Irving Penn – Still Life

Fig. 01 Router Plane,  from a series My Dad's Stuff - 1/160 at f/16, less 1/3 stop, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Router Plane, from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/160 at f/16, less 1/3 stop, ISO 100

On the recommendation of my tutor I acquired a copy of Irving Penn’s book Still Life *(1). Penn supervised the collation of this book and, as such, it is a revealing representation of his work. Penn is not the easiest photographer to pin down to a specific category because so much of his work was commercial and most notably for Vogue magazine from 1943 until his last contribution in 2007.

In his introduction to Sill Life John Szarkowski points out that, as a genre, still life offers the artist the greatest level of control. It is one of the few subjects where the artist controls the subject as well as the lighting, exposure, framing and final presentation. Szarkowski *(1) suggests that still life is unique in that its history is only a history of art, any other set of Iriving Penn photographs could be partly seen as a history of fashion, or of the changing landscape, or of the people who feature in his most famous work. When we look at still lifes and Irving Penn’s still lifes in particular we are reminded of the early photographers such as Fox-talbot and Daguerre and of the vast number of painters who preceded them. Like many of these artists Penn take humble subjects, pays them great attention through his approach and creates artistic representations that might alter the viewers preconceptions of that object or might just make us feel better by seeing something simple presented as beauty.

My research suggests that Penn was not a man who talked much about his work so it is not clear whether his commercial career was being parodied by his personal work or whether he saw them as quite separate streams or whether one just bled into the other. He is described as a prolific and incredibly hard working photographer who would often spend his days photographing for Vogue or Harpers Bazaar and his nights working on his own projects. Often his day job was to make the mundane beautiful or to empathise and express the obvious beauty in his subject yet in his private work he time and time again selects ordinary everyday items and creates beautiful pictures by exploring the colours, textures, shapes and forms in his elegant, minimalist still lifes.  In many ways his two worlds seem closely entwined. Fashion might appear to be an obvious channel for still life photography as stylish photographs of cosmetics, shoes and fashion accessories are now common place but Szarkowski *(1) tells us that before Penn’s first Vogue cover in 1943 he can find no copies of the magazine that feature still life in any meaningful way so, it might be said, that Penn created the first bridge between artistic still life seeped with the heritage of painting and commercial still life.

Penn is one of a significant group of photographers who are recognised as artists as well as reaching the pinnacle  of commercial photography, David Bailey would be another, and there is a common ground between them, perhaps in part because Penn was an established senior photographer at Vogue when Bailey was first making his name at the same magazine.

In their fashion and portrait photography, both Penn and Bailey had an economic style that concentrates attention on the subject and expresses their empathy with the models. When working in the world of high fashion they presented their models as women not mannequins, interestingly they both married their favourite  model, and their fashion photographs have outlasted the product they promoted leaving images of the people inside the clothes. Bailey describes his portrait style as not having one, that he was seeking “very sophisticated passport pictures” but neither his nor Penn’s style are easy to copy because their ability to see and capture the essence of the person is a highly tuned skill.

Penn said “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 dares to believe.” *(2) This could also be said of his still lifes where many of the subjects are “more wonderful” that we dare to believe.

Whether Penn felt constrained by his highly successful commercial career is a matter of conjecture but it is easy to interpret his private projects as counterpoints to the fashion industry’s obsession with youth and packaged beauty. Another easy answer to many of the photographs in Still Life or his Cranium Architecture *(3) series is that Penn was communicating by using the traditional motifs of vanitas and momento mori. Whatever his motivation might have been we are offered a remarkable collection of images in Still Life that lead us to much larger series along a variety of themes.

My perspective on the photographs in this book has changed over the last two weeks as I have been working on test shoots of assignment 4. It is only by trying to create a compelling still life that one realises that this is a highly challenging art form. As Szarkowski *(1) says, this is probably the only form of photography where the photographer has complete control over the choice and presentation of subject, the lighting, the technical aspects of the picture taking and the post production whilst this excites the artist and draws many to the form, equally it leaves the photographer nowhere to hide. This is photography with no excuses other than a shortfall of skill in one or more areas.

Penn’s range of subjects and approaches was very wide. Stationary, found objects, “classic” food ingredients including raw, frozen and cooked, vanitas motifs including musical instruments, skulls and dice, constructed sets which are best described as sculptures and many subjects linked to the fashion industry of which he was a part. There are common stylistic themes such as a simplicity of lighting and an elegance of set design combined with a formal complexity in his composition but over the many years represented by this book he switched back and forth between black and white and colour, between an emphasis on texture, a focus on shape and form and exercises in colour.

He asks us questions to which we may never know the answers. Does his extensive series of, what we would call dog-ends, represent a cycle of life from neat unused items in a pack to used and discarded rubbish in the gutter to being re-organised and painstakingly lit and photographed? Are his flowers symbolic of the fragility of nature and life or did he just see the opportunity to undertake intense studies of form and colour ? He said of the seven studies of a single type of flower each year that his lack of horticultural knowledge gave him the freedom to concentrate on colour and form and this might be the key to his work.

I sense that his still lifes were a form of release where not only did he gain the complete control of the image that would have, to some degree, been lacking in his professional career he also was able to photograph subjects, to use Eggleston’s idea, to simply see what they looked like photographed. His education and knowledge of the history of photography and art meant that vanitas motifs were naturally introduced into his sets but there may not have been a strong moralistic message.

The nearest I came to gaining an insight to his ideas was this quote: “A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”

In the context of preparing for assignment 4 it was helpful to look at his work and try to understand how he used lighting to emphasise one or more element of each subject.

In Lavender Glory, Poppy, Vogue, 1968, *(4) , he lights a soft object with hard light against a white background to emphasise texture with deep shadows in the petal creases. It is interesting that he accepts a quite de-saturated finish with this photograph but approaches Rose, Color Wonder, Vogue, 1970, *(5), quite differently with strong colours and plenty of depth to the partially opened rose so obviously lit for colour and form.

Ripe Cheese, Vogue, 1992, *(6) is lit from above and in front for colour.

The key point is that Penn saw properties in his subjects that defined the subject so he arranged his lighting and exposure to concentrate on that property. As I have worked through test shoots for assignment 4 I have been frustrated by the idea that we should use a single subject and light it to bring out different properties. Whilst I would in no other way compare myself to Irving Penn I suspect he might have shared this frustration. In Lavender Glory he sees wonderful texture and invests himself in bringing out that feature, the apple and the cheese offer him a captivating colour contrast in Ripe Cheese so that is what he concentrates on. I do not believe that he would have then considered lighting the cheese and apple as a silhouette because that would have been pointless.

Sources

Books

(1) Penn, Irving. (2001) Sill Life. Boston: Bullfinch Press

Internet

Vogue Archives. Irving Penn: Uncommon Elegance – http://www.vogue.com/culture/article/irving-penn-uncommon-elegance/#1

Masters of Photography – Irving Penn – http://www.masters-of-photography.com/P/penn/penn_articles2.html

(3) Hamilton’s Gallery – Irving Penn – http://www.hamiltonsgallery.com/artists/27-Irving-Penn/series/cranium-architecture/

New York Times – Photographer Who Broke Molds – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/25/arts/25iht-photog25.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

(2) Hodgson, Francis. (2013) The Quizzical Chamois: Irving Penn’s Cranium Architecture – http://francishodgson.com/tag/irving-penn/?blogsub=confirmed#blog_subscription-2

(4) Pace Macgill Gallery – Irving Penn http://www.pacemacgill.com/selected_works/detailspage.php?artist=Irving%20Penn&img_num=123

(5) Christies – Irving Penn – http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/photographs/irving-penn-rose-colour-wonder-london-1970-5494381-details.aspx

(6) We Are Selectors – Irving Penn – http://weareselecters.com/2013/10/Irving-Penn-On-Assignment/

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