Progression of Art
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.
Gelatin silver print sheet - Smithsonian Museum of American Art
Fall Fashion Still Life, for Vogue Cover
"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.
Photomechanical Print - The Art Institute of Chicago
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.
Gelatin Silver Print - The Irving Penn Foundation
Before Penn, art photography and commercial photography were two distinctly different fields. Penn brought them closer together. This photograph was published as an illustration of an article in Vogue's June 1949 issue. A fan blows quietly on a woman who has fallen asleep. Near her are a book, a peach, a cup of tea, and a fly-swatter. The flies on the screen are so much in focus one has the urge to flick them away. The image in the background fades out, an excellent metaphor for the loss of consciousness.
Like his Fall fashion cover of 1943, the subject is essentially a pretext for a meditation on color and form. The figure is incorporated as a sculptural element in a still life. The bent arm and head form a graceful triangle, and are surrounded by other pleasing shapes. While specialized knowledge of art history is unnecessary to appreciate this image, Penn's awareness of it is evident in the screen over the surface, a sly nod to the modernist grid, and the dozing woman - an homage to Vermeer and other great 17th-century masters who painted the subject. Penn's photograph also draws deeply on Surrealist imagery, particularly that of Man Ray - whose still lifes often incorporated parts of the female body, and Salvador Dalí (whom Penn portrayed in one of his famous "corner portraits"), who included ants and other insects in his paintings. In comparison though, Penn shows a much lighter touch in his use of such imagery than the Surrealists who were more inclined to shock their audiences.
Dye-transfer print - The Art Institute of Chicago
Veiled Face (Evelyn Tripp)
Taken from below, this photograph showcases the profile of fashion model Evelyn Tripp. Her veil enhances the almost porcelain perfection of her features. Like the screen in Summer Sleep (taken the same year), or the cocktail ring that appears at the edge of Penn's first cover for Vogue, the veil near the surface of the picture seems to dare us to reach out and touch it.
This trademark device of zeroing in on one detail - in this case the veil - and letting the focus soften behind it was one of Penn's trademark moves. It curried favor with fashion designers from Christian Dior to Issey Miyake, and succeeded in securing the photographer a permanent spot at Vogue.
Gelatin Silver Print - Smithsonian Museum of American Art
Nude No. 150
Nude No 150 depicts the lower half of a female body shaped differently from the ideal that appears in Penn's fashion shoots. The triangular thighs seem to sprout directly from the spherical abdomen. The overexposed negative creates an almost abstract image comprised of shapes and sinuous lines closer to a drawing or a sculpture. Penn would soon use this device in his fashion photographs. While supporting himself as a fashion photographer, Penn engaged in side projects that interested him as an artist. Earthly Bodies series was among the first of these side projects. At work, Penn's job was to emphasize and exaggerate the ideal female form. Earthly Bodies presents us with an antidote to these "heavenly" bodies Penn was obliged to photograph on a daily basis, resisting this ideal.
When Penn finally exhibited the series at Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1980, the response was not warm. Some critics detected a troubling detachment that seemed overly erotic, bordering on fetishistic. Penn argued they were not this at all, and were in fact a collaboration between him and professional full-figured artist's models who "were comfortable with their bodies. It helped that their personalities were generally relaxed and uncomplaining, and that they were not apprehensive of close examination by the camera. The relationship between us was professional, without a hint of sexual response." He continued to believe the Earthly Bodies series was some of his best work.
Gelatin Silver Print - The Irving Penn Foundation
Black & White Cover (Jean Patchett)
After a trip to Paris, Penn revised his approach to the fashion shoot, radically limiting his form and palette, and announcing something new, both in his own work and in creative fashion photography as a whole. In Black & White Cover (the first black and white cover for Vogue since 1932) Penn used a discarded theater curtain to erase the environment for the figure. Dressed by Christian Dior, fashion model Jean Patchett strikes an enigmatic pose akin to modern dance or pantomime. Penn's compositional restraint plays up the drama of the forms: the horizontal brim of her hat; the black neckerchief tilting to the right, and the white scarf splitting the figure down the middle create a flawless, and daringly abstract, composition. Penn produced very sharp lines in his photographs that were part of his unique signature.
Platinum Palladium Print - The Art Institute of Chicago
Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, Shot in Morocco for Vogue
Penn took multiple photographs of his wife, Lisa Fonssagrives (a supermodel before the term existed) on the couple's trip to Morocco in 1951. Published in Vogue the same year, this series gave rise to a subgenre on which the industry continues to rely heavily today: the exotic fashion shoot. Amidst richly-patterned pillows and fabric textiles displaying Arabic text, Fonssagrives's attire - a wide sash, wide-legged pants, and bare midriff - are not what one would see a local woman wearing, but a fantasy inspired by Moroccan menswear and belly dancing. Ethnographic accuracy is not the point here. The image uses non-Western elements to engage the Western imagination. Fonssagrives's come-hither pose recalls the Odalisque (the exotic harem woman who appears in the work of Ingres, Delacroix, and Matisse). Penn continued traveling to exotic cities around the world, shooting models on site. This prevented him from becoming bored, and allowed him to indulge his flair for photojournalism and portraiture.
Cigarette No. 37
Penn experimented with photographic and printing processes throughout his career. The Platinum-Palladium print process, an old photographic method he revived, enabled Penn to achieve the level of tonal precision seen here.
Cigarette No. 37 is part of a series of cigarette butts shot at close range using a macro lens in the 1970s. In the absence of the context where one might usually find it (an ashtray, a gutter, or the street), the everyday form becomes large and mysterious, like an ancient ruin. This series inspired a larger investigation of detritus found on the street, including disintegrated work gloves, banana peels, and chewing gum. Entitled Street Material, this whole genre of his work was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1977. This solidified Penn's reputation as a serious artist, not merely a fashion photographer.
Platinum Palladium Print - The Art Institute of Chicago
Mouth (for L'Oreal)
In an advertisement for a L'Oreal lipstick campaign of 1986, Penn isolated the most relevant detail of the subject and shot it at close range (one of Penn's go-to moves). Using a dye transfer print process, Penn developed the face in black and white and confined the vivid color to the center, displaying the full spectrum of colors in L'Oreal's spring lipstick line in a configuration resembling a painter's palette. Not only does this allow the potential customer to choose from an array of shades, but the application of color is essentially an abstract painting. Unconventional strokes of deep purple and vibrant yellow go outside the lines. Implicitly L'Oreal's new product is more than just a lipstick. It's a form of personal expression, on the brink of art. The visual point, made quickly and unforgettably, encapsulates everything that made Penn great, both as an artist and an advertiser. At this point in his career, Penn was also clearly thinking of his advertising as art. He published these prints as a limited edition for sale to contemporary art collectors.
Dye Transfer Print - The Irving Penn Foundation