Irving Penn died yesterday, the last of the great men fashion photographers of the mid-20th Century. Newton and Avedon each died in 2004. Lillian Bassman is still around; but she doesn't shoot. Here's why Penn's aesthetic will be missed:
This October, 1943, cover, was Penn's first work for Vogue. He had only recently begun to work as an assistant to Alex Liberman, after failing to find himself as a painter. (Women's Wear Daily reports that when Penn gave up on his artist dreams, he "washed the paint from his canvases and kept them as table linens.") Liberman liked Penn, despite his lack of photographic experience, so he asked him to start suggesting cover concepts; Penn shot this with borrowed equipment. It's almost impossible to imagine a Vogue cover of today coming out of such spontaneity of talent.
Penn's best photographs have a timeless quality. There is a deep stillness in this 1949 image, "Summer Sleep," and an abstracted intimacy. Some of the photographer's best work was only published decades after he shot it.
His nude series is a perfect example. Penn wanted to step away from fashion, so in 1949, he went to Port-au-Prince, and started taking pictures of artists' models, instead of fashion models. "Nude 70" was shot during this period, and exhibited at the Met in 2002. Penn's work was, more than anything else, always about light and space, which he used as uncanny tools for describing the relationships between things.
Whereas Newton was raunchy and dark, and Avedon was frothy and light, Penn was more intensely interested in his subjects; he could even humanize the gaze of a dismembered turkey's eye. You can trace a fairly direct line of influence from Helmut Newton to Steven Klein, and from Richard Avedon to Stephen Meisel. If you're looking for echoes of Penn in contemporary fashion photography, you can often find the same sense of stillness, of precision, and of beauty rather than prettiness, in the work of Paolo Roversi and Sarah Moon.
And unlike a lot of artists, Irving Penn kept producing good work into his old age. This still life was published in 1999; while his exacting photos were seen less and less frequently in the pages of Vogue over the last few years, the ones that were published — like that anthropomorphized bird — were stop-in-your-tracks beautiful.
He may never have made it as a painter. But he did become an artist.