The photography of Irving Penn.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Oct. 8 2009 12:09 PM

Irving Penn, RIP

He photographed the most important artists of the last half-century—and, in the process, joined their ranks.

Photographer Irving Penn died Wednesday morning in Manhattan at the age of 92. In February 2008, Philip Gefter profiled Penn, best known for his fashion photography and portraiture. The article is reprinted below.  

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.

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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 Fairand 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 VogueAlexander 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."

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