He photographed the most important artists of the last half-century—and in the process joined their ranks.
Irving Penn photographed so many prominent cultural figures of the 20th century that, over the years, he came to be regarded as an equal among them. But his stature grew not just because of his venerated subjects—he advanced the genre of portraiture. His formal rigor, graphic daring, and studied simplicity brought the portrait to a new level of representation. The rich, mottled tones with which he crafted his portraits are less about creating mood than about rendering pure physicality. With bold, contrasting light, he cast his accomplished subjects in nothing less than monumental terms—as if each one is chiseled, for the ages, in stone.
The 90-year-old photographer has been actively securing his own legacy in recent years, methodically placing bodies of his work in several important museum collections. In 2002, he donated 85 one-of-a-kind platinum prints to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the museum subsequently exhibited the work in a large show, "Irving Penn: Platinum Prints," in 2005. Earlier this month, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles announced their acquisition of 250 Penn prints from his blue-collar series of portraits called "The Small Trades." The museum purchased 125 of the prints, and Penn donated the rest. The same arrangement was made with the Morgan Library and Museum in New York last year; Penn donated 35 portraits, and they purchased an additional 32 for their collection, currently on display in the museum's inaugural exhibition of photographs.
It's fitting that the Morgan, known as a preserve for the very best of the humanities, would choose Penn's visual pantheon of arts and letters for its first photography show. Some of the greatest writers, artists, and musicians of the last half-century posed for Penn; among those in the Morgan show are W.H. Auden, Francis Bacon, Marcel Duchamp, Carson McCullers, Igor Stravinsky, and Tennessee Williams.
Penn is the natural heir to Cecil Beaton and Edward Steichen, both of whom photographed cultural figures central to the early half of the 20th century for Vanity Fair and other lavish publications of the day. Beaton and Steichen shared an element of theatricality in their portraiture. Each of them constructed for their subjects a public persona out of ambient lighting, elegant clothing, and props—chaise lounges, grand pianos, bouquets of flowers, swank cigarette holders. But while Penn followed in the footsteps of Beaton and Steichen, he established a style all his own. Penn, for the most part, banished the accoutrements. He relied on manner, attitude, and countenance to represent a subject's legacy.
At the beginning of his career, Penn would not have gained access to such a significant group of artists and writers without his affiliation to Vogue. Alexander Liberman hired Penn to work for Vogue in 1943, initially as an art director. Within a year, however, Penn had published his first cover photograph for the magazine, and his career as a photographer was launched.
Penn made this portrait of Jean Cocteau during a 1948 trip to Paris for Vogue. Each thread of Cocteau's tie, vest, and suit is etched in light and shadow; the patterns and the texture pop out in vivid, tactile detail. The drape of his coat over an extended arm adds drama and balance to the composition. Cocteau is dressed in the sartorial attire of a dandy, which, by all accounts, he was. There is an air of flamboyance about him, until you look at his face. His dead-serious expression registers the fierce intelligence of a keen observer, as if he is taking our measure while deigning to allow us to take his.
Penn believed that the portraitist must appear as a servant to the sitter, nurturing and encouraging the sitter's self-revelation. At the same time, he once told a reporter that while many photographers consider the subject to be the client, "my client is the woman in Kansas who reads Vogue. I'm trying to intrigue, stimulate, feed her. My responsibility is to the reader. The severe portrait that is not the greatest joy in the world to the subject may be enormously interesting to the reader."
One of his severest portraits was of French novelist Colette, whom he shot in her apartment in Paris in 1951. Her third husband, Maurice Goudeket, wrote in his 1956 memoir that Colette "had an astonishing and revelatory forehead. She knew it and never agreed to show it." Goudeket was shocked when he saw Penn's portrait of her in Vogue. "Her forehead was almost entirely open to view. It was huge, meaningful, touched with genius. It was a startling image, but it was also an act of treachery, an intrusion upon her inmost being. It laid bare all that Colette liked to conceal—and doubtless something about herself of which not even she was aware."
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.