Feature

Irving Penn

2017 marks the anniversary of Irving Penn’s birth date. The master image-maker defined studio photography in the 20th century and beyond, a legacy which the Grand Palais in Paris pays homage to with a grand retrospective.

by Siska Lyssens

Fashion was Irving Penn’s springboard. The glamorous worlds of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue in which he worked from the 30’s through to the 50’s – after which he founded his own studio in New York – were the creative hotbeds in which the American photographer could give full rein to his passions: his love for simplicity of composition and his cultivation of intimacy with the characters he took as his subject. 

From left: Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn in a Rochas Mermaid dress. Paris, 1950. Copyright: Condé Nast. Truman Capote. New York, 1948. Copyright: The Irving Penn Foundation. Glove and Shoe. New York 1947. Copyright: Condé Nast. 

The fashion spreads and portraits he produced during those early days have become iconic in their starkness and poise, which are indebted to Modernism. Often in white, black and grey, with an emphasis on the texture and structure of the elements within the frame – say pearls and feathers, smoke and reflective surfaces, shiny jewellery and matte fabric – his work in fashion remains incredibly influential.

Penn’s seventy-year career, though widely loved for its fashion aspect, used his impeccable eye for still life as well. Commissioned by the likes of Vogue, Penn produced his modern version of the still life, employing beauty products carefully arranged and sometimes destroyed, and blown-up images of flowers.
Still Life with Watermelon. New York, 1947. Copyright: Condé Nast. Mouth (for L'Oréal). New York, 1986. Copyright: The Irving Penn Foundation. Still Life with Watermelon. New York 1947. Copyright: Condé Nast. 
 
These Flower series, testament to Penn’s extraordinary vision and sensibility for form, pattern and tone, are arguably Penn’s most timeless, and their delicate aesthetic leans closely toward contemporary minimalist photography. We zoom in on this aspect of Penn’s photographic genius by asking two creative minds, each on opposite sides of the lens, for their view on the modern master’s oeuvre.

Thierry Boutémy

French florist based in Brussels, who has collaborated with Dries Van Noten, Sofia Coppola and Mario Testino.

Has Irving Penn's work had an influence on you?
He influences me like other artists who are searching for the literal identity of the flower. Since I was a child, I’ve been interested by flowers in different media, poetry, cinema, and photography.

What do Penn’s Flower series evoke for you?
A research of the absolute, of going into depth without any superficiality. I'm interested in flowers in all their representations: from natural to virtual. What I like about Penn’s Flower series is his psychological reading of the flower.

Does it correspond with how you see flowers or how you aim to represent them? 
Yes, in their fragility and texture, grain and sensuality and death. I love dead flowers, the research of death in nature. Penn looks for the identity of the flowers as he does his research into the identity of his human subjects. With Penn, we are doing a ‘second reading’ of the flower. It’s no longer only for their ornamental function but more for their own identity. He photographs the flower’s textural realities: we can feel the grain and its fragility. Penn treats the flower like human skin, without artifice.

Photography by Pierre Debusschere.
Photography by Frederik Vercruysse. 

Frederik Vercruysse

Antwerp-based photographer and CarréCouture collaborator whose still life work has appeared in quality titles such as T: Magazine and Wallpaper*.

When did you first discover Irving Penn’s work, and how did it impact you?
Like many people, I had known Irving Penn’s work before I realized who he was. He’s a true classic, whom I really got to know at the academy where I studied photography.

Is there an aspect of Penn’s work that has special meaning for you?
I’m a fan of his corner portraits in particular. These portraits of celebrities are very straightforward, very simple, but simultaneously complex. The lighting is not elaborate but very clever, and he uses a plain background to achieve a fuss-free aesthetic and psychological tension. The images are definitely staged, but at the same time they are sincere. I believe that Penn is one of the only portrait photographers who succeeds in showing the psyche of his sitters.
 
What do his Flower series evoke for you?
I’ve never seen the Flower series in the flesh, only in the book, which is printed in extraordinary quality. It interests me mainly because I, too, aim to photograph very carefully, with attention to minute details. Finding the right light, balancing background and sitter, using no special effects, just beauty in all its purity. I think Penn taught many people to appreciate the beauty of a flower in decay, or in an imperfect state, while using his talent for finding an unparalleled simplicity in something as intricate as a close-up of a flower.