He photographed the most important artists of the last half-century—and in the process joined their ranks.
Back in New York that same year, Mr. Penn devised a backdrop for portraits in his downtown studio by placing two tall stage flats together to create a narrow corner in which to photograph his subjects. Penn invented the corner, he has said, because he felt unequal to his famed subjects. Perhaps the novel backdrop had associations to his youth, when students were made to stand in a corner as punishment for misbehaving in class. Whatever the inspiration, it was clearly designed to give the photographer the upper hand during these sittings.
It's easy to imagine that Penn's subjects might have felt backed into that corner and thrown off guard. Truman Capote, for example, hardly the shrinking violet, wrapped himself in his coat and stood on a chair—cloaked, beseeching, trapped. Georgia O'Keeffe was uncomfortable in the corner. She later felt that Penn's portrait diminished her in the space, and she hated it. She asked him to destroy it. He refused.
Surprisingly, given the artistic accomplishments of the people he photographed, Penn wasn't one to study the work of his subjects before he shot them. Responding to a question sent in an e-mail about how he prepared for his sittings, he wrote: "A knowledge of a sitter's artistic accomplishments generally contributed flavor to the sitting but was not absolutely necessary." Nor did he offer his sitters much in the way of instruction. Penn was not known to direct people or to make small talk, though he once admitted to asking his sitters on occasion: "What does it feel like to realize that this eye looking at you is the eye of 1,200,000 people?"
In a published description of his 1957 session with Picasso in Cannes, France, Mr. Penn said he considered the artist "a great presence, deeply aware of his own image, he peered silently at the reflection of his head in the camera's lens, occasionally altering the attitude." Picasso's penetrating eye resides at the center of Mr. Penn's portrait of the artist, elegantly framed between the lines of his hat and coat as the rest of his face recedes in shadow. The frame, divided into sections, bares the geometric abstraction of the artist's Cubist period. That Picasso was scrutinizing his own reflection in the lens of Penn's camera is a delicious detail. We are given a true glimpse of his focused concentration, as if he were indeed peering intently into our eyes.
Of course, for every Picasso there is a Braque, for every Pollock, a de Kooning. Penn, too, was not alone at the top of his profession. Richard Avedon also worked for Mr. Liberman at Vogue. The rival photographers vied for pages, position, and subject matter. They even occasionally made portraits of the same people. While the two of them kept upping the ante in terms of imagination, style, and technique, each one succeeded in establishing a distinct visual signature. Avedon distilled the picture frame to nothing but his subject against a white backdrop—wrinkles, bad teeth, and all.
Penn simplified the picture frame, too, but he used light in sculptural terms. Penn's photograph of Philip Roth recalls Rodin's The Thinker, or, even, his majestic Balzac. You can study the lines of Roth's face, as if for clues about the syntax of his sentences. The curls in Colette's hair suggest the way her ideas bristle. The bulbous shape of Francis Bacon's face echoes the forms in his paintings. Penn may not have made himself a student of his subjects, but he must have known exactly who his subjects were and the extent of their accomplishments. Their stature is what he always seems to render with an uncanny eye to history—theirs, and, perhaps, his own.
Philip Gefter, formerly of the New York Times, is working on a biography of Sam Wagstaff. A book of his essays, Photography After Frank, was recently published. He writes a column on photography for the Daily Beast.