arts and design

'His pictures are timeless': celebrating the work of Irving Penn


Whether it’s a grainy portrait of Pablo Picasso or a stark picture of ginkgo leaves, you know an Irving Penn photo when you see one. They exude elegance and minimalism, the work of an undisputed master of 20th-century photography.

A new retrospective honoring the photographer is now on view in New York. A selection of photographs from the 1930s to the 2000s can be seen at Pace Gallery until 13 February, in an exhibition called Photographism.

But is “photographism” even a word? Not entirely. It is, though, a term that was coined by the photographer. It isn’t a theory, but an idea supported by sketches, notes, photographs and posters. When Penn had his studio in the Flatiron District of Manhattan, he had a manila envelope labeled with the word.

“It was part of the working files of the studio,” said Vasilios Zatse, deputy director of the Irving Penn Foundation, who previously worked in Penn’s studio.

“It was a folder with some sketches, then it became more than one box that had labels that contained posters that were earmarked for ‘Photographism’,” he added. “Penn left us with not so much a road map, but enough material as a jumping off point to consider for an exhibition.”

Zatse worked alongside the curator, Michaela Mohrmann, and the gallery’s photo department head, Kim Jones, on what to include. “We went back to this source material, this file folder, to curate the exhibition,” said Zatse. “This idea of Photographism was never fully explored in his lifetime. We thought perhaps this is something we should return to.”

Irving Penn - Girl Behind Bottle, New York, 1949
Girl Behind Bottle, New York, 1949. Photograph: The Irving Penn Foundation

Penn was a meticulous note-taker and always kept busy with many projects. “Photographism was conceived before I arrived,” said Zatse, who started working for Penn in 1996. “You had a catch-all box of notes and scraps of paper, and every so often there would be some thought or idea that would be noted on a piece of paper and added to this ‘Photographism’ folder or box. It wasn’t as high priority as some of his other projects, but it was in his consciousness.”

But to actually define the term? It was more of a conversation. “We would talk about it sporadically over the years,” said Zatse. “I recalled the idea of the graphic element of photography always related to this concept of ‘Photographism’ … It was the visuals with graphic elements of a design of a poster and typography.”

Penn would say: “Should there ever be a Photographism exhibition, we should consider these posters,” recalls Zatse.

“It was never clearly defined what he meant by Photographism,” he adds. “I like to think of it as Penn’s visual signature, the flavor of his work, his aesthetic. He wasn’t one to speak at length about his work, in terms of trying to describe it. He let the work speak for itself.”

“Beauty Issue: Summer Elements,” Vogue cover, May 1, 1946
Beauty Issue: Summer Elements, Vogue cover, May 1946. Photograph: Conde Nast

Among the works in the exhibition, there are early Vogue covers Penn shot, like one cover from 1946, which is a grid of 16 images – framed as we would see in an Instagram profile today – showing a mélange of pictures, from fruit to jewelry, shoes, dolls and boots. This magazine came out after the second world war ended and symbolized the return to retail after an era of rationing. Women started thinking about fashion again.

There are also mysterious portraits, including Girl Behind Bottle, a portrait of a model seated smoking behind a glass bottle, which Penn shot in New York in 1949. There are photos of everyday objects, such as ginkgo leaves, lamps and flowers. There’s also a portrait of the model Jean Patchett in black and white, from a Vogue cover Penn shot from 1950, which has become an icon of high fashion.

“He was very careful and efficient with his words,” said Zatse. “I never felt he had the need to speak about his work in order to defend it or have the idea adopted.”

Penn had the eye of an artist. He was a painter before he picked up a camera. It does not necessarily mean that he created painterly photographs, but he did compose his photos with a multifaceted eye that took into consideration graphic design, painting, sculpture and collage.

The exhibit includes photos that have been collaged with other elements, including one from 1963, called Faucet Dripping Diamonds, where cut-outs of diamonds fall out of a sink faucet, or a portrait of Picasso, who is centered on a page where his name is spelled out around him.

Irving Penn - Ginkgo Leaves, New York, 1990
Ginkgo Leaves, New York, 1990. Photograph: The Irving Penn Foundation

He was also interested in photographing the unseen. “Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe,” Penn said in 1975.

Penn, who was born in small-town New Jersey in 1917, studied painting and graphic design in Philadelphia in the 1930s and bought his first camera in 1938. He worked during the second world war with the American Field Service in 1944 as an ambulance driver (he couldn’t serve as a soldier due to a heart condition) and traveled through Italy, Austria and India.

While working as a driver, he reported from the war with his camera, shooting landscapes, portraits and architecture, in what one Vogue editor at the time called “inaction-in-action photographs”. He shot the Italian town of Anzio after it was destroyed by the war, writing: “The countryside was dead and deserted. No one dared to farm the land or even to walk on it. The rusted tanks had begun to settle into the earth. There were bits of white human bone by the side of the road, pieces too small to collect and bury.”

Portrait of Irving Penn by Bert Stern
A portrait of Irving Penn by Bert Stern. Photograph: Bert Stern

When he returned to New York in the 1940s, he was hired at Vogue, working in the art department, then wound up shooting covers for the magazine. Over the course of his seven-decade career, he shot more than 160 covers for Vogue, from 1943 to 2009 – more than any other photographer.

“We don’t call them shoots here,” Penn said in 2009. “We don’t shoot people. It’s really a love affair.”

“I had to work out my own relationship with Irving, and it took quite a while,” Vogue’s editor, Anna Wintour, said in 2010. “We had a different kind of rapport. It was more like a date. He was a seductive guy and I certainly had an intellectual crush on him.”

Penn is widely known for his photos of cultural icons, from Truman Capote to Saul Steinberg (with a paper bag over his head) to Claude Lévi-Strauss. One quality marked all of his photos: emotional expression. In the 1950s, he shot celebs up close, letting facial cues take the spotlight.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, he took an interest in still life photography, from flowers to coffee cups, cigarette butts and autumn leaves he found on New York sidewalks. He traveled the world shooting locals in remote areas across Mexico, Benin, Cameroon, Morocco and Nepal, as well as New Guinea and Peru.

Installation view of Irving Penn: Photographism
Installation view of Irving Penn: Photographism. Photograph: Photography courtesy of Pace Gallery

“He was a very private man, preferred to avoid distractions from his work. He chose to avoid the spotlight,” said Zatse.

Penn died in 2009 at 92, remembered as one of the first photographers to blur the lines between commercial photography and high art. He brought an artist’s eye to the medium, allowing it to become a vessel for pure creativity. That said, it isn’t easy to pin down how exactly Penn revolutionized the way we look at photography today.

“That’s a very difficult question to answer,” said Zatse after a long silence. “I think Penn was rooted in tradition. He had a great respect and admiration for the arts. He acknowledged and was inspired by painters and sculptors, film-makers. He used those inspirations to distill his own aesthetic.”

But by the same token, Penn was also singular in his artistic vision. “He was good about not being influenced by outside forces; he was a very focused, very disciplined artist,” he said. “He was a modernist in every sense of the word. His pictures are timeless, there’s no question about it.”



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