Speaking Volumes: Sit Up and Take Notice!


Irving Penn has had one of the most remarkable careers in American photography. At the height of a pioneering and quite lucrative period spent in the Valhalla of the fashion world, when he, along with the late Richard Avedon, was creating – then recreating – the standards for the industry, he stepped back and began a series of portraits so startling in their psychological acuity that they made the world sit up and take notice.

Though Penn has always been mute about his motivation, it would seem to have been double-edged. It came apparently from a sense of not being taken seriously by the critical establishment. There also seemed a certain unease on his part about the tenor of his early work, as if it had been merely surface with no substance, and that having dwelt in the province of mammon for too long, he needed to discover what was real about himself and the world around him.

Moving beyond the halls of fashion, he went to the most far-flung of places, traveling to New Guinea, for example, and inviting Tambul warriors and other tribespeople into his studio, photographing them against the plainest of backgrounds. Or he went to Camaroon and Morocco, and shot the indigenous peoples.

When he eventually made his way back to New York, he began looking underfoot, and took intense close-ups of the refuse humans leave in their wake: cigarette butts, flattened pieces of chewing gum, discarded coffee cups, pieces of paper blackened with soot.

He then reinhabited the world of beauty for a time, shooting in color, and again, in intense close-ups, all sorts of flowers, deeply striated tulips especially. Then he turned to still-lives made up of different sorts of refuse: old tools, blocks of wood, bones – even skulls.

In these photos, his camera was far more ruthless than it was when he wielded it in the fashion world. It seemed he now wished to ignore all beauty, and instead look for every wrinkle and blemish on faces and in the urban terrain.

But the link between both arenas of his creative life is that the artist never flinched and always sought the truth, no matter what he came to feel about his earliest fashion photos, the majority of which graced the pages of Vogue. The unflinching gaze that marks his work – whether he's photographing Picasso or a wad of gum – is always balanced by a natural sense of composition and framing. The angles he finds always come as a shock, but have an inevitability that make them instant classics.

All of Penn's preoccupations are on display in Irving Penn: Platinum Prints, just published by Yale University Press.

In the 1960s, when the photographer left the magazine world, he began the process of platinum printing, and then reimagined many of his most famous images in this process. This book is one of Penn's most breathtaking – and that's saying a great deal, for every one of his earlier volumes was produced to the highest standards.

Platinum has an added layer of resonance.

Because of the new hues lent to long-familiar photos, there's the sense of a great life re-envisioned – one that we've been granted entry to for the very first time. u



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