PRINT January 2010


Irving Penn

“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—Cahiers 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 Condé 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.” As for the shabby backdrops, he added, they were a leveling device that suggested equality and a common humanity.

I first met Penn in 1943, when he had begun to work at Vogue with my stepfather. Twelve years old at the time, I was instructed to call him “Uncle Irving,” and Uncle Irving he remained until his recent death. There was a great complicity between us: It had to do with our mutual distaste for the world of high fashion in which I was being raised, and through which he had initially found his fame. I ditched that world, and basked in Penn’s approval, by eventually marrying a man as reclusive as he and living a quiet country life. Penn saved his soul and became a great artist by documenting those areas of experience that were at the farthest possible remove from fashion. His quest for “authenticity,” a key word in Penn’s lexicon, led him to document the detritus of everyday life—street debris, cigarette butts, animals’ skulls and bones, and, later, in his “Small Trades” series of 1950–51, the workforce of the humblest vocations: bakers, butchers, fishmongers, chimney sweeps. (Penn’s stern insistence on authenticity could occasionally be costly. Once, when commissioned to shoot a set of wineglasses crashing to the floor, he insisted that only Baccarat be used. Since his method was to shoot dozens upon dozens of photos, a commensurate number of Baccarat glasses were thus sacrificed.)

In December 1948, at the end of a Vogue fashion shoot held in Peru, Penn embarked on the first of many self-imposed exiles that would provide an antidote to the “anorexic elegance,” as he put it, of women’s magazines. Instead of returning to New York for Christmas he bolted with his cameras for Cuzco, where he rented a small space in which he set out to photograph members of local Indian tribes. The beauty of the resulting series, images of Quechua Indians memorable for their hieratic dignity, deepened Penn’s need for frequent escapes from the world of fashion. He went on to document ethnic groups from all over the world—Cameroon, New Guinea, Nepal—posing his sitters against the stark white walls of the portable studios with which he traveled throughout four continents. (“Go to the other end of the world and bring me back something delectable for the Christmas issue,” Liberman instructed Penn every summer. “I’m saving you fourteen pages.”)

Over the years, Penn and Liberman became each other’s closest friends, although it was difficult for Penn to be “close” to my stepfather because of the two men’s totally different modi vivendi. Alex Liberman and my mother, the hat designer “Tatiana of Saks,” were phenomenally accomplished social climbers whose salon was the mecca of New York’s pushiest arrivistes; whereas the reclusive Penn was utterly indifferent to notoriety and status, and however deep his devotion to Alex, his puritanical streak led him to be highly disdainful of the Libermans’ social scrambling. Moreover, in 1950, he fulfilled his deepest needs by marrying the love of his life, the remarkable Swedish-born fashion model and artist Lisa Fonssagrives.

Lisa was one of the most affectionate women I’ve known, and the most serene. No great beauty of my acquaintance (and I met reams of them in my parents’ world) seemed less conscious of her magnificence, and none hugged a woman friend with more heartfelt tenderness. Whatever inner turmoils may have plagued Lisa were skillfully concealed, for she perpetually emanated benevolence, compassion, and radiant simplicity. She was a gifted artist in her own right, whose sculptures of polished bronze, perhaps most influenced by Arp, were exhibited at New York’s Marlborough Gallery. Like Penn, Lisa was very asocial, utterly centered on her family and her work (the Penns’ son, Tom, was born in 1952). Theirs was a utopian marriage: No other couple imparted a greater aura of felicity, or gave a stronger sense of being totally sufficient unto themselves. Every afternoon, upon finishing work, Penn fled to his home in Huntington, Long Island, an hour from Manhattan, to enjoy Lisa’s company and her marvelous cooking. It was nearly impossible for even their closest friends to invite them out for dinner—they were too addicted to being alone with each other. A few times a year they turned up at a New York party, graced it for twenty minutes with their perfect manners and kind smiles, and then left it, with an air of intense relief. Their summers were spent at Lisa’s family’s place, on an island off the northwest coast of Sweden, where both found the seclusion they cherished, and where Penn said he “recharged batteries” better than in any other place on earth.

Lisa retained some Swedish habits that could seem quirky to outsiders. Polly Mellen, long Vogue’s top fashion editor, tells of working with Penn during the Paris collections on a fashion shoot that began at six in the evening and did not end until ten the next morning. When it was over, Penn lay down flat on the floor, eyes closed. “Penn, are you all right?” Mellen inquired. “No, but I’m going home to Lisa and she’ll take care of me,” Penn whispered. Mellen reports that Lisa’s remedy was to immerse her husband in a bathtub filled with ice cubes, and asserts that the following day Penn felt “just fine.”

MY LAST LONG VISIT with Penn occurred eight years ago, a decade or so after Lisa’s death. At the age of eighty-four, ever in deep mourning for her, he was still putting in a ten-hour workday and had become even more reclusive than before, never accepting a dinner invitation, going to bed in the early evening hours to get twelve hours of sleep. His only diversions were to read a bit and watch baseball on television (he was an ardent, lifelong Yankees fan). He was completing two series of photographs of nudes that were about to be shown concurrently at the Metropolitan Museum and at the Whitney, an honor seldom if ever accorded to American artists in their lifetimes. These images of nudes were, once again, blatantly antithetical to the aesthetic of the fashion world: Unfettered paeans to the glory of abundant female flesh, they displayed distended breasts, robust limbs, and bellies of yeasty plumpness that occasionally recalled the primal majesty of archaic fertility idols.

As he readied himself for his exhibitions, Penn continued to work alone in his darkroom from Fridays to Mondays, and he spoke of the almost mystical elation offered him by this lonely, complex labor, which he referred to as “liquid birth.” “I want to keep on printing and printing,” he often said, “until something absolutely godly happens.”

Francine du Plessix Gray is an essayist, novelist, and biographer based in Warren, Connecticut.