Important Art by Irving Penn
Penn's earliest series of photographs chronicles an early cross-country voyage through the American South. Penn was not yet thinking of himself as an art photographer. He had fled the fashion industry and planned to settle in the South as a folk artist. In retrospect, however, these documentary images in the spirit of the great Walker Evans foreshadow Penn's ultimate destiny as an equally great American photographer, but in a vein fundamentally at odds with photojournalism. This photograph is also known by the title Sign with Child's Head Missing, Louisiana. It is an odd photograph, one almost certainly deliberately and carefully staged. On the hood of a beat-up car sits a framed image that once hung in a diner or a hardware store, advertising a product. The original advertisement has been damaged, so that the central subject - a baby - is missing its head. A couple gazes adoringly at their decapitated child, and the whole scene is positioned so as to appear as if it is taking place inside the car. On the horizon are the columns and roofs of a traditional southern home. An American Dream turned nightmare, the image foretells Penn's subversive approach to image-making. It also expresses some of the anxiety Penn may have been feeling as an outsider (the child of Russian Jewish immigrants) traveling through the Deep South.
"The photographic process for me, is primarily simplification and elimination" Penn once said. Evidence of this appears in his very first Vogue cover, the first of more than 150 over the course of his career. Women's fashion magazine covers, then as now, generally depicted a model decked out in the latest style of the season. Penn's cover leaves out the model. Artfully arranged objects on a table tell the story of a fashionable lady that readers of Vogue implicitly aspire to be. Her chic urban accessories (satchel, grey scarf, white gloves, and the oversized cocktail ring - placed tantalizingly close to the edge of the table) are things one might wear while out and about on an errand in Manhattan. What is not here is just as important as what is, allowing the viewer to fill in with his or her own fantasy. This anticipates even more radical developments in Penn's style down the road.
Few, if any, precedents for this pose exist in the history of portraiture. This masterful, claustrophobic portrait of Truman Capote is one of the so-called "corner portraits" that formed the basis for Penn's emerging reputation as a fine art photographer. Two slanted walls surround the American writer who is scrunched down into a chair with his hands shoved into the pockets of his trench coat. Though the chopped-up space and pose do not seem natural or comfortable, they feel immediate, even intimate, in ways a conventional pose might not be. Penn understood that cornering his subjects heightened the psychological intensity, stating, "A niche closed people in. Some people felt secure in the tight spot, some felt trapped. It was a kind of truth serum. The way they looked made them quickly available to the camera." Among Penn's other subjects were Spencer Tracy, Georgia O'Keeffe, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Arthur Rubenstein, Gypsy Rose Lee, and countless other luminaries from a broad array of disciplines, from artists to film stars. He used a similar framing of the corner, but allowed sitters to pose with a few different items such as a chair or a dark carpet.