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Irving Penn

Text from Michael Frizot, A New History of Photography

Irving Penn was the last exponent of the aristocratic concept of fashion photography. He was sent to Paris by Vogue in 1950 to photograph the latest collection. The images seemed simple enough, but the representation of fashion was subordinate to theexpression of the photographer's personal viewpoint. Irving Penn, like Richard Avedon, operated simultaneously in another branch of commercial photography - advertising - and in his published albums he mixed commissioned images with others produced as part of more personal projects. The result was that his approach to fashion photography was shot through by that ambiguity which turns a commercial snapshot into a creative moment.

The apparent simplicity of Irving Penn's compositions conceals a formal complexity. It is the result of the particular elegance of the model's outline, of the abstract interplay of lines and shapes, of empty and filled space. Irving Penn's deliberate aim was to reinstate fashion photography into the history of painting. "It has been helpful, in orientation," he wrote, "to think of myself, a contemporary fashion photographer, as stemming directly from painters of fashion back through the centuries." If Irving Penn's idea of the existence of a pictorial category involving "fashion painters" was somewhat inexact, it did at least allow him to treat his own commercial activity with the free and disinterested attitude of the painter.

This evolution of fashion photography into a means of artistic self expression would become particularly obvious in the 1970s. Greatly assisted by the unusual physique of his favorite model (Lisa Fonssagrives, who was also his wife), Irving Penn seemed to consider each photograph to be like a portrait which interpreted freely the conventions of pictorial photography - to such an extent that he made little distinction between work in the studio and the more experimental craft of darkroom and printing techniques. Stage props are usually absent from his photographs. They are posed against a plain paper backdrop and translate his perception of a unique moment. In his work, a simple photograph constitutes a personal vision, in which the outline, the gradation of tones, and contrasts, become the trademark of a way of looking which gives form to the world.


 

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