By Katie Miller
Flip. Flip. Flip. I’m flipping back through a glossy Vogue, holding the magazine in one hand and slowly releasing my thumb to reveal new pages. I’m not reading the magazine. Just looking. Then something stops me. It’s a closeup of a dark eye with turquoise glittered lashes staring out at me. Something so strange and so ordinary at the same time that I can’t help but pause and look.
Today, many people recognize the models and celebrities who grace (and have graced) the covers of Vogue, but not as much is known about the people who stand behind the camera. Enter Irving Penn. I admit that before last week I had no clue who Irving Penn was. That was until I spent my Friday night at the Dallas Museum of Art, exploring the fashion photographer’s work and immersing myself in his contributions to fashion.
Fashion really found its place in society in the first half of the 20th century with “an explosion of the middle class,” said Randall Griffin, interim chair of art history and university distinguished professor at SMU. So,too, did a budding Irving Penn. Merry Foresta, guest curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and one of the guest speakers at the DMA event, gave an extensive overview of Penn’s life titled “Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty.” Speaking in a dimly lit lecture hall to a crowd of students and young Dallas professionals, she explained, “Penn was a modernist with the strain of the surrealist.”
He began the way most did, as an amateur photographer. Foresta explained that Penn later attended a technical school in Philadelphia where he met his professor and mentor, Alexey Brodovitch. Brodovitch was the art director at Harper’s Bazaar at the time and took young Penn under his wing. Penn was appointed art director at Saks Fifth Avenue at just 23 years old before leaving the role to work as an assistant for Alex Liberman, the art director at Vogue. From there, Liberman asked Penn to help with photography at Vogue. And just like that, Penn became a fashion photographer. He would go on to shoot over 155 covers for the magazine.
Throughout his life, Penn dabbled in painting and art photography as well. He did a series of still lifes, a series of nudes, a series focusing on the American South, and a series on San Francisco youth, among many others. He even dabbled in the advertising photography realm later in his life with work for brands like Clinique and Birds Eye. Penn was not about to be pigeon-holed as a “fashion photographer.” He wanted desperately to be an artist. Foresta discussed a year-long trip that Penn took to Mexico to paint. This was Penn’s attempt to establish himself as an artist. As Penn finds his bearings and gains confidence in himself as an artist, his photographs gain confidence as well, Foresta said.
Griffin explained that early in the century, fashion photography was considered by some, including well-known New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, to be reprehensible. Fashion photography was made for a client, for commercial use. There was a feeling that art should not be intertwined with daily life, Griffin said. Penn was not merely a fashion photographer. He was an artist. “Penn was experimenting. He was an innovator,” Griffin said.
Foresta echoed this as she took the audience through a series of his photos. She noted Penn’s ability to add “poison” to each photo, an imperfection that draws you in and makes you want whatever is in the photo. It’s the crumpled toothpaste bottle in a Clinique add or a deconstructed studio with an un-posed model or a bug hiding on a sack of flour in a still life.
Penn was a sucker for a deconstructed studio. Most of his editorial photos for magazines were taken in studios but revealed the underpinnings of the studio itself. Griffin said in a way Penn may have been “playing with trope” of an earlier photographic portrait tradition in which the subject would stand in front of a canvas for extended periods of time.
“I’m not sure if he is thinking about that or for instance synthetic cubism where you have something very illusionist and then something next to it that’s flat,” Griffin said.
“Penn is a great artist because it’s ultimately about form. He transcended the limitation of the genre,” Griffin said. “More often you see very straightforward high-end fashion photography that [it] tends to be uninteresting formally.”
Debora Hunter, associate professor of photography at SMU and an artist herself, said the way Penn structured his images shows he is “basically an incredible graphic designer.” She notes that Penn took great pride in developing his own photos, an uncommon practice in the world of editorial. He controlled the process and did all of his dark room work and color work himself. “The quality of the printing [was] never going to be as beautiful in a magazine…but it could have been worse. He could have seen it on news print.”
Penn was all about contrast. Tracy Achor Hayes, editorial director at Neiman Marcus, references a black and white photo of Penn’s model wife, Lisa Fonssagrives, wearing a black-and-white checkered gown. “It’s all about contrast. It’s all about the black and white. The dark brows against almost ivory skin,” she said.
Penn’s ability to deconstruct images by creating the unexpected helped keep the magazine industry afloat. A shoe in a hand or a bee on lips were seen as “stoppers” in magazines. These stoppers were a way of arresting the eye and kept readers reading.
“In a way, Penn is an example of an artist who does things that are so . . . astonishing that they can’t question it’s a work of art,” Griffin said.
One of Penn’s most famous stoppers was toward the end of his career. The photo was of a mannequin head that he put makeup on and then froze in a block of ice and smashed with a hammer. This image is the definition of a stopper. The smashing of the idea of beauty.
Tracy Hayes points out that stoppers, like this one, paved the way for today’s fashion photography. “Now clothes are created only to be photographed for the runway. To create desire and conversation. Not meant for ordinary humans,” she said. “Everything is more niche now.”