Irving-Penn-Dog-Prague- 1986 -by -The-Irving-Penn-Foundation-courtesy-Hamiltons-Gallery-London-Creative-Mapping-Tribute
Irving Penn – Photographer, Icon
How do you begin to pay tribute to an icon like photographer Irving Penn? Of course there’s the work (more on that shortly), but it has to be said that there are some people in life who are marked out for difference from an early age… something about them, an energy, a certain charisma that sets them apart from the crowd. It’s hard to summarise in words, but it exists nonetheless – and Irving Penn had that magic quality in abundance which he conveyed so beautifully in his simple, stark works. And Penn didn’t need words – he showed the world who he was with his images – images that have the unquestionable mark of a creative genius, and the sensitivity of a man who feels as deeply as he thinks and pours all the power of that into his photographs which transmitted the essence of who Penn was to everyone who saw them.
“I myself have always stood in awe of the camera. I recognize it for the instrument it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel.”
Irving Penn (June 16, 1917 – October 7, 2009)
Irving Penn would have been 97 years of age this June – the same month the Hamiltons Gallery in London is presenting Penn’s Cranium Architecture exhibition from 19 June – 13 September 2013, giving the public a rare chance to see some of this astounding photographer’s more unusual later works; a study of animal skulls from the Narodno National Museum in Prague. No matter the size of the animal – from giraffes to gorillas to hippos – Penn photographed them all the same size on a simple white background. Each skull is seen as a unique creation that houses that most revered of living organs – the brain – which defines every living creature. Cranium Architecture is the largest exposition of this particular series for over two decades. Irving Penn was a man of few words, but of this particular subject matter he said: ‘An exquisite edifice of living machine. Hard chambers of bone to guard soft organs, protected conduits and channels.’ Life made into poetry – creative alchemy – which was always Penn’s strength both as a photographer and as a human being.
Irving Penn had originally intended to become a painter and artist, but after spending a year painting and taking photographs in Mexico and across the US, life took an unexpected turn when at 26 he got a job helping to design photographic covers for Vogue. It wasn’t long before Penn gravitated towards his weapon of choice – the camera – and began photography. Very quickly he established himself as a fashion photographer of note. And the work he loved brought to him a real life love when in 1950 he married the first supermodel, Lisa Fonssagrives, a Swedish model he featured in much of his best fashion work – and the woman who gave a fashion education to Penn who, by his own admittance, started out not knowing Balenciago from a baseball player.
Irving Penn became one of the twentieth century’s great artists with a style so uniquely his that it earned its own “aesthetic copyright,” as Vogue put it, by 1948—when this unassuming man had been working for the magazine for just three years. But Vogue was indeed a turning point in Penn’s destiny with whom he had a loving a relationship that lasted a staggering seven decades —and a produced even more staggering 158 magazine covers!!
Penn’s style was simple, beautiful – and powerful in its impact. His brother, film and theatre director Arthur Penn (best known for Bonnie and Clyde and nominated for three Oscars), felt his success was down to his “merciless but unencumbered eye.” And it’s true – in the sense that Penn’s work was raw, real, honest – yet at the same time found overwhelming beauty in all of his subjects, whether it’s the perfect model, or a the skull of a gorilla as in the Cranium Architecture exhibition. Is beauty subjective? Yes. And no. Penn certainly made us doubt any prior convictions we may have had on whether a subject was beautiful or not.
His portrait subjects are legendary for being some of the greatest photographic works of the 20th Century and in fact included many of the greatest creative talents of the 20th Century; Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, Marcel Duchamps, Jean Cocteau, Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Kate Moss, Gisele, Al Pacino, Nicole Kidman, Richard Avedon, Truman Capote, Colette, Isabella Rosselini, Linda Evangelista and countless, countless others.
Penn had a gift with his portrait subjects, a way of bringing out some hidden aspect of their character, and in doing so, this notoriously modest man, known for his trademark sneakers, rather than expensive shoes, revealed something of himself. Irving Penn’s infamous portrait style saw him placing his subject in the studio, with simple pared down props and little other visual distraction to enable an intense connection between subject and the photographer.
But Penn’s work transcended fame and fashion as subjects. His passion for life attracted him to spectacular travel essays and ethnographic photographs from around the world, still lifes of food, bottles, metal, discovered objects and – of course – bones, including the skulls that make up Cranium Architecture. Penn’s passion for life was his compass, he didn’t judge in where he found beauty.
Penn was a genuine living legend and he rightly became an icon. He was honoured with the acclaimed Hasselblad Award in Photography and his work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Tate Modern in London. But more importantly, Penn showed us that if we follow our passions – our work will live on after us.
*Photography 1986 © by The Irving Penn Foundation, courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London