Magazine article Artforum International

An Eye to Authenticity: Francine Du Plessix Gray on Irving Penn (1917-2009)

Magazine article Artforum International

An Eye to Authenticity: Francine Du Plessix Gray on Irving Penn (1917-2009)

Article excerpt

"TURN YOUR HEAD A TINY BIT TO THE LEFT. ... Good, but a little higher ... Yes yes, a little higher still ... " Click.

"Now what would happen if you'd put your hand to your left cheek? Not that far up, a bit lower ... the index right on the jawline ... There, yes there, great!" Click.

"Could we try the same with the head much lower ..."

I'm posing for Irving Penn, and once again everything hurts. As I follow his directives I know that by the end of the day--no sitting I've ever had with Penn lasted less than two hours--the great ache spreading down my neck and across my shoulders will only be allayed by several aspirin and a very long hot bath. How odd, I mused when I first posed for him as a teenager, to associate this gentlest, most benevolent of men with pain. Well, not so strange, I came to realize some years later, when I posed for him as a young bride, and again as a grown-up writer. The pain we endured when posing for Penn was the price of that steely quest for perfection that made him one of the past century's greatest photographers: Penn's monastic dedication to his art could make him despotic.

A slender fellow of middling height, he was nice looking rather than handsome. The gaze of his pale blue eyes blended a Quaker-like gentleness with inquisitorial severity. He was a very private, laconic man, and his manner was so modest and self-effacing that many a sitter initially mistook him for a studio assistant. In Plainfield, New Jersey, where he was born and raised, his father had been a watchmaker and his mother a nurse. During his four years at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, where he studied to be a painter, he grew close to his favorite teacher, Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director of Harper's Bazaar. Studying with Brodovitch into the evening hours and often sleeping on his living room sofa, Penn received the better part of his art education by perusing his mentor's French magazines--Cabiers d'art, Verve, Minotaure--through which he came to know the artists, foremost among them de Chirico, whose work most deeply influenced him.

Penn finished art school in 1938, worked briefly as art director of Saks Fifth Avenue, and spent time in Mexico to test his talents as a painter (with negative results); he was then hired by my stepfather, another notable Russian-born art director, Alexander Liberman, to work at Vogue. Penn's original assignment was to think up ideas for Vogue covers. However, the photographers to whom he presented his suggestions--Beaton, Horst, Rawlings--kept turning down his ideas. So Liberman, who had a prescient eye for artists' latent talents, suggested that Penn take those photos himself, and gave him a studio adjoining the Conde Nast offices. The resulting pictures turned out to be the most groundbreaking images of the 1940s. They were distinguished by Penn's fastidiously premeditated compositions and his highly innovative methods of printing, which involved a turn-of-the-century process relying on platinum instead of the more conventional silver, thereby producing prints of far greater permanence. He sometimes tested more than one hundred varieties of paper to find the right texture for a certain image. In some instances he massively overexposed his prints in order to render images that were nearly black, then placed them into bleaching solutions composed of various combinations of potassium permanganate, ferricyanide, and sulfuric acid, procedures that led to effects closely akin to those of engraving and lithography.


With Liberman's support, Penn's career blossomed. His audacious fashion photos, the crystalline limpidity of his still lifes, and his brutally raw portraits of glamorous celebrities wedged into the corner, of scruffy backdrops greatly extended the boundaries of photography. The portraits, initially, were controversial. When asked why he chose to thus confine the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Marcel Duchamp, or place tattered carpets at their feet, he replied that limiting his subjects' movements was a way of "holding on to them. …

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