Irving Penn, Nude No. 106, 1949–50, black-and-white photograph, 14 3/4 x 17 5/8".

Irving Penn

Whitney Museum of American Art

In 1991, more than forty years after he had completed his first nudes, Irving Penn declared: “The relationship between us was professional, without a hint of sexual response. Anything else would have made pictures like these impossible.”

In 2001 Penn said of the same sessions, “It was a kind of love affair. I was a bachelor at the time.” He recalled staying connected to the models “with coos, murmurs, and supportive breathing to convey that everything was wonderful, just right in this perfect situation.” He would get down on the floor with his camera right next to the model. The camera allowed “our discovery, together, of each other.”

Will the real Irving Penn please stand up?

Maybe the real Penn is to be found not by sorting out his feelings, or for that matter his taste in body types—fleshy (like his nude models) or svelte (like his Vogue models, including the one he married, Lisa Fonssagrives).

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