IRVING PENN: BEYOND BEAUTY By Sandra Castillo

A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it.  –Irving Penn   

 

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The image is cast in contrasting lights and shadows, its stunning reflection an amalgamation of taffeta and a touch of flesh for fantasy. The human mannequin, holding the arresting pose, composes herself as live architecture supported by lines of contortion and angles, which seem nearly impossible to have achieved without some sort of assistance.  

The woman standing in the half-light was the epicenter of his heart and soul, his divinity, his muse. When Lisa Fonssagrives and Irving Penn met on assignment during a photo session in France, something extraordinary happened. The genesis of a longstanding collaboration began, and soon afterwards, they fell deeply in love and were married in 1950. 

A highly in-demand fashion model of that era who was considered the first supermodel, Swedish-born Fonssagrives became the mainstay of many of the photographer’s masterpieces, so it was little wonder they were the ideal match for each other’s creative foils. Penn’s dedication, superb attention to detail and lighting succinctly captured her exquisiteness and form, showcasing her true grasp of the linear and perfect posture. Whether it was the bold, black-and-white geometrics of harlequin-inspired accoutrement dominating “Harlequin Dress” or Middle Eastern aesthetics permeating her surroundings in “Woman In Moroccan Palace,” the exotic, willowy sylph, wrapped in a turban and yards of sheen, was the total embodiment of glamour and refinement.  

In an article published about the day that changed his life forever, Penn candidly spoke about the moment he laid eyes on his future bride who took his breath away.

“When Lisa came in, I saw her, and my heart beat fast and there was never any doubt that this was it.” 

The only thing that separated them and their steadfast, undying love for one another was death, when Fonssagrives-Penn passed away in 1992 in Long Island, NY at the age of 80.

The Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego at Balboa Park recently wrapped up the photo exhibition Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty, which featured the compelling oeuvre of a true visionary, whose nearly 70+ years in his career as a photographer permanently established his reputation as one of the most highly regarded, influential amongst his peers and critics. 

The son of Russian Jewish parents, Harry Penn, a watchmaker, and Sonia Greenberg, a nurse, Irving Penn was born in 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey. His brother, famed movie director Arthur Penn, directed The Chase (1966) and Bonnie & Clyde, the 1967 classic, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. From 1934 to 1938, he mentored under the tutelage of Alexey Brodovitch, a Russian émigré who resided and worked in Paris in the 1920s. He employed the “principles of modern art and design through exposure to magazines, exhibitions, architecture and photography.” In time, he departed from his duties as Brodovitch’s assistant at Harper’s Bazaar and traveled to Mexico to traverse the landscape, observe the country’s people and their culture and to also paint. When he eventually returned to New York, he was offered a job at Vogue Magazine in the publication’s Art Department. It was there, Penn thrived at his craft, distilling his art into formidable entities through still life, fashion and stately portraiture for many of the magazine’s front covers.      

Penn’s iconic photo narratives are up close, intimate case-studies of various themes: discarded cigarette packages, gloves cracked, caked with debris and mud, hollow skulls, ceramic dolls possessing vacant stares on display in New York City store fronts, indigent people from faraway lands. He wielded abject poverty as a kind of visual aesthetic and eloquent beauty throughout many of his pieces. Unabatedly unapologetic in his creative outreaches and the way he envisioned reality, he positioned himself directly in line with whatever he encountered during his global treks. Whether it was in the slums of Mexico, the hills and valleys of Nepal, documenting warrior tribes in New Guinea or Blacks living in 1940’s rural America, he took great poetical license to capture the diversity of the world spinning around him and those residing in it. 

So much of Penn’s signature work targeted the fashion and beauty industry, as it more than proved to be a lucrative arena for him. His acumen as an artist, beholden to the commercial aspect of it, was to his advantage, as many a firm, including L’Oreal, Clinique and Christian Dior, were some of his more loyal, staunch clients. His propensity to turn a palette of lipstick stains covering the pale-white skin of a model became the dynamic charge of Mouth. His expertise and vivid imagination at transferring beauty into a kind of metaphorical dalliance with beautiful chaos certainly made him a favorite of the advertising agencies seeking his services as a first-rate photographer.  

Ice blocks of variegated fruits and vegetables were stacked to form a type of culinary cubism in Frozen Food. Voluptuous, ruby red lips were prominently displayed, as an imposing bumble bee caresses the side of a model’s mouth, agape, in Bee. Elongated fingers cradling famed author Truman Capote’s face, eyes and mouth, wide, supported the image titled Truman Capote. A woman enshrouded in flow and movement, her face concealed, save for one eye that mysteriously peers into the camera lens, regales Issey Miyake Fashion: White and Black. Sitting Enga Woman, New Guinea showcases the paradox of conflict and serenity entwined, as a female, donning a tribal headdress and thick face paint, her dark, mahogany skin a sensual extension of itself, lounges in repose. The defiant stare of a renegade biker transfixes viewers in Hell’s Angel (Doug). Penn’s own handsome visage, fragmented by a broken mirror’s edge, morphs into a permeance of flesh-and-bones hallucinatory state in Irving Penn: In A Cracked Mirror.  

Penn’s long, illustrious career as a photographer extended well into the 21st-century. During the remaining years before his death, he immortalized the likes of actress Nicole Kidman, actors Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro and Philip Seymour Hoffman, comedian Robin Williams and Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese in stunning, black-and-white portraits, their images paying homage to their own legacy and veracity.  

In October 2009, at the age of 92, Irving Penn departed this mortal coil but not before leaving behind a wealth of visual treasures to last a million lifetimes.   

 

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