“Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world. …Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe.“
So said Irving Penn, one of America’s most celebrated photographers, a prolific artist whose work crossed the boundaries of fashion and art, and one of the major image-makers of the past century.
During his 70-year plus career, Penn’s work as a photographer spanned everything from still life to fashion, advertising to portraits, lurching from the experimental to the everyday and crossing almost every aspect in between. He is credited with being one of the first photographers who showed his medium to be as powerful as that of art, producing photographs every bit as iconic as paintings. Art critics have referred to him as classical and minimal, his technique as restrained. No matter what he turned his lens to, however, there remained an instantly recognizable factor in his work. Known for his signature stripped back sets and simple backdrops as well as his often black and white, highly contrasted images, his subjects – be they film stars, street scenes or still life – stand stark and angular. The lack of anything else featured seems to highlight their character – there is quite simply nothing to hide behind in an Irving Penn portrait.
Born in 1917, Penn wasn’t always going to be a photographer. He studied drawing and graphics at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art before finding himself as the assistant to the art director at Saks Fifth Avenue. From there he moved to the art department of Vogue, working on layouts. Soon he transferred to photography, and so started the dominant professional relationship of his career. Throughout his sixty-year plus tenure shooting for the magazine, Penn shot over 150 covers, countless ground breaking fashion stories and almost every major face of each decade under his watch. Whether his shots were of the 1950’s French model Bettina in her nipped in skirt suit, of 90’s super Cindy Crawford with her beach hair, of a naked Marisa Berenson dripping in gold or of the likes of Amber Valetta and Nadja Auermann, his images for the magazine zone in on their subjects’ strength and personality, and they more than stand the test of time. Some of the first images he ever took for the magazine whilst on his first assignment in Paris in 1950 feature his long time collaborator and wife Lisa Fonssagrives. In ‘Woman with Flowers,’ one of his most famous, you find an energy and use of fashion as a form of expression that make her as much a woman of now as she was of then. At KOTUR we are always interested in style that is rooted in substance, in the sort of presence that comes from personality and fashion that is about more than the clothes we put on. For these reasons straight off we find Penn’s photographs hugely inspiring to see.