a smaller retrospective of Penn’s career that consisted entirely of his platinum prints.
The critic Richard Woodward, writing in 1990, argued that Mr. Penn would be best remembered for the work he did for the museum wall, not the printed page. “The steely unity of Irving Penn’s career, the severity and constructed rigor of his work can best be appreciated when he seems to break away from the dictates of fashion for magazines,” he wrote. “Only then is it clear how everything he photographs — or, at least, prints — is the product of a remarkably undivided conscience. There are no breaks; only different subjects.”
(article from nytimes.com; photo from news.yahoo.com)